What does it mean to be a “martyr” from a political and religious point of view? Does it mean to die for any abstract cause or for one’s faith? Should it be considered a legitimate act to let oneself die in order to bear witness to one’s own “truth”? And what happens when the readiness to die for a cause becomes a political, even violent, weapon? Should we consider the contemporary practice of “killing while being killed” as an example of martyrdom, or should this religiously charged definition be abandoned? And how does research on martyrdom contribute to discussions of political theology?
These have become questions of great interest in the last two decades due to the resurgence of language addressing the concept of “martyrdom” on the political scene and in public media coverage of the terroristic acts that characterized political aggressions and resistance strategies around the world. As a “human weapon” against the security state, the sacrifice of one’s own life for the achievement of political goals has become a frequent strategy in asymmetrical wars and conflicts. In these contexts, some intellectuals have referred to these suicide strategies as acts of “martyrdom”.
The concept of martyrdom is a religious idea that maintains – through its etymology and throughout history – a link to another meaning of the word, namely that of testimony (from the Greek, μαρτυρ, Eng. witness). In Western Christian tradition, the religious figure of the martyr defines an individual who is willing to die to bear witness to his faith. This definition finds its origin in late antiquity. In the memorial texts of early Christian persecutions, the concept was used for the first time to define individuals’ practice of non-violent resistance against a political authority. Christians are described as “martyrs” when confronting death in order to bear witness to the truth of their faith despite the brutal sentences of Rome.
Since late antiquity, the meaning of the concept has changed. During the Crusades, the term described not only practices of non-violent resistance to authority, but also the heroism of Christian soldiers that were willing to die and kill for Christianity and the conquest of the Holy Land (Flori, 2002). In its modern secularized use, martyrdom refers to military heroism and, more generally, forms of self-sacrifice as well as non-violent political resistance (Kantorowicz, 1951). In this secular turn of the definition, “martyrs” became not only figures that were willing to die for a transcendent and religious promise or victory, but also warriors or partisans who died for immanent values like freedom or the fatherland.
In short, martyrdom as a political and religious concept has a problematic double definition. On one hand, a martyr is considered to be a passive victim of violent acts, and on the other, an active, even violent, witness of a transcendent “truth” – someone who is ready to face their own death at the hands of enemies, performing an act of self-sacrifice in order to witness to an abstraction, e.g. to their religious faith, a concept like the nation, or a political idea like democracy.
Facing the problem of defining this concept, many scholars have brought attention to the fact that martyrs are not so much defined as made (Middleton, 2006). As Elizabeth A. Castelli writes: “the designation ‘martyr’ is not an ontological category but a post-event interpretive one” (Castelli, 2006). In fact, martyrs are not primarily defined by their act – an act in which the real intention is only known by the martyr themself and preserved in their inscrutable interiority. Rather, martyrs are produced by the stories and political or religious narratives that are told about them.
From a phenomenological point of view, we could say that martyrdom is a paradoxical phenomenon, an act of public testimony that ends with the destruction of its subject. In order to be a true witness to one’s own death, one must be able to survive it (Derrida, 1998). That’s why martyrdom always involves the intervention of a second witness, a survivor to the death who is a witness of the testimony/martyrdom. And it is based on this second witness’s narrative, and their historical, cultural, political, and religious interpretation, that the martyr will be “made” and defined in his act.
But what has this historical and etymological ambivalence of the concept to do with the study of political theology? Within the debate over the use of “political theology” as a category to describe the process of secularization of theological concepts into modern political ones, there is a less-known debate that has to be read between the lines. This latter debate is centered on the political and theological interpretation of martyrdom, conceived on one hand as an act of resistance against a political enemy and on the other as a non-violent testimony of a transcendent value or truth. Schmitt, Peterson, Benjamin, Kantorowicz, Taubes, and others untangle the paradox of martyrdom in different ways.
Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1932) depicts the martyr as a “political” figure, the thesis being that one can be a martyr only if they are part of a religious community that claims to be victimized by a common enemy. Erik Peterson’s Witness to the Truth (1937) gives a religious interpretation of the figure, which becomes crucial in testifying against the absolute power of the political order. If in one perspective the martyr is conceived as a sort of warrior, even if non-violent, an individual who is part of a community that is in conflict with another, from another perspective, martyrs are interpreted as part of a transcendent eschatological order that is in religious, but not necessarily political, contrast with the powers of this world.
As Jacob Taubes states in The Political Theology of Paul (1987), martyrdom can have an ambivalent political meaning. It is an act of subordination toward the violence of state power, and it introduces a subversion of the political order by referring to a transcendent “truth,” an abstraction that is external to state power itself. In Christian tradition, martyrdom can be linked to both Romans 13 – where Paul argues for submission to governing authorities – and Revelation 13, where John calls for patient endurance and faithfulness against the apocalyptical Beasts that represent political power. The martyr is therefore a disruptive apocalyptical figure that submits themself to the political authorities. In a Nietzschean spirit, we could say that the ambivalent power of the martyr lies in his weakness, his resistance in submission and his victory in defeat.
In Achille Mbembe’s recent book, Necropolitics (2019), which draws on Hegel’s concept of the negative and on Bataille’s concept of “depense,” the contemporary martyr, whose strategy consists in taking the enemy down with himself, is associated as an opposite and complementary figure to the sovereign power. As we see, the figure of the martyr is centrally relevant when we are dealing with problems of political theology and even biopolitics. Interpreted as a warrior or a victim, as a sovereign figure or a saint, the ambivalence of the martyr’s destiny is that their triumph occurs in agony, their victory in the suffering of violent death.
But as stated previously, martyrs are related to the accounts, memories, and narratives that rise after their death. It is not in the act of the martyr that we should untangle the meaning of its “testimony”, but in the powerful political and religious explanations – or even the esthetical representations – that emerge around it. As deep-rooted and very present religious figures in our common language and culture, martyrs are constantly evoked or created when it comes to describe the “sanctity” or heroism of victims. This is why we should continue to interrogate this ambivalent political and religious figure whose death in this world is interpreted as a sign of victory in the next one.
Asad, T., On suicide bombing, Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 2007
Asad presents a deconstruction of the Western idea of Islamic jihadism as the essence of modern terror. It shows how Western liberal Democracies give their justifications for war as a fight against evil using the idea of a “just war”.
Castelli E. A., Martyrdom and Memory, Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 2004
In her book, Elisabeth A. Castelli highlights the fact that martyrs are produced by the stories that are told about them. Using Halbwach’s theory on collective memory, Castelli shows how memorial practices are also used today to render tragic suffering meaningful and redemptive.
Peterson E., Witness to the Truth, in Theological Tractates, Stanford University Press, Stanford, USA, 2011, 151-181
In this text, Erik Peterson gives a theological interpretation of the figure of the Christian martyr as a witness to the truth referring to the Book of Revelation and its political symbolism.
Schmitt C., The Concept of the Political, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 2007
The Concept of the Political is a crucial text that, together with Political Theology, defines Schmitt’s concept of the ‘political’. It is centered on the problem of justification for sacrificing oneself for the state.
Taubes J., The Political Theology of Paul, Stanford University Press, Stanford, USA, 2004
This book contains the last lessons held by Jacob Taubes in Heidelberg before his death. It is an original interpretation of Paul’s Letters with a constant attention to the ‘political theology’ of Carl Schmitt and in some passages Erik Peterson’s interpretation of Paul.