November 30, 2020

Crushed. Torn apart by wild beasts. Burnt alive. Roasted on hot coals. Beheaded. Starved. Stabbed. Stoned. Tied to a spiked wheel. It takes a strong stomach to navigate Catherine Pepinster’s fascinating book on martyrs. Suffice to say, they do not accrue their status gently. “Martyrs are heroes,” the author writes. “But there is no romance to their story. Their narratives are full of hostility and violence, pain and suffering.”

In the Christian tradition of which Pepinster largely writes in Martyrdom, the martyr knowingly accepts and endures unimaginable suffering by means of a particular form of stubbornness. This enables them to override a combination of intense psychological pressure and appalling physical pain, or the imminent promise of it.

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That extraordinary willpower derives chiefly from the power of faith and the confidence in an afterlife. The earliest martyrs made a hard but simple choice to assert their Christianity in the face of an oppressive Roman authority. From “the late first century until the early part of the fourth” the leaders of the Christian communities were persecuted by officials of the Roman Empire as members of a subversive and dangerous cult. Refusal to renounce the Christian faith brought a death sentence, which the Roman historian Tacitus described being carried out in the cruellest forms under the emperor Nero, including Christians being “burnt, to serve as nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his garden for the spectacle…”

What quickly became apparent, however, was that the grotesque circumstances of death could involve an unpredictable transfer of power between oppressor and martyr (an echo of what occurred during the crucifixion of Christ). Some Christians refused to cower in terror when they met their end, but publicly embraced death as “a means to redemption”. St Ignatius of Antioch, “condemned to the beasts at Rome” in the second century, for example, wrote a series of letters to fellow-Christians in which he said: “Let me be fodder for the wild beasts; that is how I can get to God… I shall coax them to eat me up at once and not hesitate, as sometimes happens, through fear.”

If the state had enacted its ultimate authority by means of torture and death, the Christian martyrs now knowingly exercised a more expansive authority of their own in return — a defiant moral command that they believed derived from a higher power, which was not bounded by earthly conceptions of time, and news of which could be spread by word of mouth, writings and the distribution of relics.

Martyrdom sites became the objects of pilgrimages; the actual body of the martyr, fragmented and widely disseminated, seeded new, dedicated churches around these holy objects; commemorations became part of the liturgical calendar. The more Christians were killed, the more the religion flourished. As the author writes: “Martyrdom created a kind of ecclesiastical economy.”

The martyrs themselves were, quite literally, the life-blood of this spiritual and material economy, and their trials still make agonising reading — particularly those of the women, who seemed to be singled out for especial brutality based on their sex. This book returns us sharply to the human realities of their stories. Vibia Perpetua, for example, a married noblewoman and mother, was put to death in Carthage around AD 203 at the age of 22, along with a slave named Felicity.

She left a contemporaneous diary describing her distraught father holding her infant son, pleading with her to renounce Christianity — “Perform the sacrifice. Have pity on your baby!” Upon refusal, Perpetua was tormented by aggressive animals before being murdered by gladiators. Felicity, who died alongside her, gave birth to a daughter in prison shortly before her execution, and went out into the arena with her breasts dripping milk.

Such stories convey the extraordinary degree of resistance and disruption that conscious martyrdom entailed — not only to state power, but also to the accepted role of women within the family, and the physical and emotional tug of parental love.

Although propelled by faith, martyrdom has historically been inextricable from politics. Across the ages, Christian martyrs have invariably pitted their individual conscience against the dictates of the state. From Thomas à Becket, who clashed with Henry II in the 12th century, to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a dissident priest murdered in communist Poland in 1984, they have demonstrated an obstinate refusal to be muzzled by fear. This ability to act as a symbol of both individual and communal resistance — and the intensity of authoritarian violence it provokes in response — is what sears martyrs into wider memory.

Such a potent and intoxicating brew, however, inevitably demands a measure of regulation. The Catholic Church has therefore attempted over the years to provide a working definition of a true martyr. The criteria set out by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century included that the martyr must not deliberately seek his or her own death; must show courage in the face of persecution; and be subjected to a specific case of odium fidei (hatred of the faith) which prompted the attack. Later theologians broadened the criteria, to include a person “killed by someone who hated his or her faith and the values it stood for” or who had “known that the values he or she lived for could end in death”. Pepinster is at pains to point out that “Christian ideas of martyrdom rule out death in battle and engagement in any form of aggression.” Despite his religious motivation, she says, Guido Fawkes is not a contender.

This is a timely moment for a discussion of what martyrdom means, in part because the title of “martyrdom” is now so often being claimed — albeit in a different form — by a militant Islamism. Although actively rejected by the majority of Muslims, this Islamist definition refuses to recognise the prohibition on either seeking out self-destruction or pursuing aggression. Islamist groups have thus frequently hailed as “martyrs” those Islamists — such as a 9/11 or Bataclan attackers — who are killed in the course of murdering numerous others.

Another reason is that Christian martyrdom, of the kind caused by odium fidei, is far from a thing of the past. The late Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, said in 2014 that “the persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and elsewhere is one of the crimes against humanity of our time”. By 2016, the author writes, Christians were being targeted in 144 countries. A report by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, found that the relative silence in the West on this persecution stemmed — in Pepinster’s words — from “some misplaced idea that Christianity was a product of colonialism rather than a religion that was willingly embraced by today’s believers”. Yet it is some of the most ancient Christian communities which have found themselves under the fiercest attack: the beleaguered Copts of Egypt, for example — who can trace their Christian roots in the region back to 42 AD — have been repeatedly targeted by Isis, not least in horrific church bombings in 2016 and 2017.

But if Western societies appear relatively uninterested in the immediate and desperate plight of many Christian communities worldwide today, they are nonetheless still gripped by the idea of martyrdom and its semiotics, which can be selected and adapted for other contemporary causes, whether that of social justice or secularism.

This transference from religious to secular uses is not new, although it sits broadly outside the intended range of Pepinster’s book, and some definitions are lost in the process. But the imagery of religious martyrdom has often been adopted and adapted by revolutionary movements, for example, which keenly understand how heavily it presses upon the limbic systems of ordinary people.

The French Revolution — which explicitly turned against the Catholic Church and persecuted priests — nonetheless speedily annexed the rituals and iconography of Christian martyrdom for its own ends. The revolutionary Paris deputies Louis-Michel Lepeletier and Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed to death in 1793 by political opponents, became newly-forged martyrs in a vigorous revolutionary cult which manifested itself in banners, parades, shrines, songs, paintings and statues — all the devotional trappings of a recently sublimated church, now redirected into revolutionary fervour.

In volatile times, those authorities which are slow to understood the political and popular potential of “martyrdom” have often found themselves overwhelmed by it. In Ireland in 1916, many ordinary Dubliners at first opposed or even jeered the small number of Irish rebels who had enacted the brief and militarily unsuccessful Easter Rising against British rule. Asquith’s government, however — despite warning voices from Ireland — made effective martyrs of the leaders by executing them over a 10-day period, including shooting one, James Connolly, while he was wounded and tied to a chair. It was an outcome that had been anticipated by some leaders of the Rising, in particular Patrick Pearse, who had spoken of the necessity for a “blood sacrifice” to regenerate Irish nationalism. His intention was fulfilled: a large proportion of Irish nationalists who had previously been unsympathetic to the rebels shifted their allegiance following the executions, resulting in a radicalised Irish nationalism and a subsequent intensification of the conflict.

In 2020 we have again seen — in a different form — the reach of non-religious ideas of martyrdom in cohering protest. The first time was in May, over the death of George Floyd during police arrest in the US, an event which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide. Floyd, who was 46 when he died, had a complex history which included early success as a high-school star athlete and rapper, a decade lost to prison terms for drugs and robbery, and then an attempt to rebuild his life in conjunction with a Christian ministry and a move to Minnesota, where he worked as security guard.

Yet the cause of his death was not his faith but, many believed, his race. Following arrest over a minor allegation, the policeman Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while Floyd repeatedly warned, “I can’t breathe,” called for his late mother, and eventually slipped into unconsciousness. Floyd neither sought nor accepted his situation — far from it, having repeatedly told the officers that he was claustrophobic and already had trouble breathing. But the excruciating, publicly visible footage of his gradual asphyxiation nonetheless held a terrible echo of the earlier physical trials of religious martyrs.

The second politically significant “martyrdom” of 2020 was that of Samuel Paty, the French schoolteacher who was beheaded by a young Islamist following a lesson in which he discussed freedom of expression and showed his class the controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

The secularism of the state, or laicité, is central to France’s conception of itself and its ideal of equality, and education is the means by which this communal vision is delivered. In that sense the murder of Samuel Paty, killed outside his school, was interpreted as an even greater outrage to the French state than the equally brutal 2016 killing by Islamists of the elderly French priest Jacques Hamel in his church in Rouen. Hamel, a gentle man who sought inter-faith dialogue, was certainly widely and intensely mourned — including by leading French politicians — but he was nonetheless a martyr of the Catholic church, as Pope Francis made clear at the time.

Paty, in contrast, is a martyr for the secular French state, and has been treated as such. A national memorial was held at the Sorbonne, and Paty was posthumously awarded the Légion d’honneur. His attacker — prior to being shot by police — posted an image of his victim’s severed head on Twitter in a bid to shock and terrify. Yet the image of Paty that has been most widely circulated, shows him in his role as a teacher in the classroom, a scarf loosely knotted around his neck, in the act of discussing and explaining. It’s a poignant photograph, as potent in its way as any icon. It demonstrates, not force of faith, but faith in the power of reason, and its intended role — reiterated by the French authorities — is to help reunite a shaken France in defence of laicité.

Asphyxiation. Stabbing. Beheading. These actions, with their medieval echoes, sit at the heart of some of the leading news stories of our age. But which comes first, the movement or the martyr? It can appear as if a mass movement is sparked by a single death, but I think the interaction is more complicated than that. There are many brutal and cruel deaths in the world, occurring daily. Each carries its own individual cargo of grief and injustice, yet only a few will decisively spark wider indignation and action. Those that do are the ones that act — by a coincidence of time, place, visibility and circumstance — as a kind of lightning rod for existing political electricity, a gathering frustration and anxiety that is looking for a place to earth.

The elevation of martyrs in any society, however, is also a sign that the existing political conversation has broken down. The forces of reason, pluralism, legality and democracy are fractured. The consensus among citizens has been stress-tested, and is fraying. Too many people either feel that reasonable, agreed avenues for legitimate change and expression are blocked, or that existing cohesive values are collapsing. Martyrs therefore become soldiers in an emotional battle for moral authority: the deep appeal to unity via the veneration of the dead is all that is left.

It is a grim irony that the West now appears so indifferent to the continuing reality of Christian martyrdom globally, while still drawing on so much of its historical signage and poetic resonance. But the fundamental alchemy of martyrdom, the transformation of individual death into communal cause, is as strong as ever. Martyrs arise at the smoking interfaces of social and political conflict. They are birthed in violence, and thereafter can be used either to inspire or further to inflame. Either way, we have not seen the last of them.