Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion

Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion

Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion

Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion

Synopsis

Acts of martyrdom have been found in nearly all the worlds major religious traditions. Though considered by devotees to be perhaps the most potent expression of religious faith, dying for ones god is also one of the most difficult concepts for modern observers of religion to understand. This is especially true in the West, where martyrdom has all but disappeared and martyrs in other cultures are often viewed skeptically and dismissed as fanatics. This book seeks to foster a greater understanding of these acts of religious devotion by explaining how martyrdom has historically been viewed in the worlds major religions. It provides the first sustained, cross-cultural examination of this fascinating aspect of religious life. Margaret Cormack begins with an introduction that sets out a definition of martyrdom that serves as the point of departure for the rest of the volume. Then, scholars of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam examine martyrdom in specific religious cultures. Spanning 4000 years of history and ranging from Saul in the Hebrew Bible to Sati immolations in present-day India, this book provides a wealth of insight into an often noted but rarely understood cultural phenomenon.

Excerpt

The essays in this volume were originally presented as part of a series of lectures on the theme “Martyrdom: Past and Present” held at Smith College during the years 1993 and 1994. The aim of the lectures was to examine concepts of martyrdom in a variety of religions. The papers presented at Smith covered a period of four thousand years and a geographical span ranging from Iceland to India, with settings as varied as the arenas of Rome and the mystical journeys of the Kabbalah. Inevitably, there were gaps; for example, we would like to have included the Japanese practice of seppuku and the kamikaze pilots of World War II, as well as the Buddhist monks whose self-immolation was the most extreme form of political protest in the 1960s. Possible models and antecedents for the Buddhists are discussed by Hudson. In choosing the following selections for publication, we have narrowed the field even further, without prejudice to the other excellent papers that were presented. By limiting ourselves to two contributions on any single religious or cultural tradition, we hope to highlight not only the similarities between traditions but also the different interpretations of a single tradition to which changing historical circumstances can give rise.

Indeed, the essays in this volume were chosen not because they illustrate a generally accepted concept of “martyrdom,” but rather because they challenge traditional ideas of what a “martyr” may be. Several chapters take as their starting point attitudes toward voluntary death in the ancient world examined recently by Arthur Droge and James Tabor (A Noble Death [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992]).

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