Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Being and Witnessness: Minding the Gap between Martyrs and Witnesses

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Being and Witnessness: Minding the Gap between Martyrs and Witnesses

Article excerpt


Jon Sobrino just happened not to be in El Salvador when six of his fellow Jesuits-including noted theologian Ignacio Ellacuria-and two others were assassinated by the Salvadoran army on November 16, 1989. Sobrino survived only because he was out of the country. I was speaking to a Jesuit recently who pointed out that the difference between Sobrino and the martyrs was a plane ticket.

When there is a martyr, there are also others who remain alive to remember and to tell. Most importantly, the live ones-what Primo Levi in his book The Drowned and the Saved calls, not the complete or true witnesses, but the exceptions-are the ones who decide to call the dead martyrs in the first place. Levi writes, 'We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. . . . We are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are ... the complete witnesses.... They are the rule, we are the exception."1

Our word martyr comes from the Greek for witness. The rationale in Christian thought for connecting these two-witness and martyr-has been that the death of martyrs is somehow a witness to the gospel. But it was never precisely the death that in some perverse way, perhaps, proclaimed the good news. It was, as Augustine said, the reasons for which the martyrs died-their cause, their mission, their movement-that made them martyrs. Being part of the Jesus movement has always meant that your life might very well be cut short, not to mention the other troubles, harassments, and abuses that you were likely to suffer. When Christians think about violence and our fallen members, we have to say that it is the life rather than the violence-rather than the death-that makes a martyr.


We need to acknowledge that there is a thin line, then, between celebrating the suffering itself and celebrating the manner of living, the liveness, that provokes the pagans to inflict it. Texts like 1 Peter 2:19-20 come to mind: "For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have Gods approval." Early Christian martyrologies very clearly reflect this tension, this needing to tread the thin line between celebrating suffering and celebrating righteousness, obedience, and the overall committed life of the disciple. Elizabeth Castelli s book Martyrdom and Memory wonderfully shows how the ethos of early Christianity was, in part, not only reinforced by these martyrological accounts, but crucially also produced them for the purpose of fostering these memories of a particular sort in the first place.2

In my own work, though, I have not wanted to allow my interest in martyrdom to be focused on the first few Christian centuries. This has led me to a deep awareness of the politics of identity surrounding these issues. As a white, male, middle-class American, I have felt the need to struggle with themes here that I might normally be tempted to believe are burdens for other people, but not for me.

This is simply not the case, though, and I worry about why I might ever have thought so. Consider the very powerful recent example of the murder of Ronnie Smith, a Christian American who was teaching in Libya. After the fact, Ronnie s wife Anita wrote an open letter to the people of Libya expressing their love for them. Most strikingly, she addressed Ronnie s attackers:

To his attackers: I love you and I forgive you.

How could I not? For Jesus taught us to "Love our enemies"-not to kill them or seek revenge. Jesus sacrificed His life out of love for the very people who killed him, as well as for us today. His death and resurrection opened the door for us to walk on the straight path to God in peace and forgiveness. Because of what Jesus did, Ronnie is with Jesus in paradise now. …

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