The martyr is common to every modern culture, and all societies are proud to acclaim the sacrifices of their spiritual heroes. However martyrdom as a concept is difficult to define, let alone distinguish from simple heroism or idiotic folly, because the awarding of the martyr's crown lies as much in the eyes of the beholder as in the logic of a precise definition. Yet everyone agrees that the martyr exists and that certain acts of sacrifice can legitimately be called martyrdom because martyrdom assigns meaning to death, transforming it into an act of choice and purpose that can be remembered, treasured, and, if necessary, emulated by later generations. The complexities of martyrdom are best studied from three perspectives—historical, sociological, and psychological—because martyrdom is a performance that has evolved and changed over time, requires the interaction of the state and the individual as the martyr attempts to change the power and moral structure of society, and poses questions of motivation that lie outside both history and sociology.

Martyrdom in History

The one common denominator in all martyrdoms (the word stems from the Greek martur, meaning "to witness" or "to attest") is that the martyr, in attesting to his or her faith, dies for a noble cause. But even here the denominator is often discredited by controversy over what constitutes nobility and blurred by the inclusion of prolonged suffering— torture, imprisonment, and extreme asceticism— that may not end in death.

Originally the cause was invariably religious, or at least articulated in religious terms. An Athenian jury ordered that Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.), the Western world's first recorded martyr, die by poison (the hemlock cup) when he refused to give up his dangerously public insistence that all men and women possessed souls, which knew the difference between good and evil, and were obliged to question historic and religious authority so as to discover the truth for themselves. Jesus of Nazareth suffered (probably in 30 or 33 C.E.) on a Roman cross to display to the classical Judaic world the truth of his message that "the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). Akiva ben Joseph (50?–135 C.E.), one of the "ten martyrs" who founded schools for the study of the Torah in defiance of a Roman decree, was flayed alive with a carding claw, rejoicing that he was "permitted to love God with my life." Al-Hallaj (858–922 C.E.), the Muslim teacher, mystic, and saint—"the one who is enraptured in God"—was flogged, mutilated, and finally beheaded, accused of usurping "the supreme power of God," placing himself above the prophet Muhammad, and challenging Islamic Law.

Essential to most definitions of martyrdom are two other characteristics: Martyrs must possess choice; they must elect to die. They cannot be helpless victims of happenstance. And they must feel that death is necessary to their cause, furthering the truth and righteousness of their beliefs. Their sacrifices cannot be simply a private matter between themselves and their deity, let alone a suicide. As the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson said of Mahatma Gandhi, it is easy "to kill and be killed"; what is hard is to "make one's death count for life" (Erikson 1969, p. 197).

Imposing upon the "true" martyr a voluntary death that contributes to the success of the cause severely limits the number of candidates and opens up a minefield of debate. Should the soldier who falls upon a hand grenade in order to save the lives of his comrades be called a martyr? His act is voluntary and his goal is surely noble. Should Martin Luther King Jr., who appears in a multitude of martyrologies, be excluded because he did not consciously elect to die in 1968 at the hands of a bigoted gunman in order to advance the cause of civil rights in twentieth-century United States? Can the term martyr be legitimately applied, as is so often done, to the millions who died in the Nazi holocaust? They suffered unspeakably, but they did not choose their fate. Finally, should Sir Thomas More be acclaimed a proper martyr? In 1535 he chose to be beheaded rather than to publicly sanction Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the ensuing break of the Church of England from Rome, but he did so, not for the sake of papal authority or the unity of the Catholic Church, but for his private relations with God—he "set the world at nought." He died, as he said at his execution, "the king's good servant but God's first" (Marius 1985, p. 514).

The insistence that true martyrs must deliberately close the door on escape and welcome the chance to display their faith and fortitude, using the occasion to publicize their cause, has created yet another problem. The willingness to die can so easily slide into a death wish that is indistinguishable from suicide. In Judaism, martyrs dying as witnesses to God's existence and as evidence of Israel's worthiness to be Yahweh's chosen people played a crucial function in deflecting divine wrath from the sins of the Jewish nation, but historically Jewish scholars have felt obliged to curb the urge to martyrdom and the fanaticism that so often accompanies it. They limited acceptable martyrdom to the refusal to worship strange gods or commit adultery, incest, and murder, and they warned that voluntary martyrdom is in effect a kind of infanticide since unborn progeny are condemned to oblivion.

In Christianity martyrs play an even more important role. Their courage and blood were the seeds from which the new church sprang. In "On the Glory of Martyrdom," Saint Cyprian wrote that "so great is the virtue of martyrdom, that by its means even he who has wished to slay you is constrained to believe" (Cyptian 1869, vol. 2, p. 241). Nevertheless, the early church fathers were deeply worried lest the hysteria of mass suicidal martyrdom undermine the psychological impact of the true martyr, and Clement of Alexandria warned that those "in haste to give themselves up . . . banish themselves without being martyred, even though they are punished publicly" (Clement pp. 147, 173).

Likewise, in Islam the primary place of honor is given to the battlefield martyr who dies in a holy war, or Jihad. He is assured forgiveness of sin, a crown of glory, marriage to seventy-two ravishing maidens, and the right to intercede on behalf of seventy family relations. With the delights of paradise so overwhelming, Muslim jurists, however, cautioned that no one is allowed to desire martyrdom; one can only wish for the strength to endure the pain of wounds should they be inflicted upon one's body. Allah could be depended to close the gates of paradise upon those who went into battle simply to glorify themselves or for the spoils of war. As the poet T. S. Eliot has written, the greatest temptation a martyr can face is to "do the right deed for the wrong reason" (Eliot 1935, p. 44).

If over the centuries it has been difficult not to dismiss specific acts of martyrdom as a senseless waste of lives, doing neither the martyr nor the cause any good, it has been even more difficult to decide how to handle the political martyr who is so easily branded a traitor. Early martyrs invariably had hidden political agendas or their opponents attributed to them political motives. Roman officials and the elders of the temple looked upon Jesus's actions—especially his violation of the temple— with the deepest suspicion, and although Jesus died accused of blasphemy against the one and only God, his real crime was that his vision of God's kingdom on earth had no place in the existing Roman-Judaic power structure in Judea. Later Roman emperors and provincial governors regarded early Christian martyrs as political criminals because they refused to sacrifice to the emperor as a semi-divine being, a sign of loyalty to the empire similar to saluting the flag of the United States.

Of all the Christian martyrs before the nineteenth century the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, saint of Canterbury, was the most blatantly political, involving a power struggle between two willful men—Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury and Henry II, king of England—and two institutions: church and state. The archbishop (1118–1170) was assassinated as he stood at the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral by armed men who had taken their sovereign Henry II literally when in a fury he cried out, "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted . . . who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born priest" (Grim 1876, p. 429). Henry had cause to be outraged: The archbishop had excommunicated the king's supporters in the struggle between church and state and had claimed that anyone who violated his rights as archbishop was "damned by Jesus Christ."

The papacy elevated Thomas to sainthood and bestowed the crown of martyrdom upon him with unprecedented speed on the grounds that the cause—the defense of the temporal liberties of the church—was noble, the style of his death was magnificent, and the miracles that had taken place at his grave were proof of divine approval. Although thousands worshiped at his shrine, Becket's prideful and immoderate personality and the political and secular nature of his cause bothered even contemporaries. The bishop of Hereford asked whether the archbishop should in fact be accounted a martyr if "to be a martyr is to die for the faith" (fitzStephen 1876, pt. 3, p. 60). Unfortunately, it was difficult then, as it is today, to disassociate faith from institutional self-interest.

By and large early martyrdom tended to be defensive, although Jesus may be an important exception. Socrates sought to defend an ideal, not to overthrow the laws of Athens. Early Jewish martyrs endeavored to defend themselves and Judea, first from cultural annihilation by Antiochus IV and then from Roman conquest, not to reconstitute society. Second- and third-century Christians maintained only that they should be allowed to worship their God in peace. And Thomas Becket died not to destroy the state but to defend the church. However, as the history of martyrdom reached the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the martyr became not only increasingly political in behavior but also aggressive in spirit. More and more martyrs turned into belligerent activists against, not passive victims of, society, and therefore increasingly difficult to judge.

John Brown (1800–1859) is the prime nineteenth-century example, melding the demands of a righteous and wrathful Calvinistic God with the cry for social justice on Earth. He cast himself in the role of the Lord's revolutionary instrument to bring about the necessary apocalyptic fury to purge the nation of the sin of slavery. When he was executed for terrorism and treason by the Commonwealth of Virginia for having led an insurrection against slavery, he insisted that he died not solely for "the cause of God" but also for "the cause of humanity" (Villard 1910, p. 540). But in joining the two, he so mixed martyrdom with political activism that history has been unable to clearly say whether John Brown died a martyr or a terrorist and traitor.

In the twentieth century the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer generated equal uncertainties. There are those who would call the German pastor a martyr to humanity. Others would argue that, as a would-be assassin of the legal head of state, he violated his Christian beliefs and rightfully paid the price of treason. Bonhoeffer was part of a semi-aristocratic conspiracy to murder Adolf Hitler, having reached the decision that the sixth commandment—"thou shall not kill"—had to be set aside when warring against unspeakable evil. But after Bonhoeffer's execution in April 1945, only days before Hitler took his own life, ministers of Bonhoeffer's own Confessing Church were reluctant to have the names of their "colleagues, who were killed for their faith, lumped together with political martyrs" (Bethge 1970, p. 834).

From the start the presence of political martyrs has bedeviled martyrdom, and in the eighteenth century Pope Benedict XIV established guidelines for determining martyrdom. In regulations that operate to this day, he insisted that the acclaimed martyr had to have died for the faith as laid down by the church, the executioners had to be motivated by "hatred of the faith," and the martyr's motivation had to be purely spiritual and religious. For these reasons the Catholic Church refused to grant archbishop Oscar Romero, "the people's saint of El Salvador," the title of martyr even though he was shot down in 1980 while saying mass in the hospital chapel of the Carmelite sisters. Though the outcry was worldwide, battling against evil and social injustice in the name of the kingdom of God was not sufficient to overcome the concern that the archbishop had been assassinated for his politics, not his faith.

The Sociological Explanation

Martyrs have rarely appeared singly making it tempting to explain their presence in terms of the societies that spawned them. Martyrdom tends to be a group phenomena, drawing strength from a collective identity and representing serious cultural divisions within the state. In contrast to the hero, who is the product of a consensus society where the quality and worth of the heroic act is undisputed, the martyr is the offspring of a community at war with itself. Such societies are unable to agree whether the martyr's death should be praised as the highest service that can be rendered God or humanity, be dismissed as pointless folly, or be branded as the proper punishment reserved for traitors. Unstable societies experiencing cultural, economic, and political change are particularly likely to generate martyrs as in the case of the classical world during the second and third centuries. Beleaguered communities also spawn men and women who prefer death, often collectively, to surrender or assimilate. Jewish history abounds with this kind of response. Finally, expanding or crusading societies produce those who are eager to give their lives for their religious faith or for their political-social ideology.

Societies such as medieval Europe regarded the martyr as the paramount role model, the stories of their sacrifices being part of the culture and their tombs and relics crucial contact points between heaven and the earth. But so far the martyr has eluded demographic classification by age, class, or sex. In those situations where reliable statistics exist martyrs come from all walks of life. Of the 288 or so English Protestants who were burned at the stake under Catholic queen Mary between 1555 and 1558, only a handful were politically or socially prominent, the vast majority were artisans and agricultural laborers (fifty-one were women), and surprisingly few (7.3%) were clergymen. A generation later, however, of the Catholics executed by Elizabeth I most came from the upper stratum of sixteenth-century society and they were predominantly clerics and males. It would appear that the martyr is far too individualistic to fit into tidy social-scientific categories.

The Psychological Explanation

The principle of reverse optics operates when viewing martyrs: The more distant they are, the more attractive they appear. Close-up martyrs are often found to be harsh, unyielding, and self-absorbed individuals. As the self-proclaimed possessors of the truth, be it social, political, or religious, martyrs find it difficult to live in the world as it is, and more often than not their determination to sacrifice their own lives to a higher purpose is accompanied by an equal willingness to sacrifice

Because of the controversy surrounding Sir Thomas More
Because of the controversy surrounding Sir Thomas More's execution, the Roman Catholic Church took 400 years to confer full sainthood.
other people's lives as well. Martyrs have been the subjects of psychoanalytic study to explain such obsessive behavior, and scholars have suggested that self-interest as well as altruism lies behind their actions. Undeniably religious martyrs, no matter their creed, expect to achieve in martyrdom that uncontroversial act of heroism that makes them memorable in the eyes of both God and man, assuring them a place in heaven and in history books. As Zackary Cawdrey proclaimed in A Preparation for Martyrdom, a martyr's death is greater than that of other saints "who did not pass through that Red Sea of Blood" (Cawdry 1672, p. 48). "The Christian tradition of martyrdom was absolutely clear: The greater the suffering, the more glorious the reward in heaven. So much so that the early Christian fathers regarded too great an eagerness for martyrdom to be tantamount to the sin of suicide" (Smith 1997, pp. 90–96).

Other authors have argued that martyrs are deeply disturbed men and women devoured by their obsession. The early Christian and sixteenth-century Marian martyrs in particular have been researched, and hints of paranoia, masochism, and manic depression observed in their response to torture and painful death. Some martyrs are said to be socially ill–adjusted people who seek to draw attention to themselves, their behavior psychologically no different from the exhibitionism of the psychopath who, in a rage against society, shoots down dozens of innocent people in order to be noticed if only in the next day's headlines. Equally disturbing is the role of pride in the martyrs' motivation. It is difficult to find a humble martyr. The possessors of absolute truth are rarely retiring and submissive people; their sense of self is swollen by pride of mission, and they are deeply solicitous of their reputations on earth and in heaven. As Raghavan Iyer has written, "It is at the fire of exceptional and spiritually subtle egotism that many of the saints and mystics ... have warmed their hands" (Iyer 1978, p. 126). It is that same heat that drives the martyr to acts of sublime heroism and folly.

Impact of Martyrdom

Martyrdom can be a politically and spiritually explosive performance, profoundly dangerous to society. Nothing gives greater credence to the truth of the martyr's message than the spectacle of dying for it. Jesus's death upon the cross seared itself upon the minds and imaginations of later generations who harkened to his words: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up the cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). The endless storytelling of the suffering and sacrifices of past martyrs can be a potent incentive to action, be it Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

As a consequence, martyrs are generally viewed by the state as peculiarly dangerous criminals because they commit offenses of the heart, mind, and soul, striking at society's definition of duty, honor, and loyalty. Common criminals— murderers, thieves, and vandals—can be summarily executed and forgotten. Martyrs, however, live on after death. Not only their bodies but also their reputations and the validity of their ideas must be destroyed. Initially the state branded martyrs as perverts and lunatics, and in the eyes of Rome all Christians were sodomites, cannibals, and "enemies of the human race."

In the twentieth century, totalitarian governments have attacked martyrs' individuality and exceptionality, dismissing them as social deviants in need of rehabilitation. They have been denied the chance to stand out from the herd and deprived of the publicity so necessary to their cause. The public Roman arena and the Spanish auto-da-fé have been replaced by the high walls of the prison and the mental hygiene clinic, where technicians, armed with electric probes and "truth"-inducing drugs, reshape the strongest personality. As Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1970, "The incarceration of free-thinking healthy people in madhouses is SPIRITUAL MURDER; it is a variation on the GAS CHAMBER, but is even more cruel: the torture of the people being killed is more malicious and more prolonged" (Rubenstein 1985, p. 137). In their battle to rearrange society more in accord to the truths they hold dear, martyrs must display great strength of body and mind, but in the face of modern technology they may well be an endangered species.

There are all sorts of martyrs. Some seek to test themselves and their faith upon the cross of martyrdom. Some regard themselves as the athletes of truth and God's instruments on earth. Still others pursue paradise and reputation through heroic deaths or nurture stubborn and overly tender consciences that cannot yield or compromise. There are the forgotten or defrocked martyrs such as Thomas Becket, whose bones 358 years after his death were tossed out upon the dunghill, his shrine destroyed, and his reputation in the eyes of the sixteenth-century English state changed from martyr to traitor. Finally, there are the unknown martyrs whose numbers are beyond reckoning. But one and all have possessed the conviction that they could "serve as well by dying as by living" (Gandhi 1958–1984, vol. 54, p. 269).

See also: Brown, John ; Holocaust ; Immortality, Symbolic ; Islam ; Jesus ; Sacrifice ; Socrates


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