One Reason Why a Good Theology of Martyrdom Matters

I’ve been reading a lot of liberation theology for my comps coming up all too soon. I have a special place in my heart for liberation theology, and it has left its mark on me. However, sometimes I have my quibbles, especially when some liberation theology seems further away from other schools of thought than it needs to be. Often I find the distance is due to both sides.

Still, I got to thinking today about how important the self-asserted subject is for many of the liberation theologies I’ve read. The theology needs a philosophical notion of a subject that can assert itself so as to stand against the oppression. While I have my sympathies, particularly with the concern to give people a confidence to stand against oppression directed toward them, I am concerned with the self-asserted subject.

Now this does not mean I want to get away from the subject entirely (heres to looking at you Ben), yet we are also not our own ground. I have suspicions that we have, in the Christian tradition, something already that fits the logical place where the self-asserted subject stands, but also is more congruent with Christian theology that constitues the subject. Here I am thinking of martyrdom.

Here we have people in the Christian community who have ‘run the race’ and are ‘cheering us on’, but have also stood against oppression, evil, etc. Here we have an assertion of the Gospel, which does have material implications that liberation theology has rightly pointed out and ran with, but we don’t have the same philosophical problems and categorical trappings.

I want to be explicit that I am quite aware about a host of concerns with the emphasis on martyrdom as a fetishizing of death, focuses on the extreme, etc. However, we cannot forget about martyrdom, but we also must handle it with great care. I can think of little worse than ignoring or co-opting the martyrdom of family. The turn to martyrdom is for myself informed by anabaptist sensibilities. After all, we could call it by another name: witness. Therefore I see martyrdom on something of a continuum of witness: it shows an assertion of truth and commitment to God in a certain way. There are other ways of showing commitment and faith, but, and here is a key importance, there is very little distance, if any at times, between martyrdom and oppression. An analogy won’t be needed here to tie assertion, oppression, and witness together because there already is categorical space for the nexus through Christian lives in history.


14 thoughts on “One Reason Why a Good Theology of Martyrdom Matters

  1. Dave, I’m quite unsure how you perceive some sort of ” ignoring or co-opting” of martyrdom in Liberation theology. I suppose you could make the case for “co-opting” if you showed that the cause into which Liberation theologians seek to press the witness of the martyrs is not Jesus’s cause, but I think such a demonstration is impossible (and of course I know that you don’t wish to make such a claim). The “ignoring” phenomenon that you name I take to be more primary in your concern with Liberation theology here, but I’m still confused as to where you see this happening. For example, in Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator he unpacks what I take to be not only a sound, but a deeply needed theology of martyrdom (pp. 264-71). Indeed I take it to be central for Liberation theologians that remembering the witness of the martyrs is of the utmost importance — indeed I can’t imagine what Liberation theology would be apart from its deep commitment to telling the stories of those who have been murdered in the confrontation between God’s Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom (to use Sobrino’s terms).

    So again, I’m unclear what problem or tension you see with regard to martyrdom in Liberation theology. To me a proper theology of martyrdom, and especially of the martyred people lies at the very heart of Liberation theology as such.

    • Yeah, I don’t think many liberation theologians would take much issue — in fact they would agree a great deal — with the last paragraph. I’m especially thinking of this sentence: “There are other ways of showing commitment and faith, but, and here is a key importance, there is very little distance, if any at times, between martyrdom and oppression.” And I’m glad you’ve brought up Sobrino. For remembering Romero, Sobrino has spent much time telling the narrative and why Romero died for the poor and the Gospel.

      Maybe I should’ve been clearer about who would have issues with martyrdom: people who think it is a bit extreme ’cause martyrdom seems hardly apparent today, that a theology of martyrdom focuses on death rather than life, etc. Basically, people who don’t seem to see the significance or afraid of dealing with martyrdom. This is broader than liberation theology, clearly.

      Now, as for liberation theology, some seem to assume the modern conception of the subject without critically engaging it. Some assume that freedom in political liberalism is the same as freedom in the Bible or acknowledge the difference, but effectively act like there is no difference. That I don’t sign on with. However, I do think there is a different subject that can fit better theologically, largely informed by martyrdom, and still meet the concerns of grounding people in the face of oppression.

      • I guess I’m not sure that the “self-asserting subject” in Liberation theology is in tension with the sort of subject enacted in martyrdom. I’m sure that there are some thinkers that give too much away in conflating the biblical vision of liberation with political liberalism, but I don’t know that that’s an endemic or even serious problem with Liberation theology as a whole. Rather, at least for the thinkers I’ve read (Gutierrez, Sobrino, Boff) it is precisely the martyred ones who embody the proper form of human being and acting in the world. By standing in love against the violence of the anti-Kingdom for the poor that the martyrs exemplify the true meaning of selfhood.

        I’m more suspicious of people like you and me (rich white kids, however engaged and concerned with these issues we may be) who want to argue that the oppressed have their concept of freedom wrong.

        • I believe I’m actually being more faithful to liberation theology by looking at the subject for a few reasons. 1. Getting away from the modern, european colonial project and how it has asserted the subject and therefore determined human identity. 2. One cannot act like liberation theology is above critique — otherwise we go from one extreme (ignoring) to another (beyond critique and change). Both dehumanize and dehistoricize. 3. Engaging with liberation theology is a complicated process that include actually talking with liberation theologians and the poor, rather than yet again making the rich, white people the center of the discussion. In the end, I believe I am doing something of a service to liberation theology, and participating in the discussion to further its aims, especially today and in my location, which is far different (but also very similar) than it was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

          Gutiérrez, Sobrino, and the Boff brothers are some of the better, and more well known of Catholic, economic Liberation theology in Latin America, and I’m glad you’re reading them. But what I’m getting in the post above — which is thinking how the subject can be constituted without white, European notions of ahistorical freedom, but still liberative in helping people stand against oppression — goes beyond an important, but small world. See EATWOT. I’m trying to find grounding for standing from within the Christian tradition that has not been (for the most part) at the service of colonial empire. If Christianity is to work for a real post-colonial world, we’ve got to shed at least some of the constitutive categories that we’ve inherited. Thats what I’m trying to do here. In such a project, the subject is a huge issue.

        • Wait, the Christian tradition has has not been at the service of colonialism (for the most part)?

          And I’m not saying we shouldn’t examine things like subjectivity in Liberation theology, by no means. But, as I said above, I fail to see the tension you’re pointing out as martyrdom is central to virtually every Liberation theologian I’ve come across. If there’s a concept of the subject that I’ve found in Liberation theology it is an understanding of the subject that posits the self as one who, in love, stands against powers of dehumanization and proclaims and works for a new social order of solidarity and community.

        • No, I didn’t make a naive assertion that Christianity hasn’t been for the service of colonialism. I was trying to say that I am looking to rely on notions already in the tradition that were not easily, if at all, co-opted for the service of empire.

  2. Michael Westmoreland-White says:

    Gutierrez and Boff seem to be aware of the need for something like a theology of martyrdom. I also have great empathy toward (nonviolent forms of) liberation theology, but it can threaten to become (in Luther’s terminology) “a theology of glory” rather than a theology of the cross. Maybe this is less a danger for the actual poor and oppressed than for their empowered-self-middle-class champions who forget the need to embrace the “bitter Christ.”

  3. I think that James Cone also has a theology of martyrdom worth looking at. Especially in his Black Theology and Black Power; in fact, he uses persons who risk their lives such as John Brown as a model for Christians who which to become ontologically black (taking on the condition of the oppressed).

    • Maybe this is just quibbling, but without perusing my Cone books, I think he has more a theology of the cross than martyrdom. Of course sometimes those are the same thing, but with Cone’s focus on Tillich and Niebuhr (and Barth in his earliest works), I’m not sure the subject for Cone is always situated just by death by oppression, but also by a certain notion of freedom as well.

      Btw, in class, Cone mentioned the late Bonhoeffer as another example of a white male becoming ontologically black.

      • I would definitely without hesitation place Bonhoeffer in that category, especially with his critique of American protestantism circa the first half of the 20th century.

        Cone’s theology of the subject is most clearly articulated in his Christology, particularly A Black Theology of Liberation (a least how I view his early works), where he argues for what it means for the divine to transcend a racist society (the Barthian BT/BP) to what it means to be a subject in a racist world (the tillichian ABTL). I think when it comes to his Christology, the Oppressed One’s martyrdom is part and parcel to his theology of the cross. This is the key distinction between Cone’s liberation theology and Delores Williams’ womanist theology, which keeps theologies of the cross/martyrdom at a distance.

        • But Cone makes a sizeable turn from his early work in some ways, specifically towards less of a reliance on a eurocentric philosophical worldview. Hence the Spirituals and the Blues. I read Cone’s early works as starting to find the issues that he would engage with the rest of his life, but he doesn’t have his mature solutions yet. Granted, I agree with Carter’s critique that the Barthian work was interesting and more substantive than the turn to Niebuhr, but the methodological move to grounding his work more explicitly on African-American experience is important was well, if not more important, because it was a response to criticisms of his earliest work. This is why I privilege God of the Oppressed in my reading of Cone as a theologian. Again, I like the earlier Cone, but it is the later Cone that I dialogue with.

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