Friday 21 January 2022

The Political Logic Of Martyrdom.

Consequences: The reason the world remembers the martyrdom of the third century Christian, Perpetua, and the abolitionist, John Brown, is, of course, the stakes. Both martyrs understood that the consequence of their actions, would be death. What greater stake can there be than one’s own life? The political logic of martyrdom – its extraordinary inspirational power – lies precisely in the implied value of what the martyrs give up their lives to secure.

PERPETUA’S END was nothing if not grisly. This young Roman mother, from a respectable family, had already been horribly gored by a bull and then struck on the head by a sword wielded by a young gladiator. It was not, however, a fatal blow. With blood pouring down her face, the preternaturally calm young Christian reached for the offending blade and guided it firmly to her throat. This time the gladiator’s thrust proved fatal, and Perpetua collapsed limply upon the sandy floor of the Carthage arena.

In normal circumstances, the delivery of the coup de grace was received by Roman audiences with enthusiastic applause. These were, after all, criminal executions. This time, however, the audience took in the pathetic tableau of the young mother’s crumpled and bloodstained body in shocked silence. If Perpetua was a criminal, then she was a very strange one.

Perpetua’s martyrdom in the Carthage arena, 203AD.
What distinguishes Perpetua’s martyrdom from so many others is that a great deal of the detail was provided by the young woman herself. Indeed, Perpetua’s journal, recording her thoughts and experiences in the days leading up to her death, is one of the very few documents written by a woman to have come down to us from the classical era. The gory details of her execution in the arena were, like her journal, the record of an eye witness. We even know the exact date of the day she died: 7 March 203AD.

It is worth exploring why that Roman audience was stunned into silence that March afternoon. A century earlier, they would not have been.

In the first century of the Common Era, the Roman world had very little respect for Christians. They were seen as oddballs and weirdos. Some, hearing they ate flesh and drank blood during their rituals, condemned them as cannibals. For the most part, their obdurate refusal to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor was dismissed as straightforward treason. In short, first-century Romans would say they deserved everything they got.

A century later, however, and Roman confidence in the established religious and political order was waning. The essentially transactional nature of classical paganism struck many as increasingly empty and unfulfilling. What had seemed like madness and fanaticism in the steadfast refusal of the Christians to compromise their faith, now struck many of the more thoughtful Romans as admirable – even heroic.

It also made them curious. What could possibly be so important to these people that, rather than toss a few grains of incense at the Emperor’s statue, they were willing to die? What sort of God could inspire such unflinching devotion?

This is the powerful political logic of martyrdom: its unparalleled ability to make people ask important questions about fundamental issues. For Christian martyrs like Perpetua, the fundamental issue was their relationship with God. In her journal she describes how her parents pleaded with her to relent and do as the Roman governor commanded – if only for the sake of her new-born babe. Quietly, but firmly, she refused.

Political martyrs display exactly the same uncompromising behaviour. In the eyes of many of his contemporaries, the abolitionist, John Brown, was a murderous, Bible-quoting fanatic from the killing-fields of “Bloody Kansas”. But his botched attempt to foment a slave uprising in Virginia, for which he was tried, found guilty and executed, transformed him, more-or-less overnight, into the symbolic harbinger of a civil war to free the slaves.

“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave”, the abolitionists sang, “But his soul goes marching on!” Not many years would pass before the tune of “John Brown’s Body” became Julia Ward Howe’s extraordinary “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The secret to the incredible surges of feeling inspired by the courage of Perpetua and the symbolic sacrifice of John Brown is, of course, the stakes. Both martyrs understood that the consequence of their decisions, of their actions, would be death. What greater stake can there be than one’s own life? The political logic of martyrdom – its extraordinary inspirational power – lies precisely in the implied value of what the martyrs give up their lives to secure.

Who would have heard of Perpetua if her parents had paid a fine and secured her release? Who would have heard of John Brown if he had been remanded in custody for ten days and then released on a good behaviour bond?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 January 2022.


David George said...

Perhaps we're just fortunate we live in the time and place we do; there's just not enough genuine oppression to go around. The bizarre story of Jussie Smollett an example. Turns out this B grade actor hired a couple of "white supremacist" Nigerian brothers to give him a bit of biffo and put a noose around his neck. Our wannabe hero apparently managed to fend them off and escape back to his apartment where he phoned the law. He was found, noose and all, safe and well but what a story to tell, or rather, sell.

John Hurley said...

I remember first year Diamond Harbour School (1957) we sang songs, "John Brown's Body" and "darkie" songs and "Captain Jinks". We were good people who had just beaten "the Nips" and Adolf Hitler.
CBS Norman Corwin visited the Dominion a year later and found Maori were treated with equality and respect.
Later that myth was blown apart as anti-racist ideology states that if ethnic group A does less well than B, B is the cause. Anti-racism informed society that everyone was us. We are often reminded that we kept out Chinese.
Like it or not though (which ever way you slice it): multiculturalism weakens belonging.
O.K, if you are Williams Corp; Bob Jones or other tall poppy it doesn't matter. The logic though is melting pot (are we; is it)?

If we are not what have we given up and why? The logic underpins the whole New New Zealand project started by the Lange govt., 1984. It is the fundamental question running through the US, UK, Canada and Australia.

There's a sort of an own goal in RNZ's Slice of Heaven when Roseanne and Ali recite the story of their fathers decision to come to Christchurch in the 1970's.
"People may remember back in those days there was a strong sense of community (say Ali) and "your never gonna get them out of that place".
Roseanne says her father was admiring a garden and the people came out. Her father thought they were going to chase him away but they invited him in". Later it was about Winston Peters stirring and "too many": what ever could have gone wrong?".

The solution to it (could have been Eric Kaufmann's Ethno-traditional nationalism)

" a variety of nationalism which seeks to protect the traditional preponderance of ethnic majorities through slower immigration and assimilation but which does not seek to close the door entirely to migration or exclude minorities from national membership. "

We may not have needed the hate speech laws and sMothering media?

Unknown said...

Helen Clarks Smoking gun. When it comes to housing ethnicity doesn't come into it. "NZ has many different peoples" [got it?]
The above , therefore must be justified by economics but qualified economists point out that there is no actual evidence that we have benefited (we just don't hear from them).

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The essentially transactional nature of classical paganism"

You mean like if you behave I won't send you to hell? That sort of transaction? :)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

David, I'll see you're Jussie Smollett it and raise you a Henry Louis Gates, a Danielle Fuentes Morgan, a Christian Cooper, an Ahmaud Arbery, a Daunte Wrightn an Andre Hill, a Manuel Ellis, a George Floyd ...I could and should go on but it's not worth it. Just a quick question though is there anything new conservatives won't do to minimise and trivialise white racism?

greywarbler said...

The awful martyrdom of young boys demanded by the Lords Liberation Army in one of the Arfican countries is worse than just giving up your own life. To be ordered to kill one of your own family yourself or have all of them slaughtered was I felt really dreadful. And that was probably following a precedent from somewhere else. The action 'blooded' the kidnapped youngster so they would be less hesitant when ordered to kill again. If we do manage to create a good society, how long can it last before some evil descends on us to poison the well?

The Barron said...

Perpetua's Passion is discussed in 'The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom', Candida Moss [2013].

Like most ancient documents, the first point is that we have to accept that the diary was written by Pertetua and the editor is giving the full story. Is it written by Pertetua, Saturus or the editor?

The first issue Moss examines is whether such a diary could be written in a Roman prison. The answer is yes, families provided the food for the imprisoned and could have provided the writing material. So, she could have written the account.

Next issue is her husband, acknowledged by the editor. The identity and whereabouts of the husband is silent. This could be because of the editor's theological wish for Pertetua to be seen as a bride of Christ the earthly husband takes a backseat. That does not prevent a Roman legal issue. The custody of the child would have gone to the husband and his family, especially a family of status. An explanation could be that Pertetua's social standing could have been elevated by the editor, and she could have been a concubine - which would not have sat well with middle-class Roman Churches. However, theologically when committed to Christianity the children would be committed to other Christians. The bride of Christ might be a metaphor, but Roman law is still problematic.

Her insistence on breast-feeding the child is seen as idiosyncratic as most Roman citizens used wet nurses, and her family would have identified a suitable wet-nurse before execution. Her father is of high status, but Hilarianus is beaten in court. Despite being well-born, Pertetua is executed in the arena with slaves and common criminals.

Saturus' vision has discrepancies between the Passion and Tertullian's account. Different characters on different days. There are also stark similarities with an earlier Christian story 'Acts of Paul and Thecla', including that both provide warnings for those that die unbaptized. Pertetua is visited by her dead unbaptized brother 'pale and dirty' 'hot and thirsty', she preys for him, and the next vision he is healed and satisfied. The Acts of Paul and Thecla' in turn drew heavily from Greek myth motifs.

Moss' conclusion is that while possible, the account as given is not historically probable.

greywarbler said...

DG What you say about Jussie Smollett is sickening. He is a malicious and nasty twerp. The stocks could be brought back for despicable smartarses like him, (but the imprisoned do need protection from their fellows who are likely to cause as much harm as the original behaviour.) Only some uncomfortable punishment would register with this fool. And his compatriots would be likely to be male fools who need the money for crack or something; as accomplices they should be shamed also.

Jussie Smollett: Timeline from actor's arrest to guilty verdict › news › newsbeat-47317701
Jussie Smollett has been found guilty of lying to police. The TV actor, 39, had claimed he was the victim of an alleged racist and ...
10/12/2021 · Uploaded by ABC News
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, police in Chinu, Colombia, placed residents who broke quarantine in stocks

The Barron said...

Perhaps it is worth looking further into 'The Myth of Prosecution: How Early Christains invented a Story of Martyrdom, Candida Moss [2013].

Moss establishes definitively that there were only six stories of Martyrdom written in the first two centuries of Christianity (Inc. Pertetua} all these are problematic and unreliable. All other Martyr legends were written hundreds of years after alleged events. The value of the Martyred Saint was the drawcard for early churches and towns, a relic of dedication to a martyred Saint became spiritual capitalism for pilgrims. The view of wide spread Roman persecution of Christians is unsupported by any archaeological record, while there were some limited prosecutions these were not discriminate towards Christians, but in line with Roman law. Prosecution and persecution are very different. Yet the Christian church was defined by this sense of martyrdom and persecution. As Moss states in the introduction -

"What if Christians weren't continually persecuted by the Roman? If there had never been an Age of Martyrs, would Christians automatically see themselves as engaged in a war with their critics? Would Christians still see themselves as persecuted, or would try to understand their opponents? Would the response to violence be to fight back or to address the causes of misunderstanding? Would we be more compassionate? Would we be less self-righteous? The history of Christianity is steeped in the blood of the martyrs and set as a battle between good and evil. How would we think about ourselves if the history were not true? The language of martyrdom and persecution is often the language of war. It forces a rupture between "us" and "them" and perpetuates and legitimizes an aggressive posture toward "the other" and "our enemies," so that can "defend the faith." Without this posture and polarized view of the world upon which it relies, we might - without compromising our religious or political convictions - be able to reach common ground and engage in productive government, and we might focus on real examples of actual suffering and actual oppressions."

Perhaps a we analyze the anti-vax movement, Brian Tamaki, and the American Right we should consider Moss -

"It is not only the suffering and oppressed who think of themselves as persecuted. Martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful as a way of casting themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others."

As stated in the review by Archbishop Desmond Tutu -

".., the popular misconceptions about martyrdom in the early church still creates real barriers to compassion and dialogue today."

sumsuch said...

My father's people always played the power game with every force available, it was no sweat off their brow. My mother's people ,intent on integrity, carried the martyrdom card in their back pockets. Both good people in their way.