Holy Terrors

"The weighty task of wrenching terrorism and martyrdom apart and policing the divide between them takes place on a daily basis in news commentary and water cooler conversation."

By Candida MossDecember 17, 2014

Martyrdom and Terrorism: Pre-Modern to Contemporary Perspectives by Alex Houen and Dominic Janes. Oxford University Press. 336 pages.Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction by Jolyon Mitchell. Oxford University Press. 141 pages.

TO ANY AUDIENCE reading after September 11, 2001, it is not at all necessary to explain why it is important to parse the relationship between martyrdom and terrorism. If martyrs are always good, terrorists are always bad. Yet, as the world was violently reminded on 9/11, one person’s martyr can be another’s terrorist, and sacrificing oneself for a perceived greater good can produce horrifying results. Suicide bombing lurks threateningly at the fringes of both civilized society and martyrdom’s ragged semantic borders. It is a constant, painful reminder that idealized action can be perverted, just as perverted actions can be (in some quarters) civilized.

The weighty task of wrenching terrorism and martyrdom apart and policing the divide between them takes place on a daily basis in news commentary and water cooler conversation. In the practice of martyrdom the boundaries are less clear, though. Terminology is often invoked in this process as a kind of philological silver bullet. The etymological roots of martyrdom lie in the Greek word martys (“witness”). The word made a career in the Roman courtrooms, and evolved to mean a person who died as a result of their witness to Christ. It subsequently broadened to incorporate all kinds of mundane, undesirable activities, from the austere and demanding obligations of monasticism to the obligations of a wife, equally austere and demanding. And yet the easy way we refer to martyrdom, as if there is some Platonic form against which an individual death can be judged, obscures the ways the memorialization of people bucks these trends. The exceptions are too numerous to prove the rule.

One solution to this problem is to begin with martyrdom’s historical roots. This is the general approach Jolyon Mitchell takes in Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction. The broad scope of the book — from ancient Greek concepts of noble death to modern Islam — is impressive, and the material is clearly presented and well written. Mitchell does not restrict himself to any period or religious group. In a rapid succession we meet: philosophical martyrs from ancient Greece; early Christian heroes like Ignatius and Polycarp; English bishop Thomas à Becket; and famous Reformation martyrs such as John Fisher, and lesser-known Anabaptists like Dirk Willems. Joan of Arc and her legacy make a cameo, as do atheist or ideological martyrs like Emily Davison (of the Suffragettes) and José Rizal (the “Philippine Joan of Arc”) in the later chapters. Many of the selections are well-known, but to the heroes of Christian history Mitchell adds vignettes about persecutors such as Edmund Bonner. The effect is a tautly written and densely packed introduction to the subject matter. Everyone — no matter their background — will find something new and engaging in this volume.

Where Mitchell should be most highly commended, however, is in his even-handed treatment of martyrs in the non-Christian world, particularly recent martyrs. He wisely avoids tackling the horrors of suicide bombers head-on and instead draws out less well-known examples of martyrdom, and enters the discussion via documentaries and national responses to death. Muslim “passion” plays are interwoven with stories of people like Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old Iranian who was shot during a protest in Tehran in June 2009. Neda’s death was captured on film; she became the world’s first “YouTube martyr.” The proliferation of posters of her face with the caption “I am Neda” made her a forerunner to the movement that surrounded Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, after she was shot the following year. Mitchell has a rare ability to balance compelling cross-cultural storytelling with historical backdrop and interpretative history.

The interdisciplinary approach, however, sometimes leads to some methodological bleeding between chapters. The volume is divided into thematic chapters that are both ambiguously titled and difficult to pull apart: “debating,” “portraying,” “remembering,” “contesting,” “reforming,” “politicizing,” and “questioning” martyrdom are interesting topics for a seminar, but they leave the reader temporally adrift. The interdisciplinary focus means that the reader is never on firm footing.

Early martyrs are introduced through the artistry of later thinkers and painters. The incorporation of artwork depicting martyrdom into the analysis is one of the stronger features of the book. It is an effective storytelling device, which perfectly encapsulates Mitchell’s larger point that martyrs are constantly made and remade. These images are put to work in the service of ideologies and causes that were alien to the martyr herself: each generation or community hatches its own brood of martyrs.

At the same time, however, the presence of these images — especially in the opening historical chapters — undercuts the reader’s sense of chronological context. The use of 19th-century art, for example, to represent second-century martyrdom provokes a kind of temporal disorientation; the martyrs are never fully contextualized in their own day, or the day of the artist, or the present.

At certain points speculation worms its way into the book. Mitchell writes with seeming authority that the martyr Perpetua read romance novels as a girl, but there is no indication of that either in her prison memoir or in her biographers’ writings. The editor of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity describes her only as “liberally educated.” We might imagine her as the consumer of ancient blockbusters like Daphnis and Chloe, but there is no indication of this in the extant evidence. This kind of imaginative analysis is charming in works of scholarship, where it is explicitly marked as probing the soft limits of probability, but may be out of place in a book so necessarily brief that one assumes every sentence must be calcified by certainty.

If trimming the fluffy edges of the great cloud of witnesses is the challenge of Jolyon Mitchell’s Very Short Introduction, the task of Dominic Janes and Alex Houen’s Martyrdom and Terrorism is to marshal the creative powers of a cluster of historians. The volume emerged out of a conference held in London in 2011. The stated methodological approach of these essays “focus on comparative exploration of the historical study of cultural and social formations and of related literary and visual discourses,” a somewhat convoluted way of saying that the volume is a history of the discourses surrounding martyrdom.

The book is organized into three chronologically successive sections: Pre- and Early Modern violence and martyrdom; the French Revolution and the invention of terrorism; and martyrdom, terrorism, and the Modern World. Of these three, the middle section on the French Revolution receives the fullest and most nuanced exposition. Anyone interested in how ideas of sacrifice, terror, and martyrdom coalesced into a particular discourse about death should consider this a “must-read.” James’s own erudite piece about British attitudes to martyrdom after the Revolution offers a truly fresh look at the writings of John Foxe — one of the first best-selling authors and the compiler of the Protestant classic Acts and Monuments.

The conference and essays were completed before the rise of ISIS, but those horrified by modern terrorism will find food for thought in two of the concluding essays, by Akil N. Awan and Alex Houen. These pieces explore how internet propaganda and visual imagery fuel both suicidal martyrdom and terrorism. Awan concludes with the suggestion that self-immolation is more effective on a geo-political scale than Al-Qaeda’s recruitment of suicide bombers. Jolyon Mitchell’s contribution on martyrdom in film would make an interesting entrée into the subject for a film studies major. Similarly Guy Beiner’s piece on “Fenianism and the Martyrdom-Terrorism Nexus in Ireland before Independence” is a compelling read for those interested in how the past predicts the present. The subject — raised by New York Times journalist Graham Bowley in 2005 — here receives an academic treatment that is still accessible to the general reader.

Despite the richness and scholarly rigor of the essays included in the volume, there are notable gaps. There is only one essay on martyrdom in early Christianity and one on the history of martyrdom in Islam. The latter is a helpful primer for those unfamiliar with the subject, but neither essay concretely focuses on the intersection of martyrdom and terrorism. It is strange that there is no discussion of Donatist martyrdom in the volume. Emerging out of Church debates in the fourth century, Augustine and others accused the schismatic Donatists of being violent and suicidal in their pursuit of martyrdom. The lack of any mention of this (or other ancient theologies of martyrdom that focused on revenge and violence) seems like a missed opportunity.

The task of compiling an edited volume is both thankless and fraught, and we should be grateful to the editors for bringing together this group of experts in a single place. Nevertheless, the editors never truly make good on their claim that the “essays [have] a tightly organized and interrelated formation.” Granted, they have assembled a group of well-respected and — in some cases — peerless group of scholars to weigh in on the production of martyrdom and terrorism. Persuading established scholars to sacrifice the acclaim and financial rewards that their finest work might bring them in solo-authored publications for the greater good of a volume of essays is a hard task. After all, these are scholars of martyrdom, not actual martyrs. The interest in the media representation of martyrdom is au courant and interesting, but the volume never finds a unifying theme. The editors remark that “[i]t is to be hoped that this volume will contribute to informed contemporary public debate,” yet the volume uneasily straddles the divide between scholarly specificity and popular conversation without ever firmly planting its feet on either side.

The one place where the book could have come together was the introduction — which offered both a brief history of martyrdom and a methodological framework for understanding the book. Here, though, Martyrdom and Terrorism reveals a rather casual acquaintance with scholarship on martyrdom. L. Stephanie Cobb’s superb Dying to Be Men is footnoted as the source of an idea that should more properly be attributed to Colin Barton. Elizabeth Castelli’s groundbreaking treatment in Martyrdom as Memory is presented as a kind of historical introduction. Paul Middleton’s Radical Martyrdom is cited as the definitive word on “types” of martyrdom (voluntary, involuntary, provoked, etc.), even though these categories have been challenged by recent scholarship. Middleton himself has augmented his original thesis, and is part of a cohort of scholars who complicate clear-cut taxonomies that distinguish between “types” of martyrdom on the basis of Christian categories of choice and autonomy. Both Martyrdom and Terrorism and the Very Short Introduction rehearse these categories. The nuance and sophistication of the scholarly debate surrounding these foundational and definitional issues are mere preambles: they do not puncture the substance of the introductions, much less the spirit of the chapters.

No volume of essays or a “very short introduction” can possibly cover the density or depth of the ideologies of martyrdom from the past 2,000 years. Pinning the subject matter to the page involves a ruthless culling of perspectives and persons, in which numerous thinkers and saints are given over to destruction. It is striking, then, that both works lean so heavily on British scholarship and utilize as their subjects the same cluster of Christian martyrs. The canon of Christian martyrs is at its core rather predictable and at its margins Anglo-centric. Emily Davison, the English suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse at Epsom, dashes across the track in both volumes. There is little sense of the ancient or contemporary scholarly debate about martyrdom. The authors of these books have decided for us who the key martyrs are and how we should think about them.

The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard wryly observed that “[t]he tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” But much like modern monarchs and heads of state, the reputation and power of the martyr is safeguarded and shaped by others. The process by which an individual tragic death is massaged into martyrdom is as much a question of politics and patronage as anything else. It is both popular interest and skilled packaging that turns violent tragedies into religious triumphs. Thus, before his rule can begin, the martyr must first be acclaimed by his congregation. The power of the curator of memory extends even to these modern historians. Perhaps now the Dane might add that “the martyr’s power ends when the scholar puts pen to paper.”


Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Myth of Persecution.

LARB Contributor

Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Myth of Persecution. Follow her on Twitter @candidamoss.


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