MARTYRDOM . [This entry deals with religious witness that involves loss of life. For discussion of ritual death in a cross-cultural context, see Suicide. For death suffered because of religious identity, see Persecution.]
The badge of martyrdom is awarded by the leadership of a community to men and women who offer their lives voluntarily in solidarity with their group in conflict with another, ideologically contrasting, group. The martyr and his or her slayer are delegates, champions, or defenders of their societies. A few martyrs are suicides, but most are slain by judicial, military, police, religious, or other functionaries. These functionaries execute the martyr as a terrorist, a criminal, or a heretic who threatens fundamental social values or the physical safety of members of the society. The societies of the slayer and the slain struggle to control the meaning of the slaying: is it to be understood by the world as martyrdom or as judicial retribution?
Martyrs may be "witnesses," the literal meaning of the Greek term, of politically disestablished groups claiming self-determination or heroes of the expansionist wars of established groups. Contemporary images race before our eyes—a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Vietnam, an Irish Republican Army soldier dying of starvation in a British jail, a Japanese kamikaze diving his bomb-plane into an American warship. Martyrdom is an attempt to break through the ideological and social boundaries between the conflicting groups with hierocratic, religiously based power. A minority's religious power invokes a higher, purifying vengeance (Jacoby, 1983) upon a dominant adversary, who in turn vengefully slays the martyr.
The confrontation may unite the martyr's people, strengthening their opposition as they, under charismatic leadership, inch toward their own organizational power. The exemplary act of a martyr strengthens people's courage to bear their daily tribulations and directs their anger to the cruel, murderous adversary, the source of these tribulations. The martyrdom may also strengthen the adversary's will to repress the martyr's society. Martyrdom politicizes the relationship between the groups.
Martyrdom seems not to have appeared until rather late in history, perhaps the fourth century bce. The identification of ideology as an independent cultural reality has been a prerequisite for martyrdom. The ideologies at issue serve as symbols of mobilization, principles around which the societies rally, reinforcing, even radicalizing, more mundane economic or political conflicts.
The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia and Greek philosophy treat ideologies as distinct cultural realities already hosting the seeds of the ideas of active good and evil and heroism. Zoroastrian dualism proposed an independent evil force, and Judaism of the Maccabean age adapted this view of a struggle with evil for monotheism. Hellenism brought a personalistic element to the ideologies in the image of the ascetic philosopher. Oriental Christianity synthesized the dualistic idea with that of the individual hero and so previewed Islamic ideas of martyrdom, including the pledge of eternal life to martyrs, forgiveness of sins, exemption from the Last Judgment, and the intercessory ability of the souls of martyrs.
Martyrdom imbues economic and political conflict with sacred meaning, subjecting it to what Max Weber called "the ethic of absolute ends," the pursuit of goals with little attention to the cost. In fact, action guided by an "ethic of responsibility," the value of the goal weighed against the cost of the means, discourages martyrdom.
Martyrdom is a free voluntary act. It is also an altruistic act. The martyr may avoid death by conceding to the adversary, but nevertheless accepts, affirms or even seeks death. A soldier, even a gladiator, strives to defeat the adversary without being hurt or killed. If death occurs, it is an accident of the situation. Only when that situation is sacralized, as in the case of the Muslim jihād, is the slain soldier a martyr.
This article develops some elements of a social theory of martyrdom. The basic queries are: under what conditions does a society generate martyrs; what are the types of martyrs; and what special social circumstances give rise to each type?
How Martyrdom Fits into Social Life
Martyrdom infuses a mundane event with divine grace. The symbolism parallels that of a sacrificial animal attaining a sacred quality. The animal victim disappears, either eaten by the worshipers, delivering its sanctity to their fellowship, or, as a burnt offering, rising as a sweet savor to the Lord. The martyr, a human sacrifice, attains an indelible sanctity. The sanctity may take the form of a redemptory promise, softening the pain or enabling the martyr to persist despite pain. Early Christians imprisoned and awaiting martyrdom were believed to have the power to forgive sins. Those released might retain this power, perhaps becoming presbyters of the church.
The martyr dies convinced of his or her legitimate authority, an authority challenging that of the executioners. A religious martyr may believe himself or herself to be an incarnation of the Holy Ghost, as did Montanus (Frend, 1972); the Spirit of God, al-Ḥaqq, as did al-Ḥallāj (Massignon, 1982); or a receiver of the Torah, as did ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef.
The martyr, deceased, is a sacred symbol of an authority around which the society rallies. The authority created is charismatic, untethered by tradition. Such charismatic authority discards an older order in a breakthrough to a new social and cultural order, often conceived as a spiritual order.
Martyrdom is exemplary
A martyr is often a model for lesser forms of martyrdom. In Islam the idea of a martyr's death "in the way of Allāh" is applied metaphorically to the giving of ṣadaqah, or alms.
While suicide, being self-inflicted, is rarely accepted as martyrdom, asceticism, also self-inflicted, is a minor martyrdom. The adversary of the ascetic is bodily desire. The conquest of desire is a propaedeutic for the conquest of the social adversary.
The martyr demonstrates the human possibility of the act. That a person of flesh and blood succeeds in dying, sometimes painfully, facilitates the recruitment of future martyrs. Such a death is also a message deterring future deviance. That a member of a despised minority can show such commitment challenges the courage of members of the dominant group. The adversary may attempt to obscure the event. To be exemplary, martyrdom must be public and publicized. A private act, meaningful only to the martyr and the executioner, fails in this exemplary function. The martyr's group may be denied the benefits of its champion as witness. Undoubtedly, unrecorded martyrs died in dungeons with their ashes cast into the sea. However, martyrologies reveal no martyrs who sought social concealment.
In Jewish tradition, death for qiddush ha-shem, sanctifying of the name—or better, the reputation—of God, is intended to impress the Gentiles. This norm derives from a reading of the phrase in Ezekiel, "in the sight of the nations." Publicity for the Islamic shahīd ("martyr") is implicit in the idea of the jihād as a collective, rather than a personal obligation. Ibn Rushd (Averroës) wrote in his twelfth-century work on the jihād, Bidāyat al-mujtahid, that for shahīds to cancel the obligation for others, these others must know and recognize the volunteer's martyrdom. (Averroës, in Peters, 1977).
Martyrdom is political
Martyrdom is a political act affecting the allocation of power between two societies, or between a subgroup and the larger society. The Maccabean Revolt, which offered early and paradigmatic martyrs, was the action of a small community seeking a measure of local cultural independence. The Christian communities of Asia Minor, in the first and second centuries, offered martyrs to the Roman authorities in their struggle to limit the power of Rome to coerce particular expressions of loyalty. Certain religious martyrs may refuse to inflict physical violence on an adversary, but, as a political act, martyrdom is never a passive submission. The nonviolent martyr strikes the enemy psychologically.
The martyr's cry for vengeance mobilizes action against the adversary. The martyrdom of Mary Stuart followed a religious struggle over the crown of England. Elizabeth Tudor feared a bitter religious war were Mary to come to the throne. Mattingly (1959) writes of Catholic kings beyond the seas more eager to avenge the Queen of Scots dead than to keep her alive. Her shed blood cried out for vengeance on her enemies more unmistakably than her living voice could ever have done.
Where hierocratic power appears, political power may not be far behind. Sometimes one is transformed into the other. In this sense, the pope commands battalions. The Irish Republican Army tapped the church's hierocratic power to support its struggle for Irish independence from Great Britain.
Martyrdom aims to reduce political authority to ineffectiveness by challenging the sacred basis of the legitimacy of the adversary's authority. The potential martyr is a rival claimant to authority and this political claim may be religiously legitimated.
The political struggle may be internal: an established society and a schismatic minority may share a faith and a political system. The Maccabees, Arnold of Brescia, Jan Hus, and Savonarola, for example, accused the leaders of their established groups of treason. The minority attack was treated as heretical, endangering the faith.
The eleventh-century Persian-born Ṣūfī ʿAyn al-Qudāt al-Hamadhānī challenged Islamic authorities. The authorities' claim to power rested on Qurʾanic revelation and the sunnah, the traditions deriving from it. He claimed that divine grace poured down on him with all manner of esoteric knowledge and precious revelations, and he was thus an independent source of law.
Jan Hus (1373–1415) was directly political. Hus challenged the legitimacy of the papacy, the see of Peter, by preaching that Peter is not the head of the church, that ultimate appeal must be made directly to Christ. Condemned at the Council of Constance in 1414 and imprisoned, he wrote a characteristic martyr's message to a friend in Prague: "In prison and in chains expecting tomorrow to receive sentence of death, full of hope in God that I shall not swerve from the truth nor abjure errors imputed to me by false witnesses." He was urged to recant after being tied to the stake but replied, as is the custom of martyrs, "God is my witness that I have never taught nor preached that which false witnesses have testified against me.… I now joyfully die."
The fire was kindled and Hus repeated the Kyrie Eleison until stifled by the smoke. His ashes were scattered in the river, a final device to control the meaning of the event, discouraging a sepulchral shrine. After his death, Hussites fought in Prague and established the ecclesiastical organization of Tábor, recognizing only two sacraments, baptism and communion, and rejecting most of the ceremonial of the Roman Catholic church.
The minority may organize as a secret society, a sect practicing an uncommon cult. The twelfth-century Tanchelm in the Low Countries and Edus de l'Étoile in Brittany both declared themselves sons of God. Their sectarian followers were repressed, and they were imprisoned and martyred (Cohn, 1961). Ecstatics and ascetics, critical of the established church, gather around such claimants and perpetuate the movements.
Martyr Types: Political Independence and Action Orientation
The relative political power of the conflicting communities determines the task of martyrdom and the characteristics of the martyrs selected to carry out that task. Crescive, self-determining, and decaying societies all generate a peculiar form of martyrdom.
Christian communities within the Roman Empire were a politically crescive minority. The martyrs of this minority suffered passively, inviting violence but inflicting only moral or psychological pressure on the adversary. An expansive Islam in its early centuries exemplifies the self-determining society. Its martyrs were active and belligerent. The post-Enlightenment Jewish community of western Europe was a politically decaying society. Jews who died at the hand of their adversaries were not, by and large, martyrs but mere victims of pogroms and, lately, of the Holocaust.
The attitude of the society toward worldly action is a second influence on the type of martyrdom. Orientation to action may be primarily "otherworldly" or primarily "innerworldly," to borrow Max Weber's terms. These two orientations are related dialectically. The active political innerworldly understanding of life is a minor motif for crescive and decaying societies, but a major motif for a self-determining society. Segments of the society animated by innerworldly orientations tend not to be at peace with otherworldly segments. Heterodoxy is the case in which internal schismatics, themselves in a crescive stage, offer a religious otherworldly counterpoint to the political orientation of a ruling self-determining society.
The discussion will be organized in terms of the degrees of political independence of the societies. References to inner- or otherworldly attitudes are subsumed within the social type.
Martyrdom in crescive societies
A crescive society is one that is politically powerless but beginning to stir, perhaps renascent. The resistance of Jews to Hellenization under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century bce is an early model. The elderly Eleazar, according to the apocryphal 2 Maccabees, is the martyr type, choosing to give his life rather than eat pork in an already desecrated Temple in Jerusalem. That image is reconstituted in the second-century Judean rebellion against Hadrianic Rome in which the scholar and political leader ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef joined with Bar Kokhba, the leader of the revolt. Tradition has it that ʿAqivaʾ was burned, wrapped in a Torah scroll, in a Roman arena.
The exemplar of Christian martyrdom is the trial and the crucifixion on Golgotha as that event is related in the Gospels. Later martyrs strive to imitate Christ. The sacrificed Lamb of God survives, not in this world, but in the world beyond. Anomalously the divinely designated executioners were pagans. Ordinarily, only a priest could perform a valid sacrifice. This point was not lost on the eleventh-century Jews of Mainz, who, facing impending slaughter by Crusaders, slew their children and then themselves. They sanctified the sacrifice by their "priestly" hands, symbolically reviving the temple rite in Mainz. (Gentile slaughterers would have polluted the offering.) The adversary is made impotent by delivering to him dead bodies, the ultimate in noncooperation, and the spiritual strength and authority of the martyr's society is affirmed.
Martyrdom in crescive societies creates authority, escalates the struggle, unifies the minority, and legitimates the new culture by demonstrating its priority over nature. Furthermore, martyrs propel a politically crescive society toward self-determination, toward social and cultural freedom. The establishment of new authority is a step in this process, the martyr's group, for instance, becoming infused with the Holy Spirit (Klawitzer, 1980). The death of the martyr makes the ideological choice a matter of life and death. This escalates the struggle, perhaps expediting the resolution in favor of the minority. As the society moves toward increased responsibility, the culture itself changes. Ironically, the values for which the early martyrs surrendered their lives may not be significant to members of a succeeding and successful self-determining society.
Radicalizing and escalating the conflict unifies the two parties internally. The grievous injustice of the slaying of the defenseless martyr and the gruesome inhuman circumstances under which the slaying occurs leave few individuals on the sidelines. Martyrdom further unifies and strengthens the group in its struggle. If social solidarity is a prerequisite for martyrdom, how does the precrescive, perhaps fractured, group find its initial martyrs? Part of the answer to this question is that the martyrs constitute a small group within the minority. Intense primary relations in this group enable it to stand against the powerful larger group.
The unity of the minority community may be thwarted by a defection of some of its members to the majority. During the Christian conquest of Spain, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, for example, a number of Muslims and Jews manifestly accepted Christianity, while surreptitiously continuing to practice their previous faiths. Both Muslim and Jewish societies were decaying. The Inquisition struck at these New Christians and, at the same time, urged the state to expel those who had remained Jews and Muslims. Some unification was achieved by the Jewish émigrés in their Diaspora.
A crystallizing around a self-assertive core of a divided minority is necessary before serious manifest resistance is thinkable. The tragedy of unification amidst disunity is dramatized in the apocalypse in the Gospel of Mark (13:9–13), where it is written that brother shall betray brother, and father his child, and the children shall rise up against their parents and have them put to death.
With martyrdom, the culture of the minority, its ideology and law, is sanctified, a covenant established, stamped with blood. It is written in Mekhiltaʾ, a Jewish interpretative work, that every commandment that the Israelites have not died for is not really established, and every commandment that they have died for will be established among them (Herr, 1967).
Martyrdom, by placing ideology ahead of physical survival, affirms the priority of culture over nature and the group's life, law, and civilization over biological self-interest. A crescive society that values individual life above group survival and above its cultural survival is not ready to become self-determining.
The self-determining society: heroic martyrs
The self-determining society has achieved political control of its life. Examples are fourth-century Christians in Asia Minor following the victory of Constantine, Islam of the Umayyad caliphate in eighth-century Damascus, and the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine during the 1920s led by the Vaʿad Leʾumi, the National Council. Martyrs in such a society are active, aiding the society in its expansion, openly propagandizing, sending missionaries to the unconverted, and warring against adversaries. In Islam the jihād is a religious obligation and the martyr, the shahīd, one who dies in this sacred battle. The European Christian society that sent an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem under Pope Gregory VII, in the words of Cohn (1961), raced toward a mass sacrifice, a mass apotheosis in Jerusalem. Defending against external enemies is the major problem; the achievement of internal unity is a minor social problem. Nevertheless, the self-determining society suffers its internal schisms. Islamic historians say little about Muslim martyrs executed by Arab pagans, the early opposition group, beyond the early oppression in Yathrib. The record is clear on Islamic martyrs of internecine conflict, Muslim martyrs killed by Muslims during the crescive and during the self-determining periods are remembered by their sects. The historic example is Muḥammad's grandson, Ḥusayn, the son of ʿAlī, slain by the soldiers of Yazid, the son of the caliph Muʿāwiyah, to prevent Ḥusayn's accession to the caliphate. This martyrdom is commemorated yearly with flagellation, imitative suffering, in Shīʿī circles. The ideological conflict was between Shīʿī insistence on blood succession from the Prophet and an elective basis of caliphal legitimacy.
The politically decaying society: victims and anti-martyrs
The politically decaying society is losing its ability to be self-determining. Roman provincial societies were decaying as they were co-opted by a victorious Christianity. Zoroastrian society became a weak minority in Persia, with a diaspora in India, shortly after the Islamic conquest. The world's smaller societies, such as those of the North American Indian civilization and of the Polynesian islands, were submerged by modern imperial powers.
The cause and the characteristic of this decay is loss of political autonomy. The society's symbols fail to command the loyalty of its members. Western European Jewish society, by the late eighteenth century, fits this mold. Local Jewish community control, supported by charters, was weakened as new concepts of statehood and citizenship took hold in Europe. Christian or secular frames of reference and values began to control the interpretations of Jewish tradition itself. The Jewish Haskalah, or Enlightenment, was built on the back of such intellectual symbols. Major civilizational contributions of Jews were made, not to Jewish society, as such, but to the environing societies. Heine, Mahler, Freud, and Einstein contributed to their German and Austrian cultures.
Martyrdom is latent in a decaying society. The adversary claims mere victims who affirm no ideology by their deaths. Jewish leaders tend to remember the victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for the sanctification of God's name. Breslauer (1981), in a dissent, writes that they were on the whole not sacred witnesses but passive victims, not proud martyrs for a cause but political pawns.
Leaders of a decaying society may dismiss resistance and martyrdom in favor of negotiation with the adversary. Rubenstein (1975) charges the Hungarian Jewish community leaders during World War II with near complicity in their own destruction. Though they knew about Auschwitz, one meeting with Eichmann convinced them that they had nothing to fear if they cooperated with the Schutzstaffel (SS) in enforced ghettoization, confiscation of real and personal property, and deportation for "labor service" in Poland.
Jewish resistance, independent and in cooperation with local partisans, produced genuine martyrs but was rarely supported by the officials of the Judenrat, the Jewish councils of the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto uprising, authorized by ghetto leaders, was a final suicidal thrust, Samson at the temple of Dagon. Self-immolation requires a residue of moral strength, a will to protect the group's honor. Slaves may commit suicide, like concentration camp inmates throwing their bodies against the electrified wire, in order to relieve their suffering.
The negotiating victims may become collaborators or even converts. They may even become anti-martyrs. An anti-martyr may be a convert to the dominant ideology, remaining a leader of the minority and seeking to manage the conflict by collaborating with the dominant group. This effort may cost them their own lives. Anti-martyrs may strive to suppress martyrs whom they consider wrong-headed. They are not opportunistic turncoats, moved by personal avarice, but quislings, deeply committed to an enemy ideology, believing it best for their group. If they lose, they die unrelenting. The anti-martyr may meet his death at the hands of his new associates after they lose faith in him. Some new Christians, accused by the Spanish Inquisition of reverting to Judaism, went to the stake holding a cross. Leaders who suppress martyrdom out of a survivalist instinct without accepting the adversary are not anti-martyrs in the sense used here.
A martyr is delegated by the community and apotheosized by it. Anti-martyrs act individually or as members of a small separatist cadre. The minority condemns them as traitors and their apotheosis as evil.
How a Group Produces Martyrs
Martyr candidates may not always be found when needed. How does a community recruit and prepare individuals to sacrifice themselves? Ignatius of Antioch, seeking martyrdom, pleaded with his co-religionists in Rome not to try to rescue him but to allow him to die. At the same time, some bishops of the church denied their faith and fled to avoid court proceedings (Riddle, 1931). Not all sectors of the minority society are equally productive of martyrs. The level of devotion of most members of the community is insufficient to sustain martyrs. Zealots form cells within the wider community of devotees. These cells become a foundry for martyrs, supporting them throughout their ordeal.
The martyrs of politically crescive minorities, being leaders, tend to be recruited from its nobility. By and large these martyrs are males, not because females resist martyrdom, but because martyrs are drawn from the religio-political leadership. Female martyrs die affirming family principles. Barbara, one of a group of Catholic virgin martyrs, said to have been a follower of Origen in the third century, was immured in a tower, and ultimately beheaded by her father when he learned of her conversion to Christianity. Cecilia reportedly died as a martyr during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, along with her husband and friends whom she had converted.
What are the psychological characteristics, the motives of those who seek suffering and are willing to die? Although some writers tend to cite self-enhancing motives, such as a promise of redemption, or, as in Augustine's view, a way of avoiding a sin, one can safely say that altruism is the central motive. The basic commitment to moral action transcends the martyr's immediate interest in his personal fate. Sustaining such commitment requires ego integrity and the ability to overcome instinctive drives to escape.
Doubtless, some individuals throw themselves into martyrdom out of a mental derangement. But psychotics must be rare among martyrs, since they cannot usually establish and maintain the human bonds required in martyr cells. Many a stable mind, however, must become deranged during the tortures that can precede execution.
A martyr is prepared through life in a cell, that is, by social support. There he or she finds succor. The act is clothed ideologically and the potential martyr rehearsed. A martyr's ideology centers on the meaning of life in relation to death. It does not aim simply to attenuate the pain of martyrdom through a fantasy of a future life but provides a meaning for dying continuous with the meaning of the martyr's life. The martyr goes forward despite the pain.
Martyrologies, narrative or cultic, praise martyrs and expose evil. They prepare martyrs by example and encourage popular minor martyrdoms. A Christian cult of the martyr, in place by the end of the second century, exhibited relics—a bone, a lock of hair or some drops of blood—upon the anniversary of a martyrdom (Riddle, 1931). The more contemporary training of the kamikaze included worship at a special shrine for those who had died in training or in combat. There the trainees sought spiritual "intoxication" (Warner and Warner, 1982).
Exemplary martyrs need not be from one's own group. Invidiousness and pride can be as important as anger in strengthening the resolve to endure physical pain and degradation. The early Christians, not yet distinctively non-Jewish, identified with Maccabean martyrs. Gandhi, while struggling against the Boers in the Transvaal, praised the stalwart Boer women who survived an abominable incarceration by the English during the Boer War.
Ideology for preparing the martyr argues for the sanctity of the mission and the satanic quality of the adversary. It evokes earlier exemplary martyrs, including some from other groups. The lifelong preparation for the confrontation is materialized in a rehearsal for martyrdom. The rehearsal begins with the study of martyrologies, a vicarious experience, and follows with exercise of the minor martyrdoms—giving charity, fasting, and receiving the sacraments.
The early Christians offered organized rehearsals for the ordeal. The Roman process, being judicial, was predictable. Its stages included arrest, examination, threatening and persuasion, acquittal for recantation, and, as a test of loyalty, the performance by the recanter of pagan rites. Persons likely to be examined were trained in prepared responses for each stage.
How Society Controls Its Own Martyrs
A practical danger to a politically crescive minority is that some members will initiate open political action, perhaps open rebellion, before the community is ready to support such an act and, therefore, to succeed. Martyrdom, a harbinger of an uprising, is also a temporary alternative to it. A community must control its martyrs as it does its military zealots.
The community sets rules governing the occasions for martyrdom. Which principles are worth dying for? Who should die? When should one not die? The loss of such control among the Judean provincials during the latter part of the first century bce was fatal for Jewish autonomy and nearly fatal for Jewry as a whole.
The thoroughness of the Jewish defeat in the Judean rebellion of 70 ce, which led to the destruction of the Temple, was symbolized in the redesignation of the Temple mount as Aeolia Capitolina. The subsequent Bar Kokhba Revolt (c. 132–135) was severely suppressed. The community, not prepared for these acts of desperation, had not widely supported Bar Kokhba. These catastrophes shifted the center of Jewish life to the Diaspora. The evidence is that the edicts of Hadrian, such as the edict forbidding circumcision, which were cited as giving the Jews no choice but to rebel, actually followed the rebellion as martial law.
Control is also a matter of ruling when martyrdom is not expected. A Muslim is forbidden to wish for death or for an encounter with the enemy. The ṭalab al-shahādah, the seeking of martyrdom, even on the battlefield, is too close to suicide for Islamic jurists. Mahmud Shaltiut, a recent Shaykh al-Azhar, allows the community but three reasons for declaring jihād: to repel aggression, to protect the mission of Islam, and to defend religious freedom, that is, the freedom of Muslims to practice their faith in non-Muslim lands (Shaltiut, in Peters, 1977).
The Talmudic laws of martyrdom were formulated at the Council of Lydda in the second century. These laws governed a minority in a province of pagan Rome. By the Middle Ages, Jews were a minority in powerful Islamic states from Arabia to Spain and in equally powerful European Christian states. From time to time the pressure on the Jews to convert increased to the point where martyrdom became an issue. Group, not simply individual, survival was also a sacred obligation. Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon), writing his Epistle on Apostasy in 1162–1163, warned that the death of the martyr condemns all of his potential descendants to nonbeing (Maimonides, 1979). For this and other reasons, Maimonides sought to restrict the occasions for obligatory martyrdom.
The rabbis of the Talmud had restricted martyrdom to avoiding public worship of strange gods, incest or adultery, and murder. Under pressure it is permissible, writes Maimonides, to utter the Shahādah, the Muslim declaration of the unity of God and the prophetic mission of Muḥammad. The coerced Jew could think whatever he wished. If a Jew is coerced to violate publicly commands of the Torah other than the three specificed above, Maimonides advises submission, a position not repeated in his Epistle to Yemen, nor in his Mishneh Torah, his major work. It is not unlike Muslim dissimulation—acting when under pressure as if one has abandoned Islam. The person is culpable, however, if the violations are of his own free will. Maimonides recommends migration to more friendly shores, rather than awaiting the Messiah in the land of oppression.
Rules control the candidacy for martyrdom. Candidates who might not stand up to the adversary, who cannot assure that their action is voluntary, are to be discouraged. The rules given by Ibn Rushd (Averroës) for recruiting for a jihād recall the biblical rules limiting military service according to age, marital status, and attitude to danger. The shahīd should not recoil from fighting if the number of enemies is but twice the number of his own troops, an estimate based on a Qurʾanic verse (surah 8:66), but should flee before a greater disproportion (Shaltiut, 1977).
The Suppression of Martyrdom by the Dominant Group
A dominant group may strive to prevent martyrdom when it cannot exploit the public meaning of the event. Potential martyrs may be co-opted or suppressed.
The adversary group may, for instance, assimilate a sympathetic sector of the minority. The new "converts," given positions in the dominant society, may become a showcase for attenuating minority resistance. (This approach misfires when it polarizes the minority, inciting the resisters to attack the assimilationists, as in the case of the Maccabean assault on the Hellenizing Jews.) Since martyrdom depends on charismatic authority, any move toward rationalizing the social order gives the minority a sense of justice and order and undermines martyrdom.
Repressive measures may parallel co-optive measures in a kind of carrot-and-stick process. The martyr-producing cells may be attacked, for instance, by an infiltrating agent provocateur. Resistance cells may be made illegal and their members executed as part of a "witchhunt." Government-sponsored terror against the primary community may deprive the resisting cells of support.
Other ways of raising the penalty for martyrdom include inflicting more painful deaths or executing more martyrs, thus overtaxing the minority's supply of martyrs. Such increased viciousness may be an act of desperation. Its very horror may further radicalize the minority in its thrust against the dominant society.
Persecutions involve centrally sponsored repressions of the minority, not unique or local actions against potential martyrs. Christian tradition speaks of ten persecutions, including those under the emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian. Under Valerian, for instance, an edict was issued in 257 ce compelling acts of submission in conformity with the Roman religion. Christians refusing them were condemned to the mines, beaten with whips and rods, branded on their foreheads, and shaven on one side so that if they escaped they could be recognized as runaway slaves or criminals. This extreme persecution occurred but two generations before Constantine's victory.
If martyrs must be taken, the impact of the martyrdom on the adversary's society may be limited by isolating the killing from view. Assigning the killing to specialists is one way to accomplish this. As there is preparation of martyrs, so there is preparation of their specialized slayers. The SS in Nazi Germany conceived of itself as a sacred order, an elite trusted to guard the messianic Führer. The concentration camps were a training ground toughening them for the task. Prisoners were thought of as belonging to inferior races, shiftless and asocial; subjected to starvation and unsanitary conditions, they came to resemble the walking dead. Any SS officer who showed compassion could be eliminated from the group. Those who made common cause with the prisoners were stripped of their rank, given twenty-five lashes, and consigned to the company of the "subhuman" (Kogon, 1973).
Precisely the opposite approach is to encourage wide public participation in the repression of the minority community as a whole. The goal is to eliminate or demoralize it to the extent that it cannot function as a hinterland for martyrs. Elements putatively out of the control of the authorities may carry out the establishment's justice, and so mask its intent. Operating with two faces, the dominant community may pretend to provide legal and police protection, diverting the minority from a planned defense. The same objective situation may occur, without duplicity, when more than one authority exists in society. In medieval Germany and in Poland, for instance, Jews resided under charter from the local bishop or nobility. This guarantee of safety was ineffective when Jews were attacked by soldiers and mobs during the Crusades and in the early Polish pogroms. The lynching of blacks in the post–Civil War American South has the same character of mob action, sometimes disapproved of, sometimes condoned by the authorities.
A society may deprive martyrs of an exemplary function by declaring them criminals. Justice is done by removing them from the society. By the second century the Romans had developed a literature justifying the suppression of the Christians and defining their martyrdom as insane. The works of Marcus Cornelius Fronto and Lucian, for instance, attacked Christians as public enemies, atheists, a fanatical species enamored of death, who ran to the cruelest tortures as to a feast. To discredit the ideology, these works ridiculed Christians who claimed that Jesus was born of a virgin into a poor family in a small town in Judaea, when, in reality, his mother had been cast off by her husband for committing adultery with a soldier named Panthera.
The meaning of the event is controlled in subsequent time by myths about the meanings of the event. The martyr views the battle as a prelude to the subjugation of his executioner and then as taking vengeance on the executioner and his society. The dominant society, seeing the event as punishment or vengeance, hopes that it will have no sequel, that the cycle is complete, the criminal punished, justice achieved.
Destruction of records is aimed to control later historical reconstruction. Allard (1971) reports that during the Diocletian persecutions (285–323 ce), churches were burned along with their manuscripts, which included passions of the ancient martyrs. Books were burned at public book burnings. The persecutors, having failed to stop the apostasies, attempted to abolish their memories.
Perhaps the greatest weapon of the state, particularly the modern state, is its ability to make martyrdom appear obsolete and meaningless. Bureaucratizing the killing accomplishes this end. Rubenstein (1975) says that the Holocaust could only have been carried out by an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy. The moral barrier to the riddance of a surplus population was overcome by taking the project out of the hands of bullies and hoodlums and delegating it to the bureaucrats.
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