Featured Reviews, VOLUME 1

FEATURED: Two Recent Books on Martyrdom [Vol. 1, #49]

“Following Jesus to the Cross”

A Review of
Two Recent Books
on Christian Martyrdom
.

 

By Chris Smith.

 

The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom.
Tripp York.

Paperback: Herald Press, 2007.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $15]   [ Amazon ]

 

To Share in the Body:
A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church.
Craig Hovey.

Paperback: Brazos Press, 2008.
Buy now from:  [ Doulos Christou Books $18]   [ Amazon ]

 

 


Two recent books, The Purple Crown by Tripp York and To Share in the Body by Craig Hovey explore the question of what it means to be a martyr church in the present age.  Both authors work from the assumption that martyrdom is foreign to the Church in the United States, and indeed most of the Western world.  However, in exploring this question, York and Hovey take two different – and yet both helpful – approaches.  In To Share in the Body, Hovey works through the Gospel of Mark , forming a scriptural theology of martyrdom from the text of this Gospel.  York, on the other hand, works form the text of church history to develop a political understanding of Christian martyrdom.

                In To Share in the Body, Hovey works through the text of Mark, identifying six themes and images that are relevant to martyrdom.  The first of these images is baptism, the purpose of which, in Hovey’s words, is “to enact and declare membership with a martyr church” (23).  In baptism, we identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6).  Hovey keenly notes that just as the work of baptism is a divine one, so also the work of martyrdom is not primarily that of human will or action (33).  Hovey pointedly concludes this chapter: “The church’s failure to be a martyr-church is supremely seen in those cultures that continue to baptize the young for sentimentality’s sake.  For many, baptism involves neither incorporation into the life of the community of faith nor incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ.  It is not a drowning in the surging waters, a participation in the suffering of Christ, a commitment to undergo the discipline of the church relative to its new life and mission made possible by Christ’s resurrection” (40).

 

 

                The second image that Hovey works from is Jesus’s call to discipleship, which is marked by “carrying crosses.”  Hovey notes that the tendency in the Christianity of the present to misinterpret this passage from Mark 8 by putting the emphasis on “your” instead of on “cross.”  Furthermore, he notes that “following Jesus” is its own end and not the means to some other end.  In what will be a theme developed over the course of the book, Hovey notes that “the church bears its cross when it does not ask what purpose the cross serves” (47).

                In the third chapter, Hovey focuses on the theme of Christ’s glory in the Markan gospel.  It is in this chapter that he interprets Peter’s confession of the Messiah in Mark 8:27-30 in a striking way.  On the surface of things, Peter correctly names Jesus as the Christ, however he quickly goes on to demonstrate his unwillingness to follow in the suffering of Christ.  Hovey observes that this unwillingness to follow in the suffering of Christ renders Peter’s confession a false one.  The implication of Hovey’s interpretation of this passage is that our confessions of Jesus as Lord and Christ ring hollow today when we prefer our own comfort to following in the suffering of Christ, which is a common temptation in our Western consumer culture in which comfort is of the utmost value.  Hovey proceeds to contrasts Peter’s false confession with that of the true confessions made at Jesus’s baptism, transfiguration, and by the Roman centurion at his crucifixion. 

                The remaining three images that Hovey uses to explore the meaning of martyrdom in Mark are the disciples’ tendency to flee the cross, their watching the crucifixion from a distance and their not seeing Christ as “the risen one.”  In the final chapter of To Share in the Body, Craig Hovey explores the meaning of martyrdom for today’s church in light of the theology of martyrdom that he has developed from his work in the text of Mark’s Gospel.  As highlighted in the above summary of the second chapter, Hovey in his conclusion emphasizes the “noninstrumentality” of martyrdom – i.e., that a martyr’s death is not a means to another end.  Thus, Hovey says “For the New Testament, martyrs do not die because they fight for what is right but precisely because they refuse to fight for what is true” (148).  The only instrumentality of martyrdom, Hovey explains, is that of promise or gift.  Hovey turns to the book of Revelation to drive home his point that only God can use the martyr witness of the world to “bring about the repentance of the nations” (150).

                In contrast, the story that Tripp York weaves from the text of Church history in The Purple Crown is that there is a sort of political instrumentality in martyrdom.  Somewhat ironically, he also points to the gift-nature of martyrdom, but it is a gift not only to the Church, but also to all of God’s creation.  York emphasizes that martyrs are not victims, which, although he does not use that specific term, Hovey seems to imply a sort of victimization in his insistence on the noninstrumentality of martyrdom.  Thus, one can say that that for York the instrumentality of martyrdom is the maintaining of a political narrative that wends its way through history and bears witness to the redemptive of God in creation.

                Before going any further, it might be helpful for us to examine a little more closely the case that York makes to drive toward the above ends.  Over the course of The Purple Crown, he works from church history – and particularly the eras of the early church and the radical reformation – to examine the meaning of martyrdom.  In the book’s first chapter, York works from the history of the early church to emphasize the public nature of martyrdom, and thus that “martyrdom is authentic public theology” (29).  And, as the chapter goes on, he turns to Tertullian’s text De Corona to establish that martyrdom is not only a public act, but a political one.  In the book’s second chapter, York argues that the body (and bodily resurrection) “is the site by which political battles are won and lost” (70).  In the third chapter, York turns to the era of the Anabaptists and reads the Martyr’s Mirror (the key source of both Anabaptist history and a reading of the prior church history through the lens of Anabaptist tenets) as an alternative account of Apostolic succession which is held together through the link of martyrdom.  York proceeds in the next chapter to briefly develop a theology of the city and then observe that the manifestation of the theological city in the present age is the nation-state.  However, he concludes the chapter with a section on “the new city” which God is bringing in human history through the faithful witness of the martyr-church. 

                York then concludes the book with the narrative of the life of Bishop Oscar Romero, which is read in such a way as to exemplify him as a martyr.  This reading stands in contrast to that of Hovey who does not fully develop this point, but does imply that Romero was not a martyr because he fought for justice (54).  As York’s account of Romero makes clear (and as many other accounts have also done), Romero rejected the political pressures of the Right and the Left, and stood for no political agenda but that of God’s Kingdom.  Thus, Hovey’s account of the noninstrumentality of martyrdom is lacking because he in effect expects that martyrs will be completely passive, which does not bear witness to the scriptural person of Christ, who often took a firm public – and one could say political – stand for justice (e.g., the cleansing of the temple money-changers, or his frequent chastising of the Pharisees).

                In the end, these are both excellent books that share much common ground in their interpretation of martyrdom’s meaning.  Hovey is an excellent writer, whose crisp prose pulls no punches.  However, his insistence on the noninstrumentality of martyrdom, although well-intentioned and rooted in sound theology, does not fit the historical record of how martyrdom has been recognized and honored by the Church.  On the other hand, York’s account that is centered on the political instrumentality of martyrdom does seem to succeed where Hovey falls short.  To paraphrase York, martyrdom and the cross show to the watching world that its end is to be reconciled with God and all creation.  Both of these books are much needed in our Western culture in which martyrdom is virtually unknown.  We need to recover our identity as a martyr-church, and both The Purple Crown and To Share in the Body point us in that direction, but York’s work does seem to provide a clearer account of how martyrdom works. 

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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