#26—Martyrdom past and present, with Jolyon Mitchell [MIPodcast]
Last year the Maxwell Institute published a book called On This Day, a translation of the Armenian Church’s ancient collection of stories about martyrs, miracles, and saints, arranged according to the calendar in order to facilitate commemoration. Early followers of Jesus often shared inspirational stories of martyrs in order to bear witness to their faith. Of course, the phenomenon of martyrdom preceded Christianity—in Jewish and Greek history for instance—and has remained a staple of religious and political protest to the present time.
Martyrdom is currently an extremely controversial status because it is sometimes claimed by people who commit acts of violence against others as opposed to simply accepting death themselves. In this episode, Professor Jolyon Mitchell explores such controversies and the history of dying for one’s belief as described in his book Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction.
Jolyon Mitchell is professor of communications, arts and religion at the University of Edinburgh. He’s also director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues. His research and teaching focuses on peacebuilding, violence, and religion. He has lectured on these topics around the world. Prior to becoming a professor he worked as a producer and journalist for the BBC.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
In the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus circulated inspirational stories of miracles and martyrs in order to bear witness to their faith. In the face of terrible persecution, some Christians were tortured and killed in violent ways, they became inspirational exemplars to believers who followed after them.
Of course, the phenomenon of martyrdom preceded Christianity in Jewish and Greek history, and it’s remained a staple of religious and political protest to the present time. Martyrdom is a complicated and contested status, though. It’s come to be claimed by people who commit acts of violence against others as opposed to simply accepting death themselves.
Professor Jolyon Mitchell joins me in this episode to talk about martyrdom. He’s the author of the Oxford University Press book called Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction. Mitchell is a professor of communications, arts, and religion at the University of Edinburgh. He’s also worked as a producer and journalist for the BBC.
We also spend a little bit of time talking about a recent book the Maxwell Institute published. It’s a translation of an Armenian Christian text that features sometimes graphic accounts of early Christian martyrs.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed this very free podcast, there’s something you can do to show your appreciation. Go to iTunes and rate and review it. I enjoy reading your feedback.
It’s martyrdom, in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
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BLAIR HODGES: Jolyon Mitchell is professor of communications, arts, and religion at the University of Edinburgh. He’s also director of the Center for Theology and Public Issues there. He joins me today via Skype. Before becoming a professor, he also worked as a producer and journalist for the BBC. He specializes in religion, violence, and peace building. Today we’re speaking with him about his book from Oxford University Press. It’s called Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction.
Thanks for joining me on the Maxwell Institute Podcast today.
JOLYON MITCHELL: A pleasure. It’s great to be with you.
HODGES: So, you wrote this book for Oxford University Press, and “The Very Short Introduction” series is really great. It’s a series of books on all sorts of different subjects, usually under two-hundred pages, very small books. So you had to take the idea of martyrdom and distill it down into a small book.
How would you broadly define what martyrdom is? Talk a little bit about how that term is used presently and in its different contexts, historical, political, religious, all the different settings that you might run into the term.
MITCHELL: Very good question. It is a complicated and slippery term, but I began the book with a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary which defines a martyr as a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs, and that martyrdom is the sufferings and death of a martyr. So in other words it’s something which now we understand as linked inextricably with dying for something you believe. That might be a faith, a religious belief, or even a political ideology.
Now the term has evolved and has changed. That’s something I look at in some detail, but as you say, it is difficult to actually take such a slippery term like this and compress it into what’s a very short book.
HODGES: Do we know the etymology of the term “martyr”? Where does that comes from?
MITCHELL: Yes. It comes from the Greek “martus,” which means “witness.” So it’s somebody who bears witness to, and you can see that both in the Christian traditions and also, interestingly, it’s there in Islam as well, this idea of bearing witness.
HODGES: Was it always connected with the idea of dying for that witness?
MITCHELL: No, it wasn’t. It doesn’t appear to be in the New Testament. A number of New Testament scholars point out that actually there are elements where the word, bearing witness, or martyr, is used not necessarily as somebody who tumbles into death but maybe suffers for their bearing witness. So it’s something which seems to have moved towards what some people describe as blood witness, in other words that you’re prepared to die for your faith, not just suffer for it.
HODGES: So in this Very Short Introduction I really liked how you laid out different scholarly approaches that different people could take to this question. It really helped me get my head around the idea.
For example, one approach scholars might take is highlighting the creative role of individuals in communities who create a martyr after their death. What kind of things can come out of that kind of an approach?
MITCHELL: Well I think it’s interesting to watch and listen to how some traditions create martyrs after the person has died. That can be across all sorts of different religions and also in political contexts as well, that it might be, for example, a monarch, a king, or president who is assassinated or executed and after their death they can be turned into a martyr by the community that’s left behind. The emphasis here, scholars emphasize here on the creative role of the community after the death of the individual.
HODGES: So it kind of looks at why they would need this person to be a martyr. Maybe what they did with that martyrdom, what kind of point they’re drawing from it.
MITCHELL: Exactly. You could think of how, for example, in the tradition of the Latter-day Saints, you could see how Joseph Smith’s death afterwards how some people were perhaps creative with that story, that belief of how he died and made use of that in creative ways, and perhaps also in devotional ways.
HODGES: Definitely. Especially early on there were really interesting accounts that were very embellished that appeared shortly after Joseph Smith was killed—
MITCHELL: Is that right? That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. He was shot, wasn’t he? I understand at a window in Carthage Jail in 1844, is that right?
HODGES: Yeah, that’s where he was killed. Him and his brother were both shot there.
MITCHELL: That was Hyrum, yeah.
HODGES: So Joseph fell from the window after he was shot and landed near a well. There were accounts that were created shortly after that depicted things such as the mob coming up to him to strike him with a knife or something and a bolt of lightning struck down and everyone was frightened and ran away, and these types of things. Shortly after it was recognized that these were embellishments.
There was also a folklore that grew up around the fate of the people who killed Joseph Smith. They would be struck with some sort of diseases or that sort of thing.
MITCHELL: That’s so interesting. You can see that process happening again and again in different traditions as well.
HODGES: It was cathartic, I think. So taking a creative approach, why were those stories created then? I think for Latter-day Saints it would be very easy to say this was a catharsis. They felt justice hadn’t been served, and having these stories about justice being served through some sort of violent end for the perpetrators helped Latter-day Saints reckon with their sense of powerlessness when no one was actually brought to justice about it.
MITCHELL: That’s interesting.
You could see that happening, for example, let’s take another really interesting example of creative embellishment around Thomas Becket, who was as you probably know, archbishop of Canterbury who on the twenty-ninth of December, 1170, four knights murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Within days or weeks parts of his body, bones, relics were being sent all over Europe. The director of the V&A Museum in London said there was “Becket mania” going on when he looks back at this event that happened nearly nine hundred years ago or so. It’s extraordinary how that one death was embellished in terms of stories, people claim that there were healings linked with his death.
Other people point to the fact that actually Canterbury, which was quite a small town and relatively small cathedral, actually grew massively because it attracted hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of pilgrims because they wanted to go to the place where the martyr Becket had been killed. They went there and they would pay homage. They would want to touch his tomb. They’d want to buy little relics. They’d also get badges that you could wear as a pilgrim. There was a whole industry that would go on for several hundred years until Henry VIII finally closed down the tomb around Becket, and I think basically took all the gold and silver, which all the pilgrims left behind, and used it for his own purposes.
HODGES: Was there any reticence of idol worship or ideas of how honoring a martyr can be connected to devotion to God? Were there any concerns about theological issues with that type of thing? Or was it more like shut down because it had become inconvenient?
MITCHELL: That’s a very interesting question. In a way I think there are multiple factors of why it was closed down. I think it’s probably also driven by a theological critique. Erasmus, the famous Christian humanist who visited Canterbury Cathedral before it was closed down, afterwards wrote this—It’s actually a very funny sketch. It’s a piece of comedy. It’s a drama about these pilgrims going and being conned, being tricked into giving money away because of a false belief in what some people would say is a sort of idol worship almost. There’s clearly a theological critique, but there’s also a practical reason. As always they’re interconnected really. There was a lot of money there to be taken there. There were a lot of stories. There were sort of twenty wagons worth of gold and silver, were taken from Canterbury and given to Henry VIII. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
Nevertheless, it’s quite interesting thinking about how not just the verbal embellishments went on, but also you can see physical embellishments. So actually Canterbury Cathedral was extended so there was a bigger space. It’s all so fascinating. The desire of pilgrims to actually the martyr’s body or touch the tomb of the martyr, so much so they actually had to protect Thomas Becket’s body. Not just with a tomb and a casket, but something above that as well. Pilgrims even try to get in between that, just to get closer to the body. There’s a sense of wanting to get close to the physical presence, or of course the absence as well of the martyr.
HODGES: There’s something very heavy about the physical presence and the place. It’s funny because on a smaller scale the same sort of thing happened with Joseph Smith in Carthage. The LDS Church now owns Carthage Jail. You can tour Carthage Jail. For a time they actually still would claim to have had a place on the floor upstairs where you could see blood. That’s been cleaned up now, and I don’t know whether that was really the blood or not, but they did have a place that was identified as the place where his blood was. Now that’s been restored over. I think there were some anxieties about worrying about what that looked like, or if Latter-day Saints somehow revered the actual blood of Joseph Smith or something, which I don’t think was very common but may have played into it.
There’s also a relic element. They would cut pieces of his hair. I know some people kept pieces of Joseph’s hair, and some of those were incorporated into a cane, a walking stick, or things like this. People still visit Carthage Jail today, so there’s that pilgrimage element. There’s that relic element that you see.
MITCHELL: That’s fascinating.
HODGES: Yeah. I don’t believe many of those people had a tremendous connection to martyr stories of the past. I haven’t looked into that, so I’m not sure. It almost seems like this sort of devotion is almost a natural thing that you could expect a natural expression of grieving the loss of someone important to a religious tradition.
MITCHELL: Did it extend to his family as well? Did it extend to Hyrum and perhaps home of Joseph’s close family?
HODGES: They’re both spoken of as martyrs.
The other thing was the burial as well. They initially hid his body because they were afraid that mobs would come and dismember it or something, but it was later exhumed in the early twentieth century, gosh I might have the dates wrong, but his body was exhumed and then they were reburied at a different location. They have kind of a crypt over them now where people do go and visit.
As far as how martyrdom with family members, Hyrum is thought of as a martyr as well but there’s never been any liturgy or any thing that’s sort of grown out of the death of Joseph Smith. It’s just thought that he “sealed his testimony with his blood.” This is an idea that Joseph, it helps Latter-day Saints say Joseph was sincere. He wouldn’t have put his life at risk in this way had he been conning people.
MITCHELL: That’s really interesting. It’s fascinating. It ties in, I think, with another category that I use in the book, closely linked with the creative interpretation of martyrdom, or the creative processes surrounding martyrdom, for what sometimes is described as evolutionary processes. I’m talking there about how it develops. Ideas about martyrdom do develop. There’s historical evidence around that, and that can change and transform with generations. The fact that you are describing Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in the way that you are suggests that you understand that development, that evolution.
HODGES: Yeah. To a small extent, right? That’s actually what I was going to ask you next, was this evolutionary view.
One example here with Joseph Smith would be the idea that earlier stories about the death had to do with comeuppance for the perpetrators and a heavy sense of injustice for the federal government. That element of things for Latter-day Saints has fallen away today. If you were to ask Mormons today what they think about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom they would refer exclusively to the religious elements—him sealing his testimony with his blood. Whereas before it was also wrapped up in this sense of injustice and the federal government’s failure and that sort of thing.
What are some other examples of evolutionary changes in martyrdom that you can think of that are similar or different than that?
MITCHELL: I think you can see it in the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions. You can see it actually with the term “martyrdom,” which clearly has evolved, the meaning of the term has evolved, and also the way in which stories are reiterated, repeated, translated, elaborated upon.
Another example, let’s take an example from the Philippines where somebody called José Rizal, who back in the 1890s, I think it was on the thirtieth of December, was taken out and shot. He was seen as the founding martyr really for modern day Philippines. He’s not well known outside the Philippines, and yet if you go there, everyone in the country will know about him. There’s Rizal Park—his name was Rizal—so there’s a park, there’s houses, there’s buildings, there’s many films about him, and he really was drawn toward Christianity. He was also highly critical of aspects of colonial Christianity at that time. That’s one of the reasons why he was actually probably executed.
He was a non-violent martyr, but you can see how his story has evolved so that it becomes something which is retold in lots of different ways. Not just in films or television programs, but in novels and in music videos, and in poetry. There’s a very famous photograph of him just about to be shot, which is widely circulated as the photo of him. You can see a whole firing squad, as him about to be shot. I think it’s almost certain that it comes from a film that was made about twenty years after his death, but it’s taken the historical meaning of his death, has added layer upon layer.
It’s interesting how I remember being in the Philippines and talking about this and some people there were very keen that I got the precise story absolutely correct, and it mattered that I got it correct, but in fact it clearly—as they admitted, actually—it had evolved as well, this story. So you might have firsthand accounts or secondhand accounts and then interpretations. You can see this again and again with different stories of martyrdom.
HODGES: Right. So these stories kind of evolve over time. There are different points of emphasis, different things that different communities emphasize.
The next approach that you describe in this introduction—we’ve talked about the creative analysis and the evolutionary analysis—there’s an evaluative approach that you talk about where judgment calls are made.
MITCHELL: Exactly. I think this is important. This is a place which does divide some scholars. Some scholars want to describe accurately, the technical term would be phenomenologically, what are the different phenomenon here, what’s the historical account? Other scholars want to say actually sometimes martyrdom can be dangerous. They make a distinction between passive and active martyrdoms, or another way of thinking about it is peaceful or predatory martyrdoms. That’s what I mean be evaluative.
In other words, the martyr who is later described by communities a martyr, blows themselves up with the intended purpose, not just to claim themselves as dying of a martyr, but actually of killing other people. So for one group that can be, that’s a martyrdom. For another person that’s a suicide bomber. So one person’s terrorist is another person’s martyr, and that’s where evaluative process comes in.
It’s interesting. This phrase has stayed with me, actually, around the idea of a “predatory martyrdom,” and actually what’s happening is people are using martyrdom as a way of asserting their belief system onto other people in violent, aggressive ways. Unfortunately we can see that happening across different parts of the world today. This week. This month.
HODGES: That’s where it gets really difficult, too, because you could say these types of violent responses are, in fact, responses. These types of people who might go and commit a suicide bombing would say, “well, I’m doing this because the people I’m representing are being persecuted or sometimes even killed and so this is a way for me to fight back against that.” People could say that does count as a martyrdom. The evaluative approach seems to be questioning the ethics of the act, or the ethics of how the martyrdom is playing out.
MITCHELL: Exactly. You could, for example—I think the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in a recent address at Canterbury Cathedral at the place where Thomas Becket was killed, developed exactly that kind of evaluation and said that, if I remember rightly, that it’s been captured, the term.
Other people—I don’t think Justin Welby did, but other scholars have talked about almost the term has become poisoned by this action. So these are very highly critical evaluations. I think it’s there in the book, but I don’t move down evaluative path, but I make it clear that it’s possible to go that way. Personally I think if somebody uses martyrdom to kill other people, it’s clearly something which is deeply, deeply problematic and should be critiqued.
HODGES: Right. And that would be that evaluative approach, would be doing that. So the fourth way is the inclusive approach. What’s that?
MITCHELL: Inclusive is, this is another approach, which is to be truthful to the fact that if people describe this as a martyrdom or a martyr, then we need to value their description. We may not agree with their description. We may not agree that somebody blowing themselves up on a bus to kill other people or the underground or taking an airplane into a skyscraper, these acts are of course acts open to serious critique and judgment, but nevertheless there are some communities who would describe those actors, those agents, those individuals as martyrs, or these as martyrdom operations. We may not agree with that. We may not do that term. But we at least need to recognize that some people would describe it in these terms. That’s what I mean by an inclusive approach. It’s just being truthful to how people are speaking.
HODGES: It’s an approach that resists immoral or ethical evaluation, or I should say that resists imposing a particular moral or ethical lens because it would include talking about the morals and ethics of the—
MITCHELL: —It’s interesting that sometimes it’s possible to move from an inclusive approach to an evaluative approach.
HODGES: That would be setting it up.
MITCHELL: Exactly. You could say there’s this whole range of different kinds of acts that are linked with martyrdom, some of which you can see and celebrate, and some of which you can see and critique.
HODGES: So which of these approaches or how many of them did you employ in your Very Short Introduction?
MITCHELL: I suppose I was drawn partly to a historical approach, which was drawing on each of those four, but allowing the reader to make the evaluation en route as well. So part of it is an encouragement to readers to think critically about this process and practice, which has got a long history, which will take us right back towards—The Greeks, for example, their discussion of the “noble death.”
HODGES: That’s Jolyon Mitchell. He’s professor of communications, arts, and religion at the University of Edinburgh, and he’s the author of Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction. We’re speaking with him today on martyrdom.
There’s a really provocative statement in your introduction, where you say “a martyr’s death acts as a question mark.” In what sense did you mean?
MITCHELL: A question mark over many different people’s understanding of martyrdom. A question mark also over those who killed a person.
In other words, supposing let’s take, for example, the judges of Socrates who insisted that he would kill himself because he was supposedly perverting the youth of the day in Athens. You could say that his death actually puts a question mark over the judges in the same way that you could say that Joseph Smith’s death in Carthage in 1844 puts a question mark over those who shot him. In the same way you could say that Stephen’s stoning puts a question mark over those who kill him.
So you can see the way in which someone’s death raises a question mark over the killers, a question mark over the interpreters, but then also the question mark over the communities they’ve left behind, because there’s also a sense in which what does it mean for us? Someone dying for their belief.
think it was Oscar Wilde, the Victorian playwright and writer, who said that because a person dies for their belief, it doesn’t make their belief truthful. That’s a paraphrase, but that’s roughly what he’s saying. So of course there’s a sense in which we need to critique, because somebody kills themselves and blows up them and many other people doesn’t mean to say their belief is right.
HODGES: I think the quote is, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
MITCHELL: Thank you.
HODGES: Thank you, because it’s right there on page five of Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction. [laughs]
So let’s talk about portraying martyrdom. This is a way for communities after the death of a martyr to keep that martyr in memory or to make arguments or inspire devotion. There are many different reasons why martyrdom is portrayed. Let’s talk about a couple of examples of portrayals of martyrdom.
Your chapter focuses on paintings and representations of two different types in particular. You mentioned Socrates. Start with him. What about portrayals of Socrates?
MITCHELL: Some people would say that Socrates wasn’t a martyr, but other people would say that he is actually the founding martyr in the western tradition. The picture that I particularly focused on and I was really pleased that we were able to get it from the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is Jacques Louis David’s Death of Socrates.
Your eye is drawn inexorably towards this figure. He dominates the picture. His finger is pointing to heaven. All around him people are in grief, but there’s one figure who is holding your attention, and he’s poised. It’s an extraordinary representation of almost like a revolutionary death, because of course this picture wasn’t painted at the time by any means. It actually came out just before the French Revolution by one of the great revolutionary artists, David. It’s saying something, not just about the noble death of Socrates, but also about the French situation of the French nation in the 1780s as well. It’s worth seeing. It’s fascinating. If you’re in New York I recommend popping in and having a look because it’s not a very big picture, but it’s a picture that’s very much stayed with me.
Again for me it raises questions about what is a martyrdom? It also raises questions about how do you stand up for your beliefs, and what beliefs are worth dying for?
HODGES: Briefly, Socrates was convicted of leading the youth of Athens astray, right? He was convicted of that and so he had to drink hemlock. That’s the basic story.
HODGES: So the French revolutionaries would look at that story and apply it to themselves.
MITCHELL: Yes. It was really an account of inspiration. We’re prepared to die to change the political situation. So there’s a sense in which this is a revolutionary picture for a revolutionary age.
HODGES: You talk about the idea of a noble death. In this painting that you’re talking about you’ve got Socrates, he’s the commanding figure there, his chest is exposed, he’s probably the most well lit person; his face is very calm in the face of death. What is the idea of a noble death?
MITCHELL: It was a common phrase, not just relating to Socrates but to other figures in the ancient world. You can see it, I think if I remember rightly, people like Hannibal or even Lucretia as well, or even Antony and Cleopatra when they were defeated they would fall on their swords.
There’s a sense in which you wouldn’t face execution, but you would die a noble death. This idea of the noble death was drawn upon particularly by early Christian writers for describing the deaths of early Christians as well. You can see this happening into the Middle Ages as well.
HODGES: The other big example that you talk about in this chapter about portrayals is portrayals in texts about the Maccabean martyrs. What’s the story with the Maccabean martyrs and their portrayal?
MITCHELL: The Maccabean martyrs were resisting another imperial power, and they were not prepared to compromise. They weren’t prepared to compromise about dietary habits, for example, about eating pork, or worshipping, or acquiescing to the invading powers.
The picture, again I used a nineteenth century picture but it’s actually taking us right back to the Maccabean time, which is around 125. These are very graphic and actually quite gory stories really of a mother, for example, who watches her sons being killed one by one—five, six, seven sons if I remember correctly, being killed because they wouldn’t compromise on their belief. It’s these stories, these Maccabean martyrs, were picked up again by early Christians and they were seen as sort of proto-martyrs.
These were another account, not so much noble death, but more like voluntary violent deaths. Again, the emphasis here is on does a voluntary way in which people face their death because they were saying “I will not compromise here.” In fact, I think in martyrdom in Judaism the phrase comes much, much later, the phrase usually used is “the sanctification of God’s name,” which was linked to a public dedication to God. You can see this is a resistance against Hellenism in particular. It would be related to observing the Sabbath, refusing to eat pork, or meat sacrifice to the foreign gods.
HODGES: So martyrdom in these particular instances was used to talk about the noble death. Socrates calmly accepting his fate, that would sort of set up later martyrs to want to do the same. Same with voluntary violent death. The Maccabee stories and Socrates both served as prototypes or exemplars for later Christian martyrs as well.
MITCHELL: Exactly. There were some scholars who point to these traditions as informing and shaping early Christian understandings of martyrdom. There’s clearly evidence of that, where you actually see there’s quoting, and there’s even churches if I remember rightly that are named after the Maccabean martyrs. Christian churches.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. Let’s talk more about the Christian context a little bit as we talk about martyrdom as remembrance, another chapter in your book focuses on the idea of remembrance. As we mentioned earlier, the word “martyr” itself wasn’t originally associated with death. It was associated with witnessing. So public witnessing over time is a way of carrying the memory of a group. Jesus obviously within Christianity became the prototypical martyr.
MITCHELL: That is of itself very interesting. Some people say he is the first martyr. Other people say he is the prototype of martyrs.
HODGES: What’s the difference?
MITCHELL: Well, exactly. I think it’s almost a semantic argument that I wouldn’t lose a huge amount of sleep about.
HODGES: But it matters to some people. So why though?
MITCHELL: Clearly you can’t get away from the fact that the heart of Christianity is the passion story. The death of Jesus. He is not a predatory martyr. He doesn’t pick up a sword there. He faces his death calmly and faces it boldly, courageously, and this is clearly inspiration to thousands of other martyrs later. Other people would say the first Christian martyr would be seen as Stephen.
HODGES: In the Book of Acts.
MITCHELL: In the Book of Acts. There you see Stephen, of course, being martyred by stones. Again, we would be delighted to be able to use a medieval picture there of him being stoned. It almost looks like there are stones like potatoes coming round his head really. I’m not using that to demean what went on there, it’s just interesting how difficult it is to capture the moment of martyrdom visually. But again, Stephen’s story takes us on to other early martyrdoms.
Again, I think it’s good to be critical about the whole history of martyrdom in the early church, because I think there’s some over-claiming of millions of martyrs in the early church. It’s clearly not historically defensible. But there were a number of individuals who did face death because of their belief in Jesus, and you can see that perhaps in early accounts.
For example, one of the most famous is on Perpetua, a young woman who still was nursing her baby, probably only in her early twenties. The baby was perhaps under one. She resisted her father and would not worship to the Roman emperor, and she has this extraordinary, vivid dream the night before her martyrdom in the arena of being met by Jesus and being in a fight with a gladiator. Almost all scholars that I encountered see that embedded in the early accounts we actually have her voice there. So we’re actually hearing this young woman the night before her death. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing. It’s very moving actually, listening to her and thinking of what she would not budge on, which was a passionate belief in following Christ.
HODGES: So we have these really impressive accounts of people that can embolden later believers to have faith in the face of persecution. You also mentioned that martyrdom became something that was exaggerated over time. The numbers of martyrs was exaggerated and there were probably embellishments in the story of how some people were killed. Some accounts are particularly grizzly and vivid. That’s not to say that grizzly, vivid things didn’t happen, but these types of accounts—
MITCHELL: They clearly became dramatized. Some people would say they almost became Hollywood movies in that they were trying to grab people’s attention with these graphic, “red martyrdoms” as they’re sometimes described.
You can see this move from red martyrdom toward white martyrdom. The idea there is more of dying to oneself everyday, not of giving up your life. Part of that was, of course, because Christianity was adopted as the imperial religion, and so you didn’t need to stand up the empire, you actually needed to do some other kind of martyrdom and this led to what sometimes is describes as “desert spirituality” where people would leave the city and go sit on the top of the pole or pillar for twenty, thirty years, or live on their own in a cave or desert. This was a form of martyrdom, later known as white martyrdom.
HODGES: Like you were dying to active life participation, that kind of thing.
MITCHELL: Exactly. But also the idea of self-mortification. You’re picking up your cross daily. If you can’t give up your life, you can at least give up the comforts of your life.
HODGES: What about these rumors that there were Christians who actively sought or really tried to get martyred? I think it’s in Confessions I think where Augustine talks about Christians running into classrooms or something and making a big fuss and trying to get beat or trying to get perhaps even killed for the cause of Christ. Were those types of things really going on before Christianity became the religion of the empire?
MITCHELL: I think there is evidence that suggests that, that actually individuals wanted to be martyrs. This was seen as the top way of serving Christ. So some individuals wanted to seek martyrdom. They actually almost desired it.
Then there was clearly internal critique of saying, there are a number of church fathers who say that is not the way to serve Christ. “We shouldn’t go actively seeking for martyrdom, because this is not the way to serve Christ.”
I would point out that actually the blood of the martyrs were some of the foundations of the church. So you can have some people saying, like Justin Martyr for example, saying “I watched them stand fearless in the face of death and every other thing that was considered dreadful.” In other words, what he saw changed how he thought about Christianity, and that other people pointed to the fact that this extraordinary boldness of early Christians in the arena and other contexts was actually a media asset, as one scholar described it.
HODGES: I was going to ask you about Justin Martyr. Just his name. Was that connected to actual martyrdom? Where did that come from?
MITCHELL: Yes. What’s clear is he was drawn to—
HODGES: Oh yeah. He was drawn—
MITCHELL: I think, if I remember, he’s often described as the first Christian philosopher, and he himself was beheaded around 165 during the reign of Aurelius.
HODGES: So it could be related to things before and after his death.
MITCHELL: I think it’s because he died for his beliefs after refusing to sacrifice to the gods.
HODGES: So you talked about how state persecution lessened as the church grew in power, killing sort of died off and new forms of martyrdom emerged, and white martyrdom was an example of that. At the same time there was a growing cult of the saints that emerged. These are stories of martyrs that became part of the liturgical calendar. Talk a little bit about how martyrdom became such an important point of focus in the worship of Christians, even after official persecution lessened.
MITCHELL: I think that’s interesting that you can have Saint’s days, you have martyrdom days, where specific individuals were remembered. In other words, it becomes integrated into the liturgies of the church.
For example there’s a very interesting new book out recently called The Armenian Church Synaxarion, which I think is going to cover all the months of the year, but it’s a very interesting translation by a guy called Ed Mathews that draws, if I understand it correctly, on original Armenian texts. So you have it in Armenian, and then the other side you have descriptions of saints, some saints, but also of graphic martyrdom stories.
HODGES: Yes, the Synaxarion is published by the Maxwell Institute here. Like you said, January was the first one. As I’m reading through this when it very first came out I’m struck by some of the graphic details that would be included in a work of liturgy—and by “liturgy” we mean a text that’s going to be used in church worship, so this is a text that they’ll perhaps read during church services or to organize the church calendar. You’re including quite violent, graphic things in the act of worship in these books.
MITCHELL: That’s right. It’s very interesting, isn’t it? I was very interested to read some of the accounts there. It’s vividly translated. It’s dramatic. It doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Yet there’s clearly evidence of elaboration here or stories being developed, being added to, or being made more graphic.
HODGES: And being borrowed, too, from different areas of the church?
MITCHELL: Yeah, that’s right. One scholar describes that what we have with martyrdom it’s an example of a usable past. It’s part of a usable past, a part of a living tradition so that it’s going on. These stories are alive today. They may have happened hundreds of years ago, but they still had meaning today as well.
HODGES: Right. The rise of publishing—books, images, the printing press—you write that this impacted martyrdom and how it was talked about and how it was understood. Let’s talk about Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs. This happens to be a book that Joseph Smith is reported to have been reading in the days leading up to his own death. What was Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs?
MITCHELL: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is an extraordinary compendium of martyrdom stories. It’s also a huge book. What I find absolutely fascinating about this book is that in England, and I do mean in England, alongside the Bible it was placed in church after church after church.
It was a very popular book, partly because it was deeply anti-Catholic, partly because it had extraordinarily vivid pictures. I find it interesting looking at one of these old copies in Cambridge University Library and you open it up, and it’s extraordinary touching a book that is four hundred, five hundred years old or so, but you can see there are pictures there are of the martyrdom of early Christians, of some of the Reformation leaders as well.
Where you have these graphic pictures you can see people have looked at them while eating or drinking, so there’s even beer stains or coffee stains on the pages. You can see evidences of food. They weren’t just in churches, they were in taverns and inns, in places where people could relax and look at these pictures so that the most worn pages in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were actually the picture pages. It went through four different editions. It was a publishing hit in the sixteenth century. Four different editions that is during Fox’s life because he was very much a Protestant advocating journalist, or promoting one particular view of Christianity and he uses martyrdom to do that.
HODGES: What was that view? How would martyrdom promote it?
MITCHELL: I think it was that the true faith was being followed by figures such as Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley—these were bishops who were burned in Oxford, you can go to Oxford now and you can see in the center of Oxford a nineteenth century monument to this act that took place in the sixteenth century.
In fact in the Very Short Introduction I was delighted that we could get a picture from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs where you can actually see, it’s almost like looking into the top of a volcano. I don’t know if you can see it there. You can see there the two figures are not actually being burned, but they’re about to be burned. Then there’s a Catholic preacher preaching against them, and then at the top of the tower there’s Thomas Cranmer who was the archbishop of Canterbury who the religious leaders at the time thought he had denied his Protestant faith, but then very dramatically in Oxford he would stand up and say he’d made a mistake and he ran to his own martyrdom, and the thing that put him first into the fire to be burned was his hand which had signed the recantations. It was a very dramatic story.
These are dramatic, powerful stories that have said that here are the true inheritors of the true followers of the early church of Christ. So in other words, in their martyrdom there is a question mark, a critique going on of the papacy at that time. So you can see that’s a critique going on, which of course later there were counter-points, there were counter-stories put about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. So it’s by no means uncritical, uncriticized account.
HODGES: It’s really a striking image in this woodcut. So they would take basically a piece of wood, they would carve this image into it, and then they would coat it with ink and then press it, kind of like a stamp almost I suppose.
MITCHELL: Yes, that’s a really good way of describing it. It’s almost as if it’s embossed onto the paper. It’s extraordinary seeing it and touching it because it still holds its power when you look at it today.
HODGES: So there are a lot of illustrations, and you said those were the most popular ones. It’s really interesting because their graphic depictions, it’s a little bit different from what we see today.
For example, ISIS is releasing videos, the terrorist group is releasing videos of them killing people, and there’s debate about whether media should show those things. Oftentimes media will show an image of the person being killed and then they’ll cut away, we don’t show the actual thing.
Back then was a drawing like this that provocative? Or did they also see it as a step or move because it was just a representation instead of now we have photographs? I was going to say, you also have an image in here of people holding a photograph, a protester holding a photograph of an Iranian woman who was murdered. You see her bloodied face. Comparing that to the image of Foxe’s book, I see a difference, but like you say we have photographs now, they didn’t then. So talk about that.
MITCHELL: You’re right. I think that you’ve raised a number of very important points.
Let’s stay for a moment with the Iranian picture because actually I need to let you into a bit of a secret here. There’s actually a mistake here and it’s agonizing as an author if you see there’s a mistake when the copy is there. It’s a mistake that was actually repeated around the media scape around the world because the picture shows a bloodied face and a face that looks like the same woman before she was killed. In fact they’re not the same person. We found this out after it was too late to change it for this edition of the book. It’s now been changed. In a way that was a mistake that came out of Facebook. That wasn’t a publishing mistake or an editorial mistake, it was straight after her death people wanted to say she was a martyr and protesting against the Iranian government at that time.
She was a young teacher, a twenty-seven year old, she was stuck in a traffic jam. She was very hot in the car. She stepped out of the car and unfortunately she was shot. As she lay dying her death was filmed on mobile phones and it was put onto YouTube. People say she’s the first YouTube martyr. It’s the death of the first person that’s been seen by millions of people. Yet her story was used again and again, partly as a protest against the then Iranian government, and particular the leaders. So people were wearing badges or holding posters saying “I am Neda,” that was her name. So she is a very different kind of martyr. Almost a passive martyr. She didn’t mean to be a martyr to some of the means we’ve been discussing.
Indeed another martyr that I look at in some detail in the book is a young fifteen year old, who may have actually been younger, a young child soldier from Iran who put around his waist a number of grenades, put himself in front of a tank, and blew himself up and stopped a whole row of tanks in the Iran-Iraq war. His story was used as a celebration of a military martyrdom. It’s interesting the contrast of those two different stories. One, if you like, of the passive martyr who didn’t intend to be a martyr, and the other of an active martyr who actually is using their death towards a particular end.
HODGES: So what was the mistake? Is the image not really her?
MITCHELL: The mistake is that the image of the bloodied face is her, but the mistake is that the face which is without blood next to her—
HODGES: Superimposed there.
MITCHELL: Superimposed. What was initially claimed to be her was not her. It was another person who had the same sort of name, but her life was almost ruined by this mistake. It’s very interesting that, for me that illustrates what we talked about earlier, the creative force of going on after someone’s death. Do you see what I’m saying? I know it’s hard without seeing the picture.
HODGES: I’m looking at it.
MITCHELL: For the listeners as well.
HODGES: I’d put a picture up on the blog, but I don’t know that I want to perpetuate that.
MITCHELL: I’m very aware that we need to tread carefully around people’s deaths. In a way what I’m talking about is I’m very aware that these—We’re not just talking about movies here. This is actually the end of people’s lives and ultimately deep tragedy. It’s very sad. This is heartbreaking. If this was my sister or my mother or wife I would be heartbroken by this picture. That’s why I think there’s an appropriate dignity which I thought very carefully about which pictures we used and how we used them and so on.
HODGES: Getting back to comparing this photograph with the woodcut in the Book of Martyrs is, back then you didn’t have photography and so was there any consternation back then about whether or not to show such depictions? In the media today people ask questions like you did. Is this appropriate to show this? What about that?
MITCHELL: Very interesting question, isn’t it? To think through how people respond to the pictures. It’s difficult to step five hundred years back in time into someone else’s imagination, but the reality was that many people in what sometimes are called early modern Europe, would have seen, experienced, or heard eyewitness accounts of executions in the public square. I know some countries still have executions, but they’re normally done behind closed doors, in secrecy. I know that’s not entirely the case in some countries in the Middle East and so on, but nevertheless the majority there is executions take place in secret or with just a few witnesses. But hundreds of people could have watched these executions.
You only need to go, for example, to the execution of Charles I of England. There were hundreds of people watching in the same way Louis in the French Revolution. Perhaps thousands of people watching there. They watched, they observed, they noted, some even drew, so this is arguably a more common experience.
However, now we are being offered different kinds of martyrdom. We’re being offered martyrdom up close, up personal, and this some people would say that ISIS, if you would take ISIS for an example, are using martyrdom or executions as a way of trying to communicate spectacular death as a way of trying to provoke fear, anxiety, anger, and so on.
HODGES: That’s Jolyon Mitchell. He’s a specialist in religious violence and peace building. He’s a professor at the University of Edinburgh. He’s joining us today from there. We’ll take a brief break and be right back with the conclusion of this episode.
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HODGES: We’re back with Jolyon Mitchell. He’s a professor of communications, arts, and religion at the University of Edinburgh. He’s the author of Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press.
So you mentioned the first YouTube martyr, you mentioned that was a topic of discussion. In our information age it seems like martyrdom is ubiquitous because we can have access to have so many more martyr accounts, not only historically but also the stories we might hear in the news, especially involving groups like ISIS and other things like this. How has martyrdom and its representation shifted as a result of those more recent iterations of martyrdom? Martyrdom kind of has a black eye, so to speak, because now it’s really associated with violence against others. So has that impacted the way that religious people think about martyrdom that aren’t involved in those types of violent acts?
MITCHELL: I think martyrdom is a hot topic now in all senses. So there is a contest around who is a martyr, what is a martyrdom? You can see this in execution videos, in stories about martyrdom operations, but you can also see that for example on the west wing, the west face of Westminster Abbey in London where you have the number of different martyrs represented modern martyrs. These were not predatory martyrs but they were, some people would say, people who died for their faith, for Christianity and you can see, for example, people like Martin Luther King or Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These have been celebrated and commemorated. These individuals, and particularly their deaths, have been celebrated and commemorated around the world in ways that are perhaps different from some of the martyrs who give up their lives to kill other people.
But you raise a very important question about how modern media now draws us close to deaths in a way that was simply not possible in a pre-digital, pre-telecommunicate age.
HODGES: It’s also more complex, because in addition to having access through media to accounts of martyrdom you can even go online and see videos of actual martyrdom and some people do that. We also have violent media in general. There’s a sense of the boundary between actual martyrdom and representational martyrdom in film and that sort of thing. It kind of blurs the boundaries and maybe numbs the senses to that where viewers today, are they really struck as deeply when they see an image of someone dying?
For example, the person who was recently shot in the United States by a police officer, a black man was shot, and that video was replayed on CNN and on different news organizations over and over and over again. But you can see people getting shot on TV shows all the time. So is there a sense that the idea of martyrdom can be both bolstered and weakened by the way that media can portray it today?
MITCHELL: I think that’s a very interesting observation because I think the screen both brings us close to suffering, or close to a martyrdom, and so we can see it more closely, but it also can screen us off from the suffering. So in a strange way we are distanced from it because we’re often in comfortable situations we might be not threatened by what we see because we can see it in the relative comfort in our house or on our mobile phone and so on.
And yet there are certain deaths that do stay with us, and it’s interesting that Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, he said that “the tyrant dies and his role is over, but the martyr dies and his role begins.”
I almost want to say that again. When the tyrant dies that’s the end, but sometimes when the martyr dies his or her role begins. So there’s a sense in which certain deaths hold on. I think it was Indira Gandhi who herself was killed, prime minister of India, said that “martyrdom isn’t an end, it’s a beginning.” It’s interesting to think about how martyrdom can be a beginning in certain instances.
HODGES: You mentioned the tyrant too. This is not only in a religious sense, but also perhaps in a disentangled political and religious martyrdoms.
MITCHELL: I have a friend, a colleague, and a very interesting academic friend who said all martyrdoms are political. I’m not sure I fully agreed with him, but it stayed with me.
I was actually working on the book at the time and I remember visiting a number of churches in St. Petersburg in Russia and seeing a number of different icons, all Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia and Alexis and Nicholas II. These are seen in the Russian Orthodox tradition as proto-martyrs or even martyrs themselves, or as new martyrs. It’s striking how you can see how monarchs there are both used politically and religiously in the same way that Charles I—you can see him of course, the king who was executed in London back in the seventeenth century, his story has repeated again and again and was used politically, not just religiously, but politically.
HODGES: It’s interesting because those types of stories can be used—you mentioned Nicholas for example—to either bolster or subvert the status quo. So stories of martyrs can be used to reinforce or challenge existing powers.
MITCHELL: Exactly. You can see, for example, in the suffragette movement how, I don’t know if you know the story of Emily Davison in 1913, she went to protest at the horse races and she stepped in front of the king’s horse and she was killed. There’s a debate. Was she trying to be killed? Or was she actually just trying to make a protest? After her death—she died a few days later—she was turned into a Christian martyr, into a martyr. There’s a picture of her, again in the book you can see, she now has wings and a halo, and she’s linked with Joan of Arc and other interesting figures from the Middle Ages. The phrase that she says is “love overcometh.” So you can see there the death of one figure became the martyr for the movement in a way that many of the figures that we’ve been thinking about became martyrs for religious movements, she became martyr really for a political movement to try and get women votes and more rights in Britain at that time.
HODGES: Before we go I also wanted to ask you about your interest in this topic. What led you to study the phenomenon of martyrdom enough to write this very short introduction on it?
MITCHELL: I’d spent a lot of time looking at media violence. How different kinds of media represents violence.
One aspect I was looking at was around martyrdom and I began to become intrigue, fascinated by that, and also I suppose quite disturbed about the way in which martyrdom was being manipulated and used and perhaps abused as an idea. That led me to thinking about issues related to peace building and martyrdom, and I thought, “well this is an opportunity to explore this in greater detail.”
It was interesting, when I spoke to the publisher we were talking about, should I do a book on peace or martyrdom? but he thought a book on martyrdom would sell better than peace. It’s interesting. One phrase that’s stayed with me is from Oscar Romero, the San Salvadorian archbishop. He said just about eight months before he was murdered that” it’s very easy to kill, especially when one has weapons, but how hard it is to let oneself be killed for love of the people.”
That phrase has really stayed with me. It’s a phrase I actually use to finish the book with because it’s this idea that it may be easy to kill lots of people, but actually to give up your life for other people is something which is extraordinary and something which is well-worth, not just putting a question mark over, but investigating.
HODGES: I think your book really does help do that. The book is Martyrdom: A Very Short Introduction by Jolyon Mitchell. He’s a professor at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Center for Theology and Publications there.
I want to thank you for coming on the show and talking about this today.
MITCHELL: Thank you, Blair, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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