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Christian Martyrdom and Christian Violence: On Suffering and Wielding the Sword

Matthew D. Lundberg
Published by Oxford University Press in 2021

“It is possible for the Christian soldier to die the death of a martyr while fighting.” (5) This is the explosively provocative proposition at the heart of Matthew D. Lundberg’s new book Christian Martyrdom and Christian Violence. It’s a dangerous proposition, one that immediately calls to mind the stained legacy of holy war and the Crusades. It’s also a proposition with urgent contemporary consequences, as we struggle to define martyrdom, soldiering, and just war in our own moment. For some, George Floyd, a black man killed by Derek Chauvin, a police officer, is a kind of martyr. For others, Kyle Rittenhouse, a white man who stood trial for shooting several people during a 2020 riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is seen as a kind of soldier and a symbolic martyr. I bring up these highly charged examples not to draw any equivalence between them (they are vastly different), but only to show that Lundberg’s attempt to connect soldiering and martyrdom is a high-stakes affair with real-world implications. And as Russia has invaded Ukraine and pushed war to the front of our attention, the stakes for parsing just war and martyrdom have only risen higher.

Defining and Expanding Martyrdom

At first, martyrs and soldiers might seem to be polar opposites. But Lundberg is convinced that they may in fact mutually enrich one another. He begins by laying out a list of criteria for who counts as a martyr, and then tries to expand it. He mentions 20th century Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Óscar Romero as examples of a new kind of martyr, a “martyr of action and solidarity.” (10) But by introducing this new category of “martyrs of action” in addition to traditional martyrs of confession, Lundberg sets in motion a kind of martyr creep. If anyone can die for the cause of justice, then where do we draw the line of who counts as a martyr? 

Lundberg then spends several chapters laying out historical examples of martyrdom, soldiering, and the various ways in which the two have blended or clashed. Perhaps the most interesting example Lundberg brings up is the story of Marinus. Marinus was a Roman soldier and a Christian before Constantine, in the 3rd century. As part of a military promotion, he was expected to offer a sacrifice to the emperor and he refused. In a particularly vivid scene of the story, Marinus is taken by his bishop to a nearby church, where he is shown a book of the Gospels. The bishop asks him to choose between his sword and the Gospels. Marinus puts out his hand and chooses the book. He is soon after executed. The rest of Lundberg’s book is an attempt to blend what is here kept clearly separate. 

Lundberg’s Constructive Just War Argument

After laying out some of the historical evidence on martyrdom and Christian soldiering, Lundberg then advances his own argument for just war theory. First, Lundberg wants a more detailed taxonomy of violence. He draws a distinction between what he calls “first-order” and “second-order” violence. First-order violence is “aggression, the use of force that antagonizes, oppresses, and violates.” (101) Second-order violence is (ostensibly) the just response of violence against first-order violence, in the pursuit of peace.

But how do we keep the distinction between first-order and second-order violence? The causal chain of war is never as simple as an aggressive initiator and a defensive responder. Did the United States launch the global war on terror as a second-order violence to combat the first-order violence of September 11th? Or was the September 11th attack itself a second-order violence in reaction to decades of American imperial oppression in the Middle East? Is the war on drugs a second-order violence reacting to the first-order violence of criminal drug cartels, or is the violence of drug cartels itself a reaction to decades of violently destabilizing American foreign policy in Latin America? Has there ever been a war that could be explained in the simple tit-for-tat of first-order and second-order violence? 

From a theological perspective, why try to distinguish between first and second violence? Why not follow the causal chain all the way back to the evocation of original sin and original violence? We are all born into a world where violence has already been inflicted on everyone else. Every violence of our lived experience is, strictly speaking, a “second-order” violence. Except the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus is at first glance merely another “first-order violence”: a routine imperial execution, one absurd act of violence among millions, mundane in its depressing commonality. But the cross is not merely God’s passive reception of violence. It is the point at which a holy God chooses in freedom to enter into the cycle of violence, the war of all against all, and take the violence of sin and evil upon God’s self, thus tearing down dividing walls of hostility and making peace (Ephesians 2). The Son of God taking the violence of the world upon himself unto death, as the great catastrophe of history, dwarfs all other violences. As Christians our lives are not ordered by “who started it?” but by the one who ended it (“it is finished”) on the cross. And if Jesus did not respond to an assault upon the very Son of God with “second-order” violence, why would we treat any lesser violence as somehow more dangerous, more necessary to resist?

Imitation of Christ vs. Participation in Christ 

The second piece of Lundberg’s argument for just war theory responds to similar appeals to the example of Jesus himself. He references Richard Hays, who argues that Jesus’ words prohibiting violence in the Sermon on the Mount are not to be taken as an impossible ideal, but as words actually “meant to be put into practice.” (24) Lundberg responds with a characteristically Reformed move: The Christian life is not about imitation of Christ but participation in Christ. The imitation of Christ, though a noble goal, is not possible for us because “We are not Christ… there are limits to what we should and are able to ‘imitate’ in the life and death of Christ.” (114) As finite, sinful and broken human beings, we may find it necessary to use violence in pursuit of justice and the good. 

I affirm Lundberg’s careful guarding of the creator/creature distinction and the humility that this distinction engenders. However, an inconsistency emerges from the fact that Lundberg takes Jesus off the table as someone who can be imitated, but he keeps martyrs and just war soldiers on the table as those who should be imitated. This strikes me as odd, as it distances us from the shape of Jesus’ own example and clouds our vision with the examples of others. Why would the example of Jesus be off limits, but the examples of other humans be worthy of emulation?

Bonhoeffer’s “Twilight” Ethics 

Lundberg’s third argument for just war comes from a careful reading of Bonhoeffer’s unfinished Ethics. Bonhoeffer maintains that in the messiness of history, it is impossible to not get our hands dirty in making moral decisions. And yet, through the mystery of the incarnation, our dirty hands are cleansed by Christ. This frees us to act boldly, even taking on the guilt of others, for the sake of love. Just war, then, is a willingness to enter into the moral messiness of the world, just as Christ did in his incarnation, even taking the guilt of others upon ourselves, as Christ did. The soldier, then, in being willing to fight on behalf of others, taking on the messy guilt of violence in order to protect others and work toward peace, reflects Christ.

Putting Martyrdom and Just War Theory Together

For Lundberg, just war is a responsible middle, between pacifism and what he calls “cynical realism,” which is basically fighting to win a war at any moral cost, including terrorizing civilians and torturing or killing prisoners of war. This allows Lundberg to position just war theory as the sensible middle between the doe-eyed naïveté of pacifism and the stone-hard wickedness of cynical realism. From this perspective, costly discipleship in war looks like fighting with moral restraint, even if that means losing the war, or, more importantly for his argument, dying in battle. Stretching the definition of martyrdom past all prior recognition, Lundberg claims that if a soldier acts justly in war, honoring the imago dei in all enemy combatants, and dies because of this commitment, then that person could reasonably be called a martyr. 

An example to illustrate the point: A soldier, in the midst of a tense patrol, comes upon people who appear to be unarmed civilians. The soldier has been informed that there are enemy combatants nearby and is on high alert, but since the people in front of him appear to be civilians, he exercises immense moral restraint and does not shoot them. Then one of the “unarmed” civilians reveals a hidden gun and shoots the soldier, killing him. The soldier, having fought and died according to just war principles, could now be called a martyr.

Even more provocatively, Lundberg claims that a police officer, also bearing the proverbial sword of the state to restrain the evildoer, could be called a martyr. If the police officer dies because of a commitment to just war theory, honoring the image of God in suspects and criminals, even if it means a greater risk to his or her own life, then that police officer could be called a martyr. 

Conclusion 

The pitch at the beginning of the book is that Christian thinking on martyrs and soldiers may not be opposites. They may actually enrich each other. It’s a provocative claim, one that merits a curious hearing. But the punchline of the book is that soldiers can be martyrs. If this is the way in which the two streams converge, it would be much wiser to keep separate what God has not clearly joined together. 

Why do we tell stories of martyrs? On a deep level, martyr stories are about inspiring imitation, to make the reader see that the riches of God’s grace are worth dying for. Which leads us to ask: Do we really want to tell martyr stories about soldiers, no matter how honorable their actions? Do we really want to risk casting war not as a regrettable reality but as something which may be sought for spiritual enrichment? Calling soldiers martyrs runs the risk of valorizing violence, even violence with Christian restraint.

War is already one of the most powerful myth-making machines. We don’t need to turbocharge it by throwing martyrdom into the mix. A truly responsible just war ethic would be a continuous rain upon the parade of any military triumphalism, drizzling out any chance of celebrating the grim brutal necessity of the use of force to restrain the evildoer. There is a pastoral challenge here. Many churches either ignore the experiences of soldiers or valorize and venerate soldiers with Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances syncretistically blended into Christian worship.  If we take Lundberg seriously, the only properly Christian attitude to war is grim determination to fight justly, no matter how much it costs us personally, and to engage in honest repentance and lament when the fighting has subsided and the long and tortuous road of the life of a war veteran begins. It is entirely possible to commit to the faithful spiritual love and care for soldiers before, during, and after their time of active combat, and yet not slide into calling their deaths martyrdom. 

Allowing soldiers to be called martyrs runs too great a risk of getting our wires crossed between the cause of Christ and the interests of the state. Every war, no matter how noble or justified, is fought to win a temporal earthly peace. In Book XIX of The City of God, Augustine writes that the citizens of the heavenly city make “use of earthly and temporal things like a pilgrim,” (civ. XIX.17) and the fleeting peace won by war is one of those temporal goods. To introduce the category of martyrdom into the actions of war to win that temporal peace is a category of confusion. 

There is one final crack in the Reformed tradition that the book exposes in its historical survey. It was one thing to fight for a state-ordered by the worship of other gods (as a pre-Constantine Roman soldier). It was quite another thing to fight for a state-ordered by the right worship of God against other, supposedly idolatrous Christians (as a soldier in the European wars of religion). It is now quite another thing to fight on behalf of a state-ordered by the post-Christian values of democracy, human rights, or nationalism. This is the unsolved question of magisterial Reformed political theology: Can we meaningfully speak of “magisterial” Christianity when we no longer live in a state with a magisterial mandate to (in the words of the Belgic Confession) “uphold the sacred ministry?” It may be that a contemporary American soldier could die an honorable, even cruciform death by following just war principles. But this would be an interior expression of modern, privatized religion. As a public act, the soldier would still be fighting and dying on behalf of the post-Christendom American values and objectives of democracy, human rights, national pride, global security, access to foreign markets, imperial expansion. Are these worth dying for? Would any Christian before us recognize them as the confession of a martyr? 

Steven Rodriguez

Steven Rodriguez is the pastor of Lakeview Community Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church in America. He lives in Rochester, NY.

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