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Martyrdom Disputed: Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (1/2)

Panel Chair: Katharina Waldner | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Along with the spread of religious violence since the seventies of the 20th century the figure of martyr arose again. Though it seemed to be a completely outdated concept, it proved to be most topical. While dying for God or his community is earning special reputation, the martyr is regarded by others as heretic, godless, or terrorist. This Janus face characterizes Christian and Muslim concepts in the past as in the present and can be found even in contemporary Buddhism. In two panels we will explore these complex entanglements of ancient traditions and contemporary issues by concentrating especially on the history of Christian martyrdom as narrative genre in European history compared to the mediatisation of martyrdom in national and transnational contemporary discourses (especially Islamic jihad, but also US anti-abortion activism and conflicts about Buddhist self-immolators in contemporary Tibet). All cases show that “martyrdom” is a discourse, which is performed in different media and enables individuals and groups not only to legitimatize violence but also to “proof” the truth and universality of their religious vision and universalist claims (concerning gender, religious enemies, “the Islam” etc.) Martyrdom Disputed: Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (Panel 1): Christian and Muslim Narratives: The first paper will trace the invention of Christian martyrdom narrations as a device to transform imperial violence into a powerful testimony of a new religious order: The courage and steadfastness of Christians in ancient culture was a story that testified to the emergence of a new order. The Christian concept of martyrdom resurfaced in a powerful way in the European Confessional Wars of the 16th and 17th century. When protagonists of the reformation were tried and executed according the Inquisitional procedure, their stories were spread as paradigms for an unshakable, but non-violent personal faith. The second paper will compare these developments with Islamic concepts of martyrdom which emphasize fighting/ struggling (jihad): in form of military defence of Islamic territories, but recently also of founding and running political communities of convicted believers in a world regarded as godless. Two further papers will present case studies concerning Christianity in the 20th and 21st century: The first one will discuss if the Catholic Church in Germany made use of martyrdom motives in its patriotic discourse. The second one shows how Christian anti-abortion activists use the figure of the martyr to construct the hagiography of an especially violent member of their movement.

Katharina Waldner

The Invention of Christian Martyrdom as a Narrative Structure in the Roman Empire

In "The myth of Persecution" (2013) Candida Moss provokes by the statement that early Christians invented „a story of martyrdom“. But to historians of religion this is no news at all, as some reviewers remarked. Instead of focusing on the content of the martyrdom discourse (Christianity as a persecuted religion), my analysis will concentrate on the procedures of representation. Not persecution was invented – the violence of the Roman Empire was a political fact – but a certain way to transform imperial violence into a new genre of stories, which ensured religious identity not only for a group but also for individuals. Paradoxically, the authors used strategies that were invented by Hellenistic rulers and brought to perfection by the Roman Empire: The use of violence (real, imagined, staged, performed) to create order (“autotelic” violence according to Jan Reemtsma) and the power of administrative documents to represent „truth“ as facts that really happened.

Hans G. Kippenberg

Religious Wars in Early Modern Europe and Contemporary Islam: Comparing Concepts of Martyrdom

The paper deals with the concept of martyrdom in the confessional wars in sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe and contemporary Islamic violent conflicts. Historians coined for the religious aspect of the European wars the notion of “Confessional Fundamentalism”. The competing camps of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptists were supported in their fights by emerging regional political powers, still entertaining the institution of Inquisition. The collaboration of religious and political forces generated a new type of martyr. At the center of martyrdom was the public confession of private faith in the face of torture and death. It assured the victim a place in the process of salvation, while at the end of time the adversaries were expected to be punished. With the peace treaties a plurality of lawful confessions was established under the roof of strong Nation-States. The paper compares this pattern with recent religious violence in contemporary Islam and the rise of new concepts of martyrdom. My case will be Lebanon. While the traditional martyr died in defending the territory of the State, at the center of martyrdom today is the intentional act of fighting against the godless powers and for the benefit of establishing a community of true believers. Fighting does not stop with truce or peace as the extension of the concept of martyrdom shows. The concept shifts and embraces also acts of founding and running social institutions for the benefit of the faith community, independent of the State.

Benedikt Kranemann

The Death of a Believer as Martyrdom? – Sermon and Prayer in World War I

In Germany the World War I was a theme of pastoral practice and theology in the Christian churches and also in the Jewish synagogue. This lecture focuses on the special situation of Catholics in German society during World War I. These Catholics saw the war as a moment to proof themselves as “good Germans”. At the same time, priests tried to comfort soldiers in battles and military hospitals. Some theologians were open for religious interpretations of the war. Starting from these facts, the paper will explore the following questions: Is there any explanation of the death of catholic soldiers as martyrdom in sermons and prayers in the soldier’s prayer books? Can we see any theological discussions about World War I and a national or religious martyrdom of the soldiers? Was martyrdom in this time a controversial issue in the Catholic Church in Germany? Was it really a theme in church and theology?

Julie Ingersoll

Making of a Martyr: Paul Hill and Abortion Related Violence in the U.S.

In 2003 abortion activist Paul Hill was executed for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and James Barrett as supporters and opponents held a vigil. The skies grew dark and a menacing Florida thunderstorm rolled through as lightning bolts stretched from the heavens all the way to the ground putting the “fear of God” into the unbelievers and the most devout alike. Hill’s supporters read this as evidence of God’s wrath at the injustice of the execution. In their view Hill was not a murderer but a defender of the unborn; a martyr who made himself a willing sacrifice to stop abortions. This paper draws on statements by compatriots, an interview given by Hill, devotional websites, field notes from the vigil on the day of the execution and Hill’s own writings, each examined to show how the production of martyrs is crucial to religious movements advocating and justifying violence.


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