Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Review of Tripp York's The Politics of Martyrdom

The first volume of the polyglossia series provided me with a wonderful reentry into Mennonite theology. Volume Two was not a bad follow up . . . (thanks to Canadian Mennonite for the review copy)
In The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom Tripp York offers commentary on the social and ecclesial implications and meanings of dying for one’s faith. Perhaps more importantly for us York demonstrates how the possibility of martyrdom is tied up in the basic practices of the church which are inherently social and political. Martyrdom is not reserved for the super-human Christians but Christians are made able to become martyrs as the journey down the path of Christian practice and worship.
In the first chapter York lays out the fundamental themes of his book. By looking at the early church York demonstrates that martyrdom is public act. This act can be understood as a contest and a testimony. Often times potential martyrs were brought into the coliseum for public display to see if individuals would recant or at least break down and plead for mercy. Many of the early Christians did not see the contest as being between them and the wild beasts that they faced or even against an emperor. Rather the Christian “provided a vision of the actual celestial battle taking place between Christ and Satan” (35). The martyr’s life was taken up into the cosmic battles between good and evil. This understanding was possible because not only was the death of the martyr important but so was their life. Martyrdom was not possible because of a sudden burst of spiritual strength and resolve but because of the daily and nourishment of the church life. Martyrs are an example to us as much in their life as in their death.
After establishing his basic themes York goes on in chapter two to explore the Christian’s physical body as the field of conflict between faithful and unfaithful expressions. York then moves to the sixteenth-century in chapter three which is a move from pagans killing Christians to Christians killing Christians and the tension over who is a martyr and who is just a criminal. In chapter four York addresses the particular type of politics that the martyr’s demonstrate. Finally in chapter five York explores the life and message of Oscar Romero as a contemporary example of the politics of martyrdom. While the final chapter can be viewed as the ‘practical’ expression of York’s historical and theological accounts in the earlier chapters it would a mistake to do so missing the pervasive and persistent pleas to his readers throughout the book.
Chapter two, Body: The Field of Combat, demonstrates the sensual and bodily nature of early Christian spirituality. York is clear that the early martyr accounts view the spiritual battle waged by Christ as happening on the plane of the bodies of the faithful. Throughout this chapter York is asking the contemporary church to consider how it handles the bodies of its members through life and worship because for him the possible political significance of the church hangs in these practices.
Chapter three, Performance: The Sixteenth Century Debacle, attempts to walk the line between a Christian being persecuted or being prosecuted. After Constantine and into the Reformation church practices and beliefs were ecclesially but politically. Beliefs about baptism and communion were matters of life and death. And so to die a martyr or to be executed a criminal was a matter of doctrine. From this situation York asks the contemporary question of truth and its relations to doctrine and denomination. Is it possible that both the Catholic and Anabaptist church were faithful to Christ in the midst of its persecution and prosecution?
Chapter four, City: Enduring Enoch, attempts to flesh out some of the implications of his study. He frames the post-Reformation relationship between the church and state as own of the state’s perverse parody of the church establishing its presence as body with its own story of salvation. York then describes the church not simply as an alternative to the state but rather as preceding the state founded and nourished by the body of Christ. The church functions as a city that overcomes the world’s boundaries of space and time allowing fluid participation of people across borders and eras.
After exploring the life of Oscar Romero in chapter five as an example of some of what he has been trying York concludes by offering the Eucharist as the centre and source of the vision we are given from the martyrs and then reminds us that the martyrs are important because they point to Christ which is to be the aim of any faithful expression.
York takes some very large strides in this book moving across disciplines, eras, denominations, and continents. While this has surely limited York’s ability to flesh out any one aspect thoroughly I would rather view the entire book as a type of introduction that is calling for the church to continue to recover and enact the resources that are offered to us here. In presenting to us the martyrs York offered no militant call to heroic and dynamic exploits. Instead York followed the arc back from their deaths into their lives and pointed us to the daily practices that shape a world without end.

1 comment:

Mennonite_Pacifist said...

I loved this book, and I wrote a paper that used York's argument in a early church history course. Thanks Tripp!