Blood Trumps Everything: Why the Church Needs Her Martyrs

Human life is the most sacred thing. Blood trumps everything.

To be sure, many would rush to say that God is the most sacred thing. That God trumps everything.

But in point of fact, that's not true. Empirically speaking, we behave as if--as well we should--that human life is the most sacred thing.

And this is what makes patriotism and the flag the most sacred thing. This is why the nation is the most sacred thing. Because human life was sacrificed--blood was spilt--for these things. The blood of the solider consecrates and baptizes the flag and the nation. And because blood trumps everything, because there is no holier and more sacred thing than human life, the flag and the nation is the most sacred thing in the world.

I experience this viscerally whenever I'm asked to stand at an athletic event for the national anthem. All around me there are grey haired men, many wearing ball caps telling about their military service. Veterans. Theologically, I chaff at displays of national allegiance. And yet, I feel awkward standing around these grey haired gentlemen during "The Star-Spangled Banner." I don't want my theological beliefs to be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. These men gave their blood, their lives for that flag. That they survived doesn't diminish this. For in their memories, as they sing the national anthem, they see the faces of friends who made, as we say, the ultimate sacrifice.

And again, blood trumps everything.

My point in all this is that debates about things like nationalism or pacifism aren't simply abstract theological discussions. These debates need to, but often fail to, take into consideration the sacred element of human blood. These debates need to reckon with the fact that blood is the most sacred thing we know, more sacred, even, than God. Emotionally, where this argument will be won or lost, blood will trump theology. Always.

And this is why the church needs her martyrs.

Phrased another way, an issue like pacifism cannot be adjudicated theologically. It can only be adjudicated ecclesiologically. Pacifism isn't about ideas. It's about blood. And without blood the academic defense of pacifism will never prevail in the pews. Because blood trumps everything. Which is why the church needs her martyrs.

Is it any surprise that the Protestant tradition most associated with pacifism and anti-nationalism--the Anabaptists--is the Protestant tradition with the most robust commemoration of her martyrs?

I'd argue that this is no coincidence. John Howard Yoder didn't make the Mennonites pacifists. The Mennonite martyrs made John Howard Yoder a pacifist. Theologians need to remember that.

In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

Because that flag, given how much blood it represents, is very, very sacred.

And blood trumps everything.

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16 thoughts on “Blood Trumps Everything: Why the Church Needs Her Martyrs”

  1. In short, if blood is the most sacred thing we know the church needs to
    have some blood in the game if she is to stand as a counter-cultural
    witness to the blood-soaked flag of a nation.

    Yes... I would, however, add that the church always already has some blood in the game, viz., the blood of Christ, the sacrificial lamb, the one who would rather die than kill. His blood is the model for the sacrifice of the martyrs, but only by a parodic logic can it be claimed to be a model for the sacrifice of warriors. As Hauerwas points out, war itself is indeed a sacrificial system, but "a counter-liturgy to the sacrifice at the altar made possible by Christ. Christians believe that Christ is the end of sacrifice -- that is, any sacrifice that is not determined by the sacrifice of the cross -- and therefore that we are free of the necessity to secure our existence through sacrificing our and [NB!] others' lives on the world's altars."

    Thus as viscerally moved as any but the brain-dead and stone-hearted must be by the presence of vets, for their undeniable sacrifices and for the moral agony and squalor they have experienced -- and can never unexperience -- in affliction and infliction, American Christians must resist the temptation to elide civil religion with true religion, the blood-soaked flag with the blood-stained cross, the sacredness of soldiers' blood with the sacredness of the martyrs' ichor. Otherwise I fear we will collude in conceding the overwhelming spiritual power of war, the bewitchment of which will then continue to be irresistible.

  2. Not to be prickly but when the martyrs being remembered are from 500 years ago this smacks of making ourselves feel better because we aren't willing to pay the price others are willing to pay in the here and now. Perhaps I am missing some examples, but most martyrs are people who died for their faith. That's all fine, but in the end self serving. No one is killing Mennonites for their faith anymore. The soldier or police officer often dies for the sake of other people. Given the choice between the blood of the martyrs or the blood of the cross, I have a sneaking suspicion that those liberated from the concentration camps were more grateful for the blood of the soldier. It was Federal Marshals, not rings of Anabaptists, that made sure Ruby Bridges got to school safely every day. Desmond Doss is a great example of someone who showed he was willing to make the sacrifice, but he is a rare example, and even his sacrifice was facilitated my men willing to do the actual dirty work. Non-violent talk is cheap when you live in a country like the US, or the West in general, where the rule of law has been established and maintained both others who were willing to use violence to those ends. If non-violence is the way to go, where are the non-violent states? Rather than scolding all of us who are willing to shed blood, both our own and others, in the pursuit of protecting the innocent and pursue justice, why not go and show us all how it's done? Set up a non-violent state and see how long it lasts. Or like the Libertarians and Communists is this just an academic exercise in Utopianism and completely unworkable in the actual world we live in?

  3. You might check out Martyrs Corner at Wesminster Abbey, where there are statues commemorating 10 famous 20th century martyrs:

    Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, died 1918: Orthodox saint, killed by the Bolsheviks.
    Manche Masmeola, South Africa, died 1928: Anglican catechist, killed by her mother aged 16.
    Lucian Tapiedi, New Guinea, died 1942: Anglican, one of 12 killed by Japanese invaders.
    Maximilian Kolbe, Poland, died 1943: Roman Catholic saint, Franciscan, killed by the Nazis.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Germany, died 1945: Lutheran theologian, killed by the Nazis.
    Esther John, Pakistan, died 1960: Presbyterian evangelist, killed by her Muslim brother.
    Martin Luther King, USA, died 1968: Baptist civil-rights leader, assassinated.
    Wang Zhiming, China, died 1972: Pastor and evangelist, killed in the Cultural Revolution.
    Janani Luwum, Uganda, died 1977: Anglican archbishop, assassinated during rule of Idi Amin.
    Oscar Romero, El Salvador, died 1980: Roman Catholic archbishop, assassinated.

    I say "famous" because, of course, there are an untold number of unchronicled martyrs, some no doubt being murdered as I type. Why be so historically myopic as to keep it to yesteryear, confessionally selective as to keep it to Mennonites, and nationally introverted as to keep it to the US?

    As for the latter part of your impatient declamation, Pilate himself couldn't have put it any better. And again we hear the oxymoronic badgering about a nonviolent state, as if Christian pacifists aren't aware that there never has been and never will be such a state (they are), or as if they think it's their vocation to build one (they don't). Rather they think they are called to behave in a way that no state can be expected to behave -- i.e., nonviolently; to form polities of nonviolence in a violent world, i.e., to be the church; and to do what they can, in advocacy and action, to be agents of just-peacemaking and conflict resolution. Oh yes, and, as American Christians, to call out the US on its so-called "rule of law" at home and its self-styled just war-making abroad, (the double-speak is) "to make the world safe for democracy".

  4. 10. In the 20th century. The Grand Duchess was a political assassination, and Masmeola, Tapiedi and John look like they were just straight up murdered. So that leaves 6 of 10 who died in the service of protecting the others. I don't know enough about all of them to declare they all believed in non-violence. Martin Luther King, Jr obviously did, but Bonhoeffer may have been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. So 6, all of whom may not have even ascribed to a strict non-violence ethos. Let's compare that to 407,000 US military death in World War II. Who liberated how many people from Nazi oppression and concentration camps? How many more would have perished following a non-violent approach?

    Criticism on how we employ violence is fair game. We are far to likely to see violence as an answer. Criticizing any use of violence, even in the light of the horrors that have happened in history, and then, when challenged with how a non-violent state would actually work, copping out by calling it oxymoronic and saying that you aren't concerned with creating a non-violent state is not.

  5. To repeat, Christan pacifists, unless they are sectarian, will do what they can to reduce state violence, but creating of a nonviolent state is simply not possible because states are intrinsically violent -- which is why I call a nonviolent state an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. The modern nation-state (originating in Europe between the mid-15th and mid-17th centuries) was born in blood, implicated in violence ab initio. As Charles Tilly puts it (in The Formation of National States in Western Europe [1975]), "War made the state and the state made war"; and as Michael Howard observes (in The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order [2000]): "The entire apparatus of the state primarily came into being to enable princes to wage war" (cited in Wlliam T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (2011). In short: Create a nonviolent state? And you think Christan pacifism is utopian!

    Finally, let me emphasise the Christian in Christian pacifism (better still Christological pacifism). The thing is, there isn't a trace of theological reasoning (let alone Christology) in your comments. But unless you address the issue of violence theologically (Christologically), and with it the little matter of discipleship, your argument cannot have much purchase, can it (theological reasoning being part of the terms of engagement on a theological blog, yes?)? I'd at least expect you to mention the venerable Christian tradition of just war, but you don't even do that. But then let's take that tradition as read (crashed and burned though it now is) and agree to differ. Pax.

  6. 'Theological reasoning' wasn't going to stop the Nazi menace or liberate the concentration camps. Perhaps it may have prevented them, but it didn't. Once they were there, someone had to do something about them. To everything there is a season....

    I don't ascribe to Just War or any other a priori justification for violence. Human beings are justification machines and as soon as you give them something to work with off they go to make sure everything satisfies the definition. But nor do I ascribe to any theological position that ignores all context. Perhaps on a post hoc basis the Shoah is the only example of a just violent action in history. I doubt it, but it cold be so. Given the choice I will gladly be wrong attempting to defend the innocent, than feel right while remaining true to some 'theological' construct while watching them die.

  7. I think both you and Kim are right, but you seem to be arguing for differing kingdoms. God himself endorsed the rule of law for thousands of years and acts of violence to create justice via vengeance so I wouldn't say it is wrong to live under that code. I just happen to think that the new example via Jesus is the one I prefer because I feel it offers me more hope. But I get that sometimes people would prefer to simply have justice rather then watching someone die like an idiot in the name of sharing your oppression and non-violent protest. No wonder they killed Jesus when he refused to rescue them, because that anger I can understand.

    I think it could almost be offensive even to tell someone suffering injustice that freedom from hate and anger is worth more then justice, but that seems to be the kind of church that Jesus wants us to build. I know there is a tension in living in these two worlds, but I think it would be a mistake to think we can somehow merge them. Can't have our kingdom now and later as they say. Either we choose mercy and grace with the goal of a future kingdom or we choose the here and now and immediate justice. Both ways were given to us from God, so I wouldn't argue that either is wrong, they are just different and have different endings. Though sometimes I think God throws us a bone and gives us justice or healing in the here and now despite the fact that our work is for the kingdom to come.

    Thinking about this more now I think us pacifists tend to be dismissive of the blood shed by those fighting for the rule of law, but I don't think we have to be. I mean look how God celebrated and praised those who fought in his name in the Old Testament. We should still be able to recognize and appreciate those that fight for justice, even if we have chosen to live under a new law ourselves. Sacrificing your life for justice is still a good thing, even if we believe that the sacrifice is in vain or destined to end in judgement and death. So maybe we are really just debating this because both sides can't get over the idea of celebrating what we view as meaningless sacrifice.

    I suppose it is inevitable that we will see conflict between those that follow the old law and those that follow the new way because the old way forces you to pick a side whereas the new way says you are for both sides. The two can never exist together because the rule of law says you are for or against us, and love for all is destined to be both celebrated and condemned by those who follow the law. The perfect example is Palm Sunday and Easter, Jesus exalted and Jesus condemned by the world because mercy is by nature is unjust to those that do not receive it. Maybe where we do not accept grace and mercy in our own lives we are destined to oppose and despise it in others because it arouses our righteous anger at the injustice. I'm talking about myself here mostly, not any of the other commenters.

    Sorry for rambling, I fully realize that I'm mostly talking to myself about this and not in response to the conversation at this point.

  8. There is absolutely nothing "sacred" about human blood.
    My suggestion would be to run as fast as you can away from any religion that in any way justifies or strengthens itself by appealing to the shedding/spilling of human blood, including that of the God-man Jesus.

  9. Point of clarification about this post. When I say that blood trumps everything I'm talking about trumping emotionally in an argument. I'm not saying the blood should trump logically or theologically. Just that in an argument about war and peace shed blood and sacrifice will eventually get invoked and that blood will emotionally trump the conversation, shut it completely down. The only emotional counter is if the church has some blood in game as well, a cloud of witness who were willing to have their blood shed in order to not shed blood.

    In short, the post isn't about theology as much as it is about how blood emotionally functions in these debates.

  10. I'm intrigued by this discussion. I'm jumping in midstream having only knowingly discovered you, Richard, and this blog, recently via Paul Milbank of Business Connect Surely it all depends on whose blood is being shed and why? Am I right in assuming, although it's not directly mentioned here in the post or comments, that this discussion recognizes the call for kenotic enemy love, love to the point of shedding our blood, not our enemies', posed by the brutality of the so-called Islamic State? I've been blogging about this in response to the question "What's the alternative to meeting ISIS violence with violence?" What do you think?

  11. Kim may be right, but I am almost certainly not. My argumentation style is far to argumentative which may give the impression that I have resolved things, which I haven't. I appreciate your comments here. One thing I would challenge is your definition of the rule of law. I don't see that it means you are for or against us. It means that the state holds the monopoly on the use of force because it is limited by the law. If someone harms you or kills your family member you don't hunt them down and kill them, you let the law and legal system do that job for you. The state's use of violence in a democratic state is monitored by and limited by the population. This has actually resulted in, if you believe Pinker, the lowest amount of violence in history of the human race. The process it took to get here, however, was long, bloody and messy. And what it takes to maintain it is equally so.

    Circling back to my original point, I think comparing people who have refused to defend themselves and were murdered because of their beliefs to soldiers who gave their life liberating concentration camps is problematic, and in the context of the post self-serving. They are two different scenarios. One is refusing to use violence to defend yourself. That has moral worth, and Jesus seems pretty clear on it. The other is being willing to risk your like to defend others which may require the use of force. Which, to my recollection, Jesus is silent on in the gospel. Kolbe's actions are equivalent to the soldiers, especially given the circumstances he found himself in (violent resistance would have be futile), but as estimable as it was, what was the result? The Nazis killed whomever they wished. They weren't suddenly overcome by his sacrifice and threw open the gates of the camp. We could all willingly walk into the gas chambers for someone else until there is no one left in the world, or someone could take a stand and stop it. I see the two positions as morally equivalent in the right context.

  12. Your right the rule of law doesn't necessarily imply a for or against scenario but only when everyone agrees that the law itself is fair and just (maybe not, but it sounds good). So I was thinking more about how things like slavery, abortion, same sex marriage and the laws surrounding them have forced people to take a side or simply not participate in the decision. I guess we could say that only God's law is fair and just, but then that would only apply to those who chose to serve him. (Well they might still apply, but to someone who does not acknowledge God's authority they would appear unjust and disputable and I think to some degree we all do challenge the the authority of God in our life). On the other hand maybe I am way offtrack on this one and it was the bad interpretation or misunderstanding of the law's purpose that has allowed the in or out mentality. I think your right though that the democratic process has reduced violence because there is greater confidence in the fairness of the law and its administration so more of us are willing to trust it rather then take justice into our own hands.

    The second part of your comment I'm still thinking about, because while I didn't do it very well, there must be ways to compare how different responses to genocide affected their society. I wasn't trying to say one method of dealing with violence is 'better', I was more exploring the idea that if God allows us find redemption through either that we are then free to choose which to use. Basically I agree that both are morally equivalent in the right context like you said. But I would add that not everything that is morally right will bring about restoration, it just means that a judgement can be made. So my beliefs would lean more toward choosing an action that will allow redemption and restoration instead of death.

    PS. I like your argumentative style because I think it helps us challenge the assumptions which get us in trouble or at the very least it makes us communicate better which I think is an underestimated skill.

  13. 'not everything that is morally right will bring about restoration'


    That is a very poignant statement, and I wholeheartedly agree. Violence should never be seen as a solution, it is a failure of all other solutions. I appreciate your balance on this.

  14. The American flag is indeed blood-soaked - but most of the blood didn't come from soldiers. This country was built on government-approved violence: slavery and Jim Crow and lynching and dead Native Americans and internment camps and support for pretty horrible dictators who were pro-American, etc. etc. Now we have drones and Guantanamo and the recent profoundly stupid war in Iraq. Soldiers are both participants in and victims of that system. (Some veterans would agree with me on that point and some wouldn't.) My feelings about veterans - and police officers - are complicated. We outsource a lot of our violence to them, and they pay a heavy price for it.

    Because violence is so deeply entwined with American government and culture, I don't think the church needs to go looking for dead bodies. There are more people who have been sacrificed on the altars of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism and white supremacy and the military-industrial complex than we can count. If you really want to promote a theological view of non-violence with some emotional heft to it, I think the place to look is the civil rights movement and its descendants, not the Anabaptists. (I'm sure Stanley Hauerwas is a real smart dude, but he's a highly educated, financially secure white college professor. I don't think it's very hard for him to avoid engaging in physical violence - It's not like faculty meetings at Duke regularly degenerate into fisticuffs.) Someone like Cornel West - who got arrested a few days ago near Ferguson for non-violent protest - is a much more emotionally compelling advocate of non-violent resistance, I think. The African-American community had to grapple with this in a profoundly personal way, and not everyone who embraced non-violent resistance as the best tool for social change was a pacifist.

    (And as a P.S. - Not only did John Howard Yoder fail to meet
    the rather high bar of non-violence that his Mennonite tradition set
    out, he failed to meet the minimal standards of being a decent human
    being through several decades of serial sexual harassment and stalker-y
    behavior. He was no pacifist - he just played one on TV.)

  15. Ever since I read this blog entry and the comments, I have not been able to let it go. It has kept nagging at me. While I do think it is important that people know about martyrs of the Christian faith who have given their lives because their conscience as Christians would not allow them to serve in a nation's wars, I don't think an attempt to balance the scales with the blood of martyrs is the solution for people to respect Christian pacifists. We are half a century away from President Kennedy's quote about their always be war until pacifists are honored as much as soldiers. Most people I have talked to who deride the call for Christians to find nonviolent ways to resist evil couldn't care less about wrestling with the justice of a war as the early Church fathers did. We have come close, if we haven't already crossed the line, to replacing Christianity in our country with the religion Americanism.

    Recently when visiting my mother who is 91 years old, she wanted me to take her to the movie Railway Man. I researched it enough to find out that a good portion of it would take place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War 2. Mom typically only likes movies that make you feel good. So I suggested that we see something else. Later I watched the movie after returning home. In a phone call, I told Mom that I had seen the movie and was starting to tell her how glad I was that I hadn't taken her to see it when she interrupted me. She began telling me how much she liked it. Then the excitement in her voice changed to concern, and she said some people say we, we being Americans, had treated prisoners in the same way and said she would never believe it. She made it perfectly clear that she didn't want the conversation to proceed. I am glad my Mom felt that way, and I think most Americans, especially Christians of her generation feel much the same as Mom did. One of the most popular shows among my Christian friends was the series 24 and many of them support the use of torture believing it will save lies. That there are a large number of Christians who openly support torture is tremendously disheartening to me.

    It is not just a failure of Western Christianity in its embrace of militarism. It is a failure on every level to love Jesus enough to obey his commandments. He asks us to be extraordinary in our faithfulness, our speech, our generosity and in our loving, even to the point of the loving of our enemies. We have taken the heart out of his teaching and stripped it of all its passion. If we loved him enough to live together in community so that we were known for our unselfish love, we would not have to justify our appeals to Christian pacifism. Our lives would have already done that for us.

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