The suicidal certainty of martyrdom

glhaah4yThose who have read the Martyrs Mirror will notice that I am doing a lot of skipping. As I’ve explained¬† before, I’m skipping all of the sections on baptism, since I consider the matter largely settled … and boring. I’m also not writing about all of the martyrs in the book, since most of the stories seem to follow a predicable pattern if enough information is available.

The pattern goes like this:  The martyr is falsely accused of a crime or accused of heresy. The judge, governor, king or whoever demands that he/she recant his/her faith. He/she refuses. The authority orders the martyr to be flogged, beaten or tortured in some way. The martyr still refuses to recant. The martyr is killed horrifically.

The pattern is getting fainter as the historical sources get better toward the Medieval period. The earliest stories seem to be checking off a list of plot points, familiar plot points, the very same plot points of Jesus’s torture and death.

The archplot emphasizes the same theme over and over – the suicidal certainty of faith. The martyrs are always placidly praying, or rejoicing as they are cut, beaten, burned, racked or hung. Their behavior strains credulity, but it serves to reinforce the central selling point of Christian faith – the promise of everlasting life and power over death. “Oh death where is your sting” indeed.

The Mirror reserves page space for a failed martyr just to drive the point home.  Bruno, the Bishop of Angiers was censured by the Pope in 1079 C.E. for his questioning of transubstantiation and infant baptism. History has forgotten him. But it remembers his deacon, Berengarius, who allegedly wussed out and recanted. Berengarius later reavowed is heretical beliefs and lived to the age of 90, the Mirror states, and was villified for his pragmatism. His final words:

“Today, on this day of Epiphany, my Lord Jesus Christ will appear to me, as I hope, unto glory, because of my repentance, or, as I fear, on account of other things unto punishment.”

(What is unknown is whether Berengarius referred to his recantation of heresy or his return to it as his “repentance.”)

Authority is derived both from a ruler’s benevolence and his/her threat of force. It seems to me that the enduring appeal of Christianity and later Anabaptism was not so much its theological minutiae or the call of the Golden Rule. It was the promise of invincibility. If you were a downtrodden minority, you could take solace in the knowledge that you are absolutely righteous, protected by God and know your life is nothing in comparison to the rewards of paradise. Such certainty robs a ruler of his forceful threat and inspires the minority to rebel politically.

A hypothsis: As I study further, I fully expect to find that the religious affiliation of the Anabaptists had as much to do with economics and politics as it did with articles of faith.


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