“The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom” by Tripp York

The Purple Crown: The Politics of MartyrdomThe Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom by Tripp York
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tripp York suggests that martyrdom “is the political act because it represents the ultimate imitation of Christ.” It is easily inferred, then, that in so far as war is “the” political act (as many modern political philosophies suggest), it represents the ultimate imitation of Cain. That the first city was “predicated on the punishing of a murderer” serves to affirm a Yoderian reading of Romans 13, that the ordained nature of the authorities is good; restraining (or at least responding) to injustice “exists under the providence of God.” The city itself is not evil, even if it does “exist as though God did not exist.”

Martyrdom, from the Greek martus (a witness), defies tragedy and the ontology of violence in its giftedness by God to the martyr, to the church, and to the world. While we do not rejoice in the macabre (“the moment of death is not the moment of longing” ), we memorialize them as gift as well as blessed recipient. Martyrs themselves became letters, words not unlike Christ, passed along in the written correspondences between churches in whose memory the martyrs “entrust the loss of their lives.” With Milbank, York insists that the very nature of the pilgrimage the Christian calls the life of faith is “founded on the memory of the murdered brother.”

Though it would have helped, York does not explore the implications of memory in his short monograph. Instead he leaves it hidden in passing remarks. Indeed, the Fall’s god-like positioning, perceptible in any imitation of the earthly city of Cain, is made possible by “the forgetting of our one true love: God.” Drawing on Augustine for his Cain/Abel dichotomy, he leaves unmentioned the fertile theological debate that often accompanies such a dichotomy. Cain was a settler, an agrarian in perpetual need of land for agriculture. Certainly Cain’s first settling was not in Nod, but in the land from which he draws his offering of “fruits of the soil.” Abel, on the other hand, represented the wandering shepherds who called home wherever their sheep led them. Though he dedicates an entire segment to Abel, York does not place his discourse on exile therein, but two segments later, with nary a mention of the junior progeny.

This facet of the paradigm is crucial to build York’s argument in favor of the exilic nature of Christian identity and citizenship. For instead of protecting the borders of some externally defined Home, Christians find themselves with Abel in their perpetual exile, which “is both a judgment and a calling” that Christians betray if they “understand their scattering in a pejorative manner.” This critical distance from the seduction of political power is necessary for a “prophetic earthly citizenship” that “calls the sinner out of disobedience.” The call of exile, now as it was in history, was often a sentence to die. But this anticipatory death is not the tragedy of victimhood, but the triumph of the apocalypse, a revealing of the “authentic world… inaugurated by the cross.”

The martyr’s “doxological performance” makes Christ present in the world by their death. At the same time, they witness against the reign of Cain and the earthly city that “exists as if God does not exist.” Martyrdom is a gift from God to not just the individual Christian suffering persecution but also to the watching world; for martyrdom narrates the world as the world for its own benefit. However, martyrdom itself, the seal of death given as gift, is only properly understood as one “specific act within a larger vocation of witnessing.” The question this begs, at least etymologically, is whether the “larger vocation” properly understood as martus as well?

• York mentions saints like Day, Theresa, and others not killed in their imitatio christi, but fails to extrapolate what the ‘proof’ was of their own fidelity to God. Is there something to be said here of intent, of actual willingness to suffer death, which possibly is hidden even from the believer themselves until the moment thereof?
• What does York’s martyrology/hagiography say of ecumenism, i.e. what does “saint” mean across theologically diverse denominations and traditions? Or “martyr,” for that matter? Would Roman Catholics be right or wrong in suggesting that the very martyrs they created and that Anabaptists memorialize are not “martyrs” in the proper sense?
• As a citizen suffering very little that could be called “persecution,” and in a culture that increasingly medicalizes death, is it tenable to suggest that the Arena that produced martyrs for/by Rome has been replaced by the Clinic (or the Lynching Tree, or any place in which dying is dictated by contemporary “powers in rebellion to Christ?” )

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