03.04.03, Cormack, ed., Sacrificing the Self

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Ulrike Wiethaus

The Medieval Review baj9928.0304.003


Cormack, Margaret, ed.. Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion. Series: AAR The Religions Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 156. ISBN: 0-19-515000-7.

Reviewed by:
Ulrike Wiethaus

The nine essays in this slim but important volume are based on papers presented at Smith College during the years 1993 and 1994 on the topic of "Martyrdom: Past and Present." The religious and cultural contexts covered include Ancient Israel, Medieval Judaism, Classical Rome, Early and Medieval Christianity in Europe, Early and Modern Islam, and contemporary Hinduism. All essays aim at expanding stereotypical definitions of religious martyrdom. Cormack chose to pair two essays on each religious tradition to underscore that the concept of martyrdom is historically conditioned within any single religious system. All essays are consistently strong in their scholarly grasp of primary sources and admirably able to engage both specialists and generalists in the field. Given current international concern with religiously-framed acts of terrorism, this well-edited and nuanced collection of essays is very welcome indeed.

For the circumference of the conceptual field of martyrdom, or voluntary death, Cormack relies on the criteria developed by scholars Arthur Droge and James Taylor in A Noble Death (1992), a study of voluntary death in the ancient world. Droge and Taylor suggest five characteristics of martyrdom: a response to "situations of opposition and persecution"; a view of freely chosen death as heroic; a willingness to die; a belief in otherworldly rewards and finally, the conviction that one's death will procure benefits in this world (cxii).

In his article, "Is There Martyrdom in the Hebrew Bible?", Marc Brettler studies biblical figures whose deaths and/or sufferings might be considered a form of martyrdom, whether as suicide (e.g., Samson) or as rebellious resistance (Hezekiah, Elijah). He concludes that it is only in The Book of Daniel (second century B.C.E.) that all factors necessary to constitute martyrdom are brought together. Lawrence Fine, in his chapter on "Contemplative Death in Jewish Mystical Tradition," demonstrates that medieval Kabbalah and Eastern European Hasidism interpreted the experience of mystical death as a form of martyrdom, albeit only in contemplative and imagined terms. The search for mystical death has served as a form of atonement, as "orgasmic release...akin to death" (95) that mirrors shamanic initiation, and as the beginning of a process of cosmic unification and healing (tikkun).

In contrast, Roman, Christian, and Muslim concepts of martyrdom emerged from within warrior cultures rather than in response to them. Carlin Barton's essay "Honor and Sacredness in the Roman and Christian Worlds" explores the Roman notion that honor could only be maintained if one was willing to make a "contumacious commitment to one's own annihilation" (25), thus to preempt the adversary's ability to humiliate and to violate to the point of inflicting death. Gladiators were forced to reenact ritually the Roman formula of martyrdom as a lethal regaining of one's honor. Carole Straw, in "'A Very Special Death': Christian Martyrdom in Its Classical Context," argues that early Christians absorbed Roman notions of voluntary death as a way to maintain personal honor, but differed from their Roman persecutors in their belief in rewards in the afterlife and in their willingness to submit to tortures rather than to preempt them. Anglo-Saxon Christian royalty, like the Romans, subscribed to the view that honor was the supreme expression of warrior identity; to be killed without being able to fight back was interpreted as the ultimate act of dishonoring that also affected the reputation of one's kin. Christian teachings of martyrdom thus offered the opportunity to resolve the dilemma of dishonorable deaths among royalty by reversing and even elevating the victim's tarnished status.

Muslim definitions of martyrdom evolved from a warrior ethos as well. In his study, "The Revaluation of Martyrdom in Early Islam," Keith Lewinstein traces the trajectory of the concept of active struggle for the sake of God (jihad) from its origins in the arena of military conquest and political success to a quietist reformulation in the hands of medieval Muslim scholars; in their reinterpretation, intention became eventually more important than the actual manner of death. Thus, death in childbirth or by drowning could be jihad if the dying believer's mind was firmly set on God. David Brown moves into the contemporary world with an analysis of "Martyrdom in Sunni Revivalist Thought." Whereas medieval Muslim thinkers stressed the spiritualization of martyrdom, contemporary Muslim revivalist groups mark a return to the earlier stratum of actively seeking and endorsing physical death for the sake of Islam. The newest interpretation of jihad is marked by three tenets: the superiority of jihad as physical, armed struggle, its incumbency on all believers, and a focus on internal rather than external enemies. Also new is the emphasis on positive change in this world rather than an expectation for otherworldly rewards.

The final two essays discuss martyrdom as self-sacrifice in a Hindu context. In her essay, "Truth and Sacrifice: Sati Immolations in India," Lindsay Harlan explores the issue of a widow's suicide on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband (sati) as the embodiment and affirmation of spiritual truth. Somewhat reminiscent of the medieval Jewish mystic who searches for mystical death as personal transformation, a widow who performs sati is changed "into a supernatural being with great power" (128) and becomes venerated as an ancestor. As Harlan's fieldwork in Rajasthan demonstrates, no widow can perform sati properly without collectively acknowledged personal spiritual power and authority. Sati is therefore as much about spiritual achievement as it is about the actual ritual of self-immolation. In "Self-Sacrifice as Truth in India," D. Dennis Hudson places the Hindu nexus of ultimate truth (personified as the god Ram) and human self-sacrifice in the context of Mohandas Gandhi's life and death. Gandhi defined his spirituality and political activism as the effort to be reduced "to zero" (132), that is, to give all of himself to other living beings. Self-emptying to the point of death is also fullest self-realization, the act of being permeated and filled by the eternal Divine. Gandhi could draw on powerful sacred narratives and archetypes for the construction of his own identity as Ram's slave, such as the stories of king Harishandra, king Sibi, emperor Harsa, and Saiva saints.

The essays are so rich in place- and time-based source materials that it is difficult to come away with any hard and fast conclusions as to what newly gained insights into the highly abstract concept of religious martyrdom might indeed be. It seems to me that certain themes emerge in this fine cross-cultural collection that deserve further analysis and thought. For example, gender and class systems are strongly relied upon to make martyrdom meaningful in a particular social group, be it in the context of warrior cultures (e.g., early Islam, classical Rome, Anglo-Saxon England) or in the context of domestic marital arrangements (e.g., India), yet gender and class boundaries can also be minimized in other contexts, such as when male mystics take a feminine position vis-à-vis a masculine divinity (e.g., medieval Jewish and Hindu mystics and devotees) or when women perform religious duties previously defined as masculine (e.g., jihad as death in childbirth). Does it matter what a society generally thinks about gender when it comes to either propagating or discouraging martyrdom? Is martyrdom a path of liberation from gender stigma or of further oppression for women?

Textual traditions tend to privilege wealthier classes, and so it should be no surprise, but nonetheless worth exploring that textual sources frequently reflect on royal and noble dilemmas that are solved by ideologies of martyrdom (e.g., Anglo-Saxon honor and Hindu kings' duty to be charitable). How class-specific are teachings on martyrdom? Is martyrdom an equalizing force in otherwise deeply stratified cultures or does it tend to ensconce social privilege?

The astounding flexibility of concepts of martyrdom in its function as ritual performance provides yet another departure point for further reflection and analysis. Margaret Cormack stresses that in any of the four cultural systems studied, definitions of religious martyrdom may run the gamut from literal physical self-annihilation to mimetic internal process to cosmological ritual, depending on the exigencies of a particular historical moment. The shift from literal/public to mimetic/private performances and retour seems to depend on the degree of perceived external threat, whether in the form of military and colonial occupation, religious persecution, or cultural alienation and change. How exactly are these shifts manufactured through language games of persuasion, sheer historical necessity, and the interaction between theological and military elites and everybody else? After all, as the authors have pointed out and history has demonstrated again and again -- and herein lies the urgency and timeliness of their scholarship -- it is not only the self, but whole communities that become sacrificed through ideologies of martyrdom.

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Ulrike Wiethaus