Previous | Next

Fall 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 2 · pp. 228–40 

Between Victory and Victimhood: Reflections on Culture and Martyrdom

Chris K. Huebner

The first form of rulers in the world were the “tyrants,” the last will be the “martyrs.” . . . Between a tyrant and a martyr there is of course an enormous difference, although they both have one thing in common: the power to compel. The tyrant, himself ambitious to dominate, compels people through his power; the martyr, himself unconditionally obedient to God, compels others through his suffering. The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.

Søren Kierkegaard 1

The martyr does not want to die, but by accepting his or her death manages to socialize it, puts on a public show and converts it to a sign, places it at the emancipatory service of others and thus salvages some value from it.

Terry Eagleton 2

On February 23, in the year 250 C.E., Pionius, a well-known leader of the church in Smyrna, was captured by Roman officials acting under the command of the emperor Decius, who is credited with directing one of the most severe campaigns of early Christian persecution. This date also happened to be the anniversary of the martyrdom of Polycarp, scorned as an “atheist” by his Roman adversaries and threatened with being torn apart by wild beasts before being “bound like a noble ram chosen for an oblation from a great flock” and ultimately put to death by fire and the sword. 3

Pionius is referred to as an “apostolic” figure, and was respected for his exemplary displays of virtue and his oratory skills. He is acknowledged as one whose “mind [was] ever fixed on the almighty God and on Jesus Christ our Lord, the mediator between God and man.” 4 And this is apparently what got him into trouble with the Roman officials. The record of Pionius’s martyrdom contains the following exchange:

“Surely you are aware,” said [Polemon] the verger, “of the emperor’s edict commanding us to sacrifice to the gods.”

“We are aware,” said Pionius, “of the commandments of God ordering us to worship him alone.”

Polemon said: “Come then to the marketplace; there you will change your minds.” 5

But after being presented with an opportunity to experience the “good life” of the marketplace, Pionius responds,

“I too agree that life is good, but the life that we long for is better; and so too of light, that one true light. All these things are indeed good, and we do not run from them as though we are eager to die or because we hate God’s works. Rather, we despise these things which ensnare us because of the superiority of those other great goods.” 6

Pionius’s unflinchingly repetitive, almost taunting declarations of his convictions in response to the Roman threats were not enough to save his life, however. Indeed, it would be misleading to suggest that Pionius viewed life itself as something to be preserved. For what makes Pionius’s words intelligible is not an abstraction called “life,” so much as a certain way of life. His claims are not directed to the end of life in general, but rather to the one in whose death a new and utterly different kind of life is made known. Among the significant differences to which Pionius’s words and actions point is that such a way of a life does not resort to violence in order to stave off death.

For Pionius and his companions death is not seen as an ultimate threat or final frontier that needs to be overcome and tamed, though they make it equally clear that neither is it something they actively desire. Rather, in Christ both life and death as they are commonly understood are thoroughly reconceived and reordered. And such a different understanding could not but appear completely irrational and nonsensical to the “cultured” Roman world, a world that prided itself on the strength of its knowledge and power. 7 Pionius’s claims are repeatedly met with amusement and “loud guffaws.” 8 This sense of radical difference is brought to a head when, after a series of lengthy exchanges with his captors and the crowds, Pionius is given one final opportunity to “come to his senses” and reconsider his refusal to offer sacrifices to the gods:

As Pionius was silent, hanging in torture, he was asked: “Will you sacrifice?”

“No,” he answered.

Once more he was tortured by his fingernails and the question was put: “Change your mind. Why have you lost your senses?”

“I have not lost my senses,” he answered. “Rather I am afraid of the living God.”

The proconsul said: “Many others have offered sacrifice, and they are now alive and of sound mind.”

“I will not sacrifice,” was the answer.

The proconsul said: “Under questioning reflect within yourself and change your mind.”

“No,” he answered.

“Why do you rush towards death?” he was asked.

“I am not rushing towards death,” he answered, “but towards life.” 9

At this point, there was apparently nothing left to say, and so Quintillian the proconsul formally read the sentence brought against Pionius: “Whereas Pionius has admitted that he is a Christian, we hereby sentence him to be burnt alive.” 10 Finally, or perhaps not so finally,

the flames were just beginning to rise as he pronounced his last Amen with a joyful countenance and said: “Lord, receive my soul.” Then peacefully and painlessly as though belching, he breathed his last and gave his soul in trust to the Father, who has promised to protect all blood and every spirit that has been unjustly condemned. 11


It might seem odd to begin an essay on contemporary culture with an account of early Christian martyrdom. It is often assumed that the very idea of culture is a relatively recent invention. But the burden of my discussion is to suggest that recent debates concerning the question of culture could benefit from greater attention to the stories of martyrs like Pionius and Polycarp. Put in the most general terms, this essay argues that a theological account of martyrdom is peculiarly situated to contribute to contemporary cultural theory in some interesting and potentially illuminating ways. As the British Marxist literary and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton has recently suggested, “if there is a history and a politics concealed in the word ‘culture,’ there is also a theology.” 12 Building on Eagleton, I am interested in examining some theological assumptions implicit in contemporary questions about culture, and—here turning Eagleton around—exploring what sorts of insights about culture might be gleaned by looking at Christian theology.

But perhaps the connection between culture and the theology of martyrdom is even more explicit than Eagleton’s way of putting it allows. In a recent reading of martyrdom, Elizabeth Castelli has argued that the martyrological tradition of memorializing the lives and deaths of the martyrs functioned as a way of “producing culture.” 13 As Castelli puts it, the “memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making, whereby Christian identity was indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” 14 She claims that this work of collective memory is marked by a disposition toward a kind of cultural stasis and solidity, that martyrdom functions as a way of fixing identity, such that cultural practices become static and absolutized. 15

While Castelli is no doubt correct to warn against these dangers, I worry that she overstates the tendency of martyrdom to encourage concentric, static, and essentially violent images of culture and identity. In so doing, she obscures the radical potential of the martyr as a figure of resistance to precisely these sorts of cultural formations. Though there is tragically too much truth to Castelli’s reading, I am interested in exploring martyrdom as a critical practice that interrupts and explodes the logic of security and the controlled mastery of the self. The memory of this sort of martyrdom is at once gracious and dangerous as it inaugurates—albeit fragmentarily and episodically—a new and radically different image of identity that is not driven by the desire to insulate itself against risk.


This might be clarified by focusing on the theme of struggle. Castelli’s reading of martyrdom must be situated against the background of contemporary cultural studies which read culture agonistically, as a field of contestation and difference. In other words, Castelli argues that martyrdom can be understood as a form of cultural production because it constitutes a particularly stark sense of conflict: “martyrdom has to do foundationally with competing ideas about the character and legitimacy of different systems of power.” 16 In the context of early Christianity, she claims that “competing narratives of identity and status were being negotiated in the penal system, using the body of the condemned as the field of contest.” 17

And yet this is not merely a historical claim regarding the conflict between Christians and Romans. The distinctive twist that marks Castelli’s contribution is located in the way she links her account of the struggles of early Christianity with an interpretation of the growing prominence of the figure of the martyr in contemporary popular culture. She notes that the martyr has recently become a hot commodity in the North American culture industry. From rap music, comic book martyrologies, and teen-oriented versions of the stories of the “classic martyrs,” to biographical accounts of contemporary martyrs and increasing academic interest—not to mention the raging debate over the phenomenon of the suicide bomber—the market for martyrs is growing at a striking rate. 18 She suggests that this current popularity of the martyr is a manifestation of the kinds of battles over identity commonly referred to as the “culture wars.”

By bringing these apparently disparate readings together, Castelli claims that the notions of culture and martyrdom are linked by the common themes of struggle and identarian conflict. More specifically, she suggests that martyrdom and culture jointly name an attempt to overcome struggle, to achieve stability and solidity in the midst of flux. They are both motivated by an urge to eradicate difficulty and difference, to move toward settlement in the midst of some sort of conflict over identity.


Though Castelli rightly identifies the sense in which both martyrdom and culture are marked by the presence of difference and contestation, her account of martyrdom suffers in the end from being insufficiently complicated. In particular, her analysis is weakened because she does not provide an adequately nuanced picture of what struggle looks like. She tends to speak of conflict and struggle as such, rather than exploring the different possible forms that so-called “culture wars” might take.

In this regard, it is instructive to contrast her interpretation of martyrdom with the use of the martyr by the radical cultural theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. While discussing the struggle to resist the dominant global politico-military complex they refer to as “Empire,” Hardt and Negri identify two opposing images of the martyr:

The one form, which is exemplified by the suicide bomber, poses martyrdom as a response of destruction, including self-destruction, to an act of injustice. The other form of martyrdom, however, is completely different. In this form, the martyr does not seek destruction but is rather struck down by the violence of the powerful. Martyrdom in this form is really a kind of testimony—testimony not so much to the injustices of power but to the possibility of a new world, an alternative not only to that specific destructive power but to every power as such. . . . This martyrdom is really an act of love; a constituent act aimed at the future and against the sovereignty of the present. 19

It is instructive to note that Hardt and Negri do not speak of martyrdom in the singular, as if the martyr is a relatively straightforward and unambiguous, almost static, figure, as Castelli’s discussion often seems to imply. Rather, they emphasize differing conceptions of martyrdom, suggesting a kind of contestation internal to the concept of martyrdom itself.


In other words, Hardt and Negri appreciate that martyrdom is a difficult concept. To draw upon the language of Gillian Rose, they suggest that the practice of naming a martyr is a form of work and involves an assumption of political risk. It requires complex and in many ways ongoing forms of negotiation, what might be called the labor of judgment. 20 This is why the concept of martyrdom inescapably involves the delicate task of discriminating between genuine and false martyrs, a task that must in many ways remain perpetually unfinished.

These differences are further reflected in the way Castelli reads martyrdom with an eye to the present whereas Hardt and Negri offer an account of martyrdom that is oriented toward the future, emphasizing the radical potential of the martyr. Castelli tends to situate the struggles of the martyr in the context of some given social order or another. She sees the martyr as one who is engaged in a contest between rival conceptions of power, both of which are still located within some larger cultural context. For example, her discussion is peppered with illustrations drawn from the battle between liberals and fundamentalists in the recent North American culture wars.

By contrast, Hardt and Negri evoke an image of martyrdom that involves the exploding or overturning of given social orders and their corresponding forms of power. They paint a picture of the martyr as one who points to a radically new order and thus gestures toward cultural possibilities beyond the standard options of power and control. To return to the above example, Hardt and Negri’s second kind of martyr could not be understood in terms of a struggle between liberals and fundamentalists. Rather, the struggle here is between a conception of culture, on the one hand, in which liberal and fundamentalist might be seen to frame an intelligible set of alternatives and, on the other hand, some hitherto unknown and unrepresentable cultural logic in which those options no longer straightforwardly apply.

Put in theological terms, and thus moving beyond Hardt and Negri, this is to suggest that martyrdom is an essentially eschatological notion. It is only against the background of an understanding of the coming kingdom of God that the martyrdoms of Pionius and Polycarp become intelligible. Without such images as the triumph of the Lamb and the heavenly banquet, along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity that give them a kind of material display, their deaths are reduced to a crude occurrence of meaningless suffering, or at most a form of masochism, and their witness becomes essentially narcissistic.


In other words, martyrdom requires an appreciation of the eschatological interruption of history and its dialectic of victory and victimhood. The martyr thus performs a kind of uncoupling, whereby the world as we know it is stripped of its apparent givenness, and strange new possibilities emerge. 21 But Castelli provides a reading of martyrdom stripped of its eschatological remainder, and thus deprived of its revolutionary potential. Accordingly, it might be suggested that her depictions of the martyr retain too many echoes of Hardt and Negri’s suicide bomber, who sets out to destroy and triumph over rival conceptions of identity. But what if the martyr is at home in an understanding of culture which sees power not as a zero-sum game of triumph and loss, but rather as an expression of excessive charity and uncontainable goodness? What if difference is not read as a form of simple opposition and brute conflict, but a gracious intrusion of otherness into the world of the same?

Whereas Castelli reads martyrdom as involving a kind of struggle or contest over identity, I am suggesting that testimony martyrdom constitutes a rethinking of identity as itself involving an element of struggle and contestation. For in the context of eschatological expectation, what initially appears as struggle can become transformed into a wild and unpredictable exchange of gifts. Such a conception of martyrdom marks a shift from an understanding of difference as a form of domination and destruction where one side triumphs over another, to a conception of difference as an ongoing exercise of gift-giving and receiving. 22 Here the very ideas of culture and identity are thoroughly redefined. They can no longer be captured with metaphors of solidity and do not name any sort of familiar and fixable territory called the self that is to be protected and secured against the threats of the other. Rather, martyrs inhabit a world in which otherness and difference are internal to the very ideas of culture and identity themselves. And yet they simultaneously exist in our world—a world that does not like to have its lust for power called into question. So it is not surprising that their lives often end as they do.


To summarize the discussion so far, I have suggested that Castelli helpfully identifies a connection between martyrdom and culture and that she appropriately draws attention to the themes of struggle and identarian difference. But I have also argued that her conversation ends just where things might start to get really interesting, namely the question of what sort of struggle is involved here, or of what difference looks like more specifically. And I am suggesting that the struggle of martyrdom need not be interpreted as a simple question of triumph and loss, but rather that it might be understood in terms of a form of gift-exchange.

In other words, the very existence of the martyr is a testimony to a vision of life in which identity is not understood as a thing to be seized but rather a gift that can only be properly received in the absence of a drive to control. And here the options of triumph and loss are no longer adequate to name a meaningful range of alternatives. This is helpfully illustrated by Rowan Williams, who contrasts the image of the martyr with that of two other figures who strike a significant presence in the contemporary cultural landscape, namely the hero and the victim. I will conclude this essay by drawing on Williams in order to suggest that the significance of martyrdom is located in its potential to gesture beyond the interminably violent dance of victory and victimhood.


Williams suggests that contemporary culture is marked by an apparent inversion of the positions of the hero and the victim. According to the standard interpretation, the predecessor culture—often referred to by the labels “modernity” or “colonialism”—can be defined by the image of the hero. In a heroic culture, to be is to be victorious, to exercise power over, to overcome whatever challenges might stand in one’s way. It is to inhabit a position of sovereignty, to vanquish one’s opponents, in short, to dominate.

But whereas power used to reside in the hands of the powerful, it is now said to be wielded by the powerless victim, the very subject of domination. From talk show television to international tribunals, we are repeatedly presented with the message that to be is to be victimized, to suffer under the hands of some form of power or another. It has become customary to define oneself in terms of that by which we are afflicted, whether illness or anguish, overt physical abuse or subtle psychological manipulation. Identity is thus no longer understood as an expression of sovereignty but as an experience of subjugation. 23 It is customary to read such a development as a story of liberation, a flight from captivity, and even a contemporary analogue to the story of Exodus.

But perhaps such a reading remains a bit too close to the surface. What if it is just too romantic and sentimental to be true? And what if it misses the point of the story of Exodus? It might be more truthful to speak of a certain “pose of victimhood” whereby the position of the victim is exploited as a way of gaining access to positions of moral authority and political power. Such an analysis no doubt risks being misunderstood as a reactionary hedge designed to conserve the position of the status quo. But this would be precisely the wrong conclusion to draw. It is the “new” logic of victimhood that functions all too often as a form of preservation and survival against the uncomfortable threats of the new. It is not so much the liberation of the voice of the victim her- or himself that is at stake here, but the possibility that the face of the victim is but a new expression of the same old mechanisms of power.

As the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek observes,

the ideology of victimization penetrates intellectual and political life even to the extent that in order for your work to have any ethical authority you must be able to present and legitimate yourself as in some sense victimized. . . . [W]e are potential victims and the fundamental right becomes the right, as Homhi Bhaba puts it, to narrate; the right to tell your story; to formulate the specific narrative of your suffering. This is the most authentic gesture you can make. 24

In other words, culture consists in the power to rewrite the stories of our past. Identity is constituted by narrative and the only story that counts is that which is told from a first-person perspective. To quote Slavoj Žižek again, “ultimate authenticity is based on the idea that only the person who is immediately affected by circumstances can tell the true story about his or her suffering.” 25 The only problem with such an assumption is that such stories are self-confirming and entirely invulnerable to critique. Nobody has the right to call my experiences of suffering into question. And so the position of the victim circles right back to the conception of power exemplified by the hero.

According to the reigning paradigm of contemporary cultural studies, then, the victim has been relieved from a life of suffering and subjugation at the hands of the victor and achieved a sense of justice. But Williams argues that this alleged shifting of the balance of power from hero to victim is not so much of a shift at all. The victim has simply become the new face of the hero. The culture of victimhood reproduces the same logic of power as that of victory, namely a competition for security and control. The hero and the victim are both expressions of a desire to escape difficulty. They both reflect what Williams elsewhere describes as an attempt to “imagine an environment without friction.” 26 The hero seeks to overcome such friction in a kind of final utopian triumph, while the victim equally lives a frictionless existence precisely because of a resignation to suffering and loss. In both cases, what is missing is an ability to put the self into question, such that the notions of culture and identity remain fundamentally closed and fixed entities. The figure of the martyr, by contrast, suggests the emergence of an entirely different model of culture and identity. Whereas the hero and the victim both name forms of social control, martyrdom implies a conception of life lived out of control.


Among other things, martyrdom is thus the expression of an uncomfortable message of hope in which we are saved from the temptation to place our hope in ourselves, to confuse salvation with survival. To turn once again to Williams, this is to suggest that martyrdom is essentially

about something other than heroism. It has to do with freedom from the imperatives of violence—a freedom, in this instance, that carries the most dramatic cost imaginable. It is not the drama that matters, however, it is the freedom that is important. If we focus on the drama, if we long for the opportunity of heroism, we are in thrall to another kind of violence because we are seeking a secure and morally impregnable place for the self to be. We want to be victims, to enter a world where there are clear divisions between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. We want, in fact, to get back to that clear frontier between insiders and outsiders which is so comprehensively unsettled by the trial of Jesus in the Gospels. 27

By way of conclusion, let me return to Castelli’s observation about the increasing presence of the martyr in contemporary popular culture. In light of the foregoing discussion, it might be suggested that what is commonly referred to as the martyr is really an example of the hero or victim. What often passes for martyrdom bears closer resemblance to the mirror-image logics of victory and victimhood. But let us linger a little longer on the question of the martyr in contemporary culture. For I do not seek to defend an overly sentimental and nostalgic reading of martyrdom that privileges ancient martyrological sources as somehow necessarily more genuine than contemporary examples.

In a world of violence, let me suggest that we should find ourselves in the strange position of expecting that genuine martyrdom be simultaneously widespread and rare. Where a people whose lives are grounded—or rather ungrounded—in the peace of Christ are confronted by the many forms of violence characteristic of what the early Christians called “world,” it is almost inevitable that death will occur. And yet precisely as a people of peace we do not so much consider ourselves to be immune from violence as we recognize that we too are always already implicated in some form of violence or another. And we should feel this ambiguity, this tension between affirmation and self-critique, reflected in the stories of Pionius and Polycarp.

But just because of this, we should be wary of too quickly appointing ourselves as the gatekeepers of martyrdom or of too casually identifying someone as a martyr. Both of these temptations reveal a lust for uncomplicated territorial control that the difficult logic of martyrdom ought to warn us against. But neither should we therefore be inclined to deny the possibility of genuine martyrdom. For that would be to resign ourselves to the present and assuming that the way things are is the way things have to be. At least those of us whose identity is marked by a confession of our belief in a strange and surprising God ought to remain haunted by the way martyrs are able to unsettle us, even as we claim to have a grasp on them.


  1. Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), 151.
  2. Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 105.
  3. “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, ed. Herbert Musurillo (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 13.
  4. “The Martyrdom of Pionius,” in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, 165.
  5. Ibid., 139.
  6. Ibid., 143 (emph. in original).
  7. For example, Pionius’s lament, “would that I were able to persuade you to become Christians,” is met with the derisive response, “You have not such power that we should be burnt alive.” See “The Martyrdom of Pionius,” 145.
  8. See, e.g., ibid., 145, 159.
  9. Ibid., 163.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 165.
  12. Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 6.
  13. Elizabeth Castelli, Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 33 (quotation), 173.
  14. Ibid., 4.
  15. Ibid., 17, 198.
  16. Ibid., 4.
  17. Ibid., 40.
  18. As evidence for this claim Castelli cites John Wagner, ed. The Big Book of Martyrs: Amazing but True Tales of Faith in the Face of Certain Death (New York: Paradox, 1997); DC Talk and the Voice of the Martyrs, Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus: The Ultimate Jesus Freaks (Tulsa, OK: Albury, 1999). One might also mention Susan Bergman, ed. Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002). In addition, it would be interesting to explore the appearance of the rhetoric of martyrdom in the recent “rap wars” between East and West Coast rappers that resulted in the deaths of 2Pac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and others. Among recent discussions of the suicide bomber, see David Brooks, “The Culture of Martyrdom,” Atlantic Monthly (June 2002), and Joyce M. Davis, Martyrs: Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East (New York: St. Martin’s, 2004). Among recent academic treatments, see Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); as well as the extensive bibliography provided by Castelli.
  19. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 346 (emph. in original).
  20. See Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). For a helpful discussion of this emphasis in Rose’s work, see Rowan Williams, “Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian Rose,” Modern Theology 11, no. 1 (1995): 3-22.
  21. The language of “uncoupling” is drawn from Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London: Verso, 2000), 123-30.
  22. Readers familiar with the work of John Milbank will recognize his influence here. While my reading of martyrdom owes much to Milbank, I seek to distance myself from traces of the logic of security and control that seems to remain in his work. For a discussion of this in a very different context, see my “Can a Gift Be Commanded? Theological Ethics Without Theory by Way of Barth, Milbank, and Yoder,” Scottish Journal of Theology 53, no. 4 (2000): 472-89.
  23. See Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), 109. This is also reminiscent of the French political philosopher Alain Badiou, who claims that contemporary culture has recently become dominated by a “victimist conception of man.” See Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 6.
  24. Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly, Conversations with Slavoj Žižek (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), 140-41.
  25. Ibid., 141-42. See also Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, 107-13.
  26. Williams, Lost Icons, 147.
  27. Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 107 (emph. added).
Chris K. Huebner is Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He received his Ph.D. in theology and ethics from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. He is currently completing a book on martyrdom as a way of knowing.

Previous | Next