This collection of essays, edited by Michael L. Budde and Karen Scott, is the latest volume of the Eerdmans Ekklesia Series. Published in cooperation with the Ekklesia Project, the series aims to explore “matters of Christianity and discipleship across a wide expanse of disciplines, church traditions, and issues of current and historical concern.” Accordingly, in its endeavor to explore an authentic understanding of Christian martyrdom and the implications thereof, this volume addresses diverse historical periods, scholarly disciplines, and ecclesial traditions. In doing so, Witness of the Body also invites the reader into a larger effort reflected in the book’s title: “returning martyrdom to a more central place in the self-understanding of the church” (vii)—the body giving witness in martyrdom is the church, the body of Christ.
The book’s eleven chapters are organized into four “general, broadly chronological” parts (ix). The first part, “Martyrdom as the Church’s Witness,” opens with an essay from Lawrence Cunningham, who probes the foundational issue of what constitutes a Christian martyr, both historically and theologically. In chapter two, Tripp York argues, against the basic assumption that informs the so-called “Constantinian shift,” that Christians have always been for the state but serve a (higher) good that may or may not be the good that the empire desires for itself—a posture best exemplified by the martyrs. Stephen Fowl’s essay draws from Paul’s letters to provide context for the act of martyrdom, situating it within a larger set of Christian practices.
Part two, “Martyrdom Builds the Church,” is composed of two essays. In the first, Joyce E. Salisbury makes a compelling case in that the accounts of female martyrdom, both early and medieval, “transformed the idea of women’s bodies, the church, and images of the body of Christ himself” (65). Ann W. Astell argues in chapter five that the Eucharist serves as an interpretive key for understanding what was at stake in the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.
Part three, titled (somewhat sensationally) “Martyrdom Destroys the Church,” focuses on the interrelated issues of Christians killing other Christians and the church’s relationship to the state. To this end, Brad S. Gregory explores the presuppositions and historical realities of the Reformation era that caused Christians to think it not only acceptable but dutiful to execute other Christians. In chapter seven, William T. Cavanaugh disputes the “standard narrative” of religious wars: the modern state did not rescue us “from zealotry and fanaticism by removing religion from access to power,” but rather marked “the migration of the holy from the church to the state, and the substitution of one kind of martyrdom for another” (150). Chapter eight is Michael L. Budde’s reflection on the nature of “discipleship, secular allegiances, and membership in the transnational body of Christ” (153) in light of the frequent charge of treason leveled against Christians, particularly the martyrs.
Part four, “Martyrdom and the Future Church,” surveys the institutions and realities at work in the present-day with an eye to the future and asks how Christian martyrdom might inform the church’s posture vis-à-vis the wider world. Drawing on a wide range of thinkers, D. Stephen Long and Geoffrey Holsclaw (NB: Holsclaw’s last name is misspelled as Holdsclaw) question the basis of modern political thought—an “exclusive humanism” rooted in the preservation of “bare life”—and argue that only the paradigm of the Christian martyr, sure of the truth and goodness of his or her dogmas, can provide a foundation for a postsecular politics that would allow for an authentic humanism. In chapter ten, Emmanuel M. Katongole argues that the martyrs’ example “provides the church and the world with a dangerous hope” and strengthens the church in its ministry of reconciliation (191). Eric O. Hanson concludes the volume with a proposal for understanding the Christian vocation in the post-Cold War world as patterned on the martyr.
Reflecting an obvious diversity of perspective, the essays in this collection nonetheless are thoughtfully arranged so that the movement from one to the next is generally natural and cumulative. On those occasions when the essays do overlap thematically, it consistently happens to their benefit, strengthening the book as a whole. However, while a key part of this work’s strength is found in its interdisciplinary approach, there were a few points at which the authors could have been more clear as to the mode (historical, theological, etc.) in which he or she was operating.
This volume is a welcome introduction for those interested in martyrdom’s place in the life and thought of the church, and will serve as ample fodder for further discussion. Readers with a historical interest in the subject will be particularly rewarded for their time, as will those who are looking to reflect on the relationship between the church and the political sphere.