Friday, September 26th, 2014
When I teach sections on Christianity in my Introduction to World Religions course, I spend a good amount of time on getting my students to think about martyrdom. I do this not only for my own research interests, but because martyrological language plays a large role in the cultural history of Christianity. Oftentimes, the students get caught up in the blood-and-guts portion of the stories; however, my goal in having them look at such stories is to get them to think about how language works. More specifically, though, I want them to see how language serves particular functions, such as how labels are used by groups in order to legitimate their position, for example, or how those used by so-called outsiders (scholars, other groups, etc.) might serve to determine whether the group is (or is not) a “true” example of a particular tradition.
This semester, I created a writing assignment that would get at this very issue: students had to analyze texts that are written in favor of as well as against a specific group. One of the groups that they could choose to write about is the Army of God, an anti-abortion activist group that advocates the killing of doctors in order to prevent them from performing abortions. The pro-Army of God text I selected is a letter from Paul Hill, a loosely affiliated member who was executed in Florida for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. In the letter, Hill does not explicitly use certain labels to characterize the Army of God (in fact, he does not even mention the group); instead, he alludes to ideas like martyrdom with statements indicating that “[i]t is a great privilege to suffer for doing what is right.” Hill is not the only anti-abortion activist to draw on this notion of martyrdom; in fact, the allusion to martyrdom is prevalent in the anti-abortion movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that these allusions are best seen in the rhetoric and literature coming from Randall Terry and his group known as Operation Rescue.
Operation Rescue emerged in 1986 in a stated attempt to get “the church” involved in the anti-abortion movement. Doing so, according to Randall Terry, would make Christians realize their sin of bloodguiltiness, which had been committed through their lack of response to the issue of “abortion-on-demand.” Addressing the guilt Christians had because of their indifference was of the utmost importance, for if Operation Rescue were to accomplish its goal of abolishing abortion, Christians would have to be willing to redeem themselves. In a 1989 recruitment video, Terry stresses this point when speaking to protesters: “We are not going down there as the heroes. We are going down there in a spirit of repentance. We are guilty; the blood is on our hands. We’re fifteen years late … We are more guilty than the police when they take us away because the police are not called to be the salt of the earth. We are.” In Terry’s mind, Christians had to come together on this issue, as “only those with warriors’ hearts c[ould] turn the nation around.” These warriors, according to Terry, would be “disciplined, willing to sacrifice, and ready to die.”
The choice of thinking of themselves as warriors who are ready and willing to die, i.e., the use of martyrological language, serves to legitimate Operation Rescue (as well as the Army of God and Paul Hill) in terms of their identities. This martyrological language functions to position them in a much larger formation of civil disobedience and Christian martyrdom. This is done explicitly by Terry in Operation Rescue’s 1988 “handbook” when he draws on the martyrdom of Polycarp, the second-century bishop from Smyrna who was killed for his refusal to renounce Christ and swear to the Roman emperor. More importantly, not only does he reach back to this story from antiquity, but the source he cites from is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, by recounting numerous martyrdoms, constructs a trajectory of Christian martyrdom that spans from the early church period to Protestant martyrs in the sixteenth century.
Elizabeth Castelli’s work on martyrdom and memory in antiquity is useful for thinking about Operation Rescue because, as she argues, “the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making.” Christian identity became “indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” In this same vein, then, groups like Operation Rescue use this social memory of early martyrdom to their advantage by arguing that one’s willingness to die lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world. This language also “implies a broader narrative that invokes notions of justice and the right ordering of the cosmos.” Castelli’s point here regarding the “right ordering” of things situates martyrdom in antiquity as a series of conflicts over order between the subjugated (Christians) and the powerful (Roman authorities). Thinking about the function of martyrological language as a way for a group to contest the current order of the world–as fellow CH blogger Jenny Collins-Elliott did earlier this week–is appropriate for thinking about Operation Rescue, as their acts of “martyrdom” sought to overturn the current state that the world was in, namely, the legalization of abortion. Although modern Christian groups are not the minorities they once were, the use of martyrological language attempts to create ties to the past so that the present can be portrayed as being part of a continuous historical narrative.
Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a doctoral student at Florida State University. Her research interests include rhetoric about the body and disease in late antiquity, ancient medicine, and issues of method and theory in the academic study of religion by way of critical pedagogy. She can be contacted at tbaldrickmorrone at fsu dot edu and on Twitter.
* Image courtesy Religion News Service.