Cities Make Martyrs

Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (oil on canvas, 1863-1883; see here for copyright).
Photo of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation (takne by Malcolm Browne, 1963; see here for copyright).
The northeast face of Two World Trade Center (see here for copyright).

What do these three images have in common? Violent deaths apart, it seems nothing. The first one is a 1883-canvas by French painter Jean-Léon Gérome, which represents a group of early Christians praying before being devoured by lions in a Roman-styled circus. The second is the Pulitzer-winning photo that captures the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức on a busy road intersection in 1963 in Saigon. The third, dated 9/11 2001, is simply too famous to require any further comment.

The first and the third image show killings. The second reports a suicide, that is, a self-destructive act, also like like that of the Twin Tower attackers, which is, however, unphotographed because the self-produced death of the ten hijackers melts away with the collapse of the buildings and the simultaneous extermination of thousands of passengers, crew members, workers, and visitors. Albeit coupled with aggression and murder of unarmed people, such “suicide attackers” committ suicide nevertheless, like the burning monk and contrary to the sentenced Christians. Moreover, only the Buddhist monk and the Twin Towers’ attackers planned their death. For the early Christians, their cruel killing came as no surprise, as they were sentenced to death before, but it was designed and choreographed by powerful others, while the people murdered on 9/11 had very different plans for that day. They were as unaware of their impending fate as us spectators.

Although none of these features (killing, suicide, premeditation, agency) is shared by all three scenes, I guess our brains still resist considering this juxtaposition meaningless. There is something that links the pictures. Let us continue then.

A more in-depth analysis of the three scenes is likely to increase their dissimilarity on several levels of interpretation. Take, for example, a political code. Would we agree that the ‘last prayer’ performed by the early Christian prisoners in an arena filled with pagan onlookers express a protest against oppression in the same way the theatrical self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức does with regard to the religious policies of the Vietnamese government? Would we feel comfortable in applying to the Muslim hijackers crashing two American airplanes against the ‘temple of American capitalism’ the same label of resistance we would attach to the Buddhist monk torching himself against the establishment of Catholicism in his country? Do we think that the concepts of empire or imperialism fit both the ancient Roman state executing Christians, the 1960s Kennedy administration backing the Vietnamese regime in a cold war scenario, and the post-cold war United States facing the international terrorist guerrilla of al Qaeda? I sincerely doubt it.

Looking at conclusive analogies with psychiatric lenses is probably the least recommendable approach. Behind any display of murderous and/or self-annihilating radicalism, the hostile counterpart and the appalled audience tend to see a fanatic in action; in any fanatic a psychopath potentially lurks. Put differently, the if a death-seeker is insane, and the extent of such insanity, lies in the eye of the beholder. As a rule of thumb, the greater the distance from the world-view, the agenda, and the stated motivations of the self-destructive actor, the easier it is to believe his or her brain “cracked”.

Economic and cultural explanations are of no more help in finding more analogies than differences in the three scenes. So I will explore two interpretive paths the relation of which I consider most promising for making sense of the unity of this triptych of violent deaths. To turn back to our initial question, ‘what do these three images have in common?’, a good answer could be: in all three cases, there are martyrs dying in a city. Fed by a number of figures, stories, photos, and videos, our imagination of martyrdom is largely urban. Martyrdom and the city link together the early Christian prisoners, the Buddhist monk, and the 9/11 massacre. I deliberately say ‘9/11 massacre’ without  specifically referring either to the armed hijackers or their unharmed human targets, for, as we will see, the question as to who are the martyrs in this scene is debatable.

Throughout history, people have sought to die violently for many reasons and for the sake of many causes (kinship, love, their companions, fellow-citizens, philosophical ideas, religious creeds, political allegiances). However, the word ‘martyr’ began to apply to death seekers only when, in the 2nd century CE, a tiny selection of the population of the Roman Empire started being sentenced in city tribunals and murdered in city venues for a specific reason: religious commitment to the Christian god. Yet, if you need Christianity to rise for having death seekers to be technically called ‘martyrs’, the original meaning of the word is not religious but juridical: martys, in ancient Greek (μάρτυς), the first literary language of the early Christians, means ‘witness’. This etymological remark already suggests that, in order to start a history of martyrdom, three geographies must be factored in: 1) Greece provided the language; 2) Palestine supplied both the initial environment of the religion of Christ, as well as the supreme example of Christian martyrs of all time, i.e., Jesus himself; last but not least, 3) Rome furnished the city-based political apparatus in whose courtrooms the Christian martyrs displayed their testimony, that is, their confession of adherence to Christianity before judges of different minds and audiences of different sizes. Rome also supplied the large-sized urban architecture that broadcast the martyrdom phenomenon via eventually transferring the location of the witness from relatively small juridical settings to mass entertainment venues: circuses and amphitheatres. By coordinating and urbanizing this triple geography of martyrdom, the Roman superpower launched the scattered and occasional phenomenon of early Christian martyrdom into history: without the Roman colonization of the ancient Mediterranean urban world, the trope of the Christians being publicly tortured and awfully butchered would not have colonized the Western imagination of what a violent death for god looks like. As shown, for example, by Martin Scorsese’s recent movie on early modern Jesuit missionaries in early modern rural Japan, this model feeds into a long-lived apologetic imagery of persecution.  

Over the last decades, due to the statistic escalation, murderous efficacy, and – above all – media explosion of Islamic terrorism, modern suicide attackers (especially bombers) and their targets (especially civilians) have unseated the ancient Christians and their oppressors from the centre of the martyrdom imaginary. Yet the city as prime martyrdom scenery has remained. Four notable differences between the old and the new urban prototype of martyrdom must be stressed. First, once associated with a specific spatial context (Roman tribunals and arenas), the new prototype has no fixed background. The spatial coordinates are unpredictable, the practice visually ubiquitous. Second, the broadcast coverage of the globalized world creates a planetary amphitheatre with billions of seats. Third, the difference between the audience and the scene is circumstantial: victims and publics are unaware of their roles until the attack divides the world population into murdered, injured, bystanders, and spectators. Fourth, the public itself negotiates and decides whether the role of ‘martyr’ should be ascribed to the perpetrator or the victim. As a rule of thumb, homegrown and international sympathizers of the attackers, foreign patrons of the cause, and scholars specialized on the topic usually call the perpetrators ‘martyrs’; conversely, for shocked laypersons, Western conservative politicians, Christian bloggers, and the mainstream press ‘martyrs’ are generally the victims. Both options are somehow right: on the one hand, the history of so-called ‘Abrahamic religions’ bespeaks a clear semantic confluence between the ancient Christian model of martyrdom (in Greek: martys) and the Muslim martyr (in Arabic: shahid), both being technically authors of a ‘witnessing’ (martyria, shahadat); on the other, the harmless quality of the original martyrs and their supreme model, Christ, allows for the commonsense identification of martyrdom with the victims’ side. The semantics of ‘sacrifice’, overlapping since millennia with that of martyrdom, follows the same rule: the hermeneutic pendulum oscillates between the martyr-perpetrator sacrificing him/herself and the martyr-victims being sacrificed.

In-between the ancient prototype of the persecuted Christian and the modern prototype of the suicide attacker lies the icon of the self-immolating protester, like the aforementioned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức. His most famous secular counterpars are: the Czech student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 in Prague after the Soviet army had invaded his country to suppress the Prague Spring, and the Tunisian street vendor Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2011 in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid thereby catalyzing the revolution against the regime of long-time president Zine Ben Ali.

A suicide performer exerts the maximum of violence upon him/herself, creating a figure that combines the self-destructive attitude of an extremist Christian tradition of ‘voluntary martyrs’ with the performative effects sought after by the suicide attacker. The self-immolating protester kills only him/herself in order to change the state of affairs by rousing people to action: either via sensitizing “Outgroups” or encouraging a disheartened “Ingroup”, or both. When widely publicized, a spike of “copycat suicides“, also known as “Werther effect”, can follow up. The BBC reported that no less than 107 Tunisians tried to self-immolate in the wake of Bouazizi’s act, ‘mostly young unmarried men from poor, rural areas, and had only basic education’.This last episode, happening in a small town and copied in rural areas, breaks the previously established visual connection between martyrdom and cities. Put differently, one does not necessarily need a full-fledged urban setting like 20th-century Saigon to self-immolate in protest. Effective communication pathways between cities, small towns and the countryside, past and present, may well broadcast a spectacular event far beyond its original location and generate emulation episodes that can be broadcast back. Couched in religious language or not, martyrdom per se is not an urban phenomenon. Nor are cities distinctively conducive to martyrdom simply because, as classic sociological studies have shown, suicide is more urban than rural. Psychic aggravations of urban livings that are traditionally held to induce city-dwellers to suicide, namely social disorganization (Émile Durkheim) and social alienation (Maurice Halbwachs), are not a sufficient cause for the framing and coding of self-destructive tendencies as martyrial resolutions. The same holds true for other eminently urban characteristics enabling martyrdoms, such as:

  1. the production and dissemination of radical ideas related to high-risk behaviors;
  2. the assortment of networks of recruitment, socialization, indoctrination, cultural breeding and training;
  3. the variety of high-visibility places and events;
  4. the substantial presence of receptive publics and counterparts (friends, competitors, and foes);
  5. the large supply of incentives and rewards that also work as means to amplify the value of the act, engender identification, and foster imitation (e.g., accumulation of public and private settings, rituals, and strategies of commemoration and historicization).

Yet the more urban the environment that forms and/or annihilates the martyr is, the more these factors are expected to find their way into a martyrial mode of seeking death. This is why martyrdom is to be considered a relevant subject matter for the cross-cultural and cross-temporal investigation of the relationships between religion and urbanity as pursued by our overall research project.

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli is a Junior Fellow in the “Religion and Urbanity” Project. He is a specialist of early Christianity and currently works on the concept of “citification”.