Martyrdom and the “No” of Faith

“The church makes disciples in order to form a company of faith, a theater of martyrdom” (218). Kevin Vanhoozer elucidates this claim in the concluding chapter of his recent book Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). The chapter sparked some thoughtful discussion in my systematic theology class this past week. During the discussion it occurred to me that we privileged Western Christians are sometimes enamored with overly romantic conceptions of martyrdom. For example, we might imagine a crazed gunman bursting into worship one Sunday morning and threateningly asking each person in attendance if they believe in Jesus. However, the path to martyrdom is often more subtle and mundane. It was, more often than not, what the martyrs denied, rather than what they explicitly affirmed, that led them into conflict with the ruling powers. In the early centuries of the church, the confession “Jesus is Lord” was a profound threat to the Roman Empire, because it contained within it the negative corollary “Caesar is not Lord.” It was, in Vanhoozer’s terms, the living out of what is “in Christ” that led the early Christians to their deaths in the arena on account of their refusal to offer Caesar his pinch of incense.

Sometime after the class discussion, I came across a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached on the occasion of the confirmation of three young men he had been instructing in the faith. In addressing his young charges, following the “annexation” of Austria into the German Reich in the spring of 1938, Bonhoeffer is quite clear that saying “Yes” to Christ in faith, also entails saying a definitive “No” to other things. Here is the decisive paragraph:

“Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. ‘You cannot serve two masters’; from now on either you serve God alone or you do not serve God at all. Now you only have one Lord, who is the Lord of the world, who is the Savior of the world, who is the one who creates the world anew. To serve him is your highest honor. But to this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and the poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy. Your Yes to God demands a brave No to everything that will ever hinder you from serving God alone, whether it be your profession, your property, your house, your honor before the world. Faith means decision.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Confirmation Sermon on Mark 9:24,” in Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, trans. Victoria J. Barnett, Claudia D. Bergmann, Peter Frick, and Scott A. Moore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 15 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 478).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *