Tuesday of Holy Week: Martyred - Persecuted, not Perfected 

Back in the second week of Lent, we found in discussion of the 100’s CE, that our vision of religious persecution and martyrdom assumed unholy alliances of orthodox Christians with civil power.  That story will come, but is another anachronism, this early in the Common Era.  When Trajan makes a martyr of Ignatius, the emperor’s focus is on his global war with Sassanids, and the martyr was just another Turkish sectarian in a war zone.  

In the second century, various ‘heretics like us’ groups of early Christians defied the initial efforts of ‘the boys and the book’ to clarify which of us were ‘apostolic’, suitable successors to Jesus and the disciples. Ignatius or Montanus in Turkey, Marcion and Iranaeus in Europe, or Tertullian and Origen in North Africa all engaged in conflicts in regional contexts, with varying opponents.  Who’s a militant extremist?  Who’s a martyr?  

Terms like ‘jihad’, ‘hijira’,’ hajj’, ‘khalifa’ come from the seventh century, though like our term ‘martyr’, their semantic fields have changed over time.   Glib liberals eager to dissociate ourselves from the link between religion and violence are as misleading as secularists eager to equate them.  Pious parochial people are better equipped than academic theologians or episcopal ecclesiasts to recognize ‘heretics like us’ in parallel pilgrimage. 

The 600’s CE included bloodshed during the dramatic expansion of Islam, not least in the civil wars among Muslims.  Revisit Sunday’s summary of the context of Khusrau II’s cathartic last gasp of Persian power, and Heraclius’ reclamation of much of that turf including nominal control of what we call ‘Holy Land’ and ‘Middle East’.  In the aftermath of those imperial wars, was anarchic fragmentation much kinder and gentler than Umayyad rule? 

 Muhammad led militant and military campaigns, not just eirenic prayers. First came his hijira from Mecca to Medina in 622CE, where he established civil order tolerant of ‘people of the book’ if not infidel polytheists.  A decade of armed conflict culminated in Muhammad reclaiming Mecca in 630CE, and the first hajj pilgrimage from one city to the other and to Mt Arafat, before the death of the Prophet in the company of his wife Aisha. 

 The Rashidun, ‘four rightly-guided caliphs’ from the original tribe and circle of Muhammad, are revered across the Islamic traditions, and led the initial expansion of Islam through and beyond the Arabian peninsula.  At least one was assassinated, and succession was not smooth.  The accounts of civil strife within the ummah reflect hindsight from Sunni and Shiite perspectives.  Again, compare our own stories of mutual anathemas of 1054CE, or the Reformation and Tridentine response of the 1500’sCE.   

 Mu’awiya established the Umayyad caliphate from Damascus, continued by his son Yazid, which expanded and consolidated Islamic control up the Nile, and across north Africa, and across Turkey and Syria to Iraq and Persia.  The process was initially as much a matter of alliances as of tyranny, and the development of Arabic and Islamic culture followed more slowly. 

 Abassid rule will follow from 750CE, based in Baghdad, and in turn the Ottoman empires concurrent with Medieval and early modern regimes in the Christian west.  Maimonides in north Africa, the great medieval Jewish commentator, writes in Arabic.  But in the 7th century, the 600’s CE, a thesis about ‘heretics like us’ finding ways to coexist need not presume that end. 

 This remains a devotional, parochial Lenten study.  I do not seek to meet the standards of the academy.  I do look forward to scholars doing their job of historiography, to retell these stories in our generation.  Nor do I set out to speak in the ecclesiastical episcopal voice setting the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  I am inviting ‘heretics like us’ to reconsider our neighbours and their commitments to resist or effect changes in their home communities and, when forced to migrate, in our shared home here. 

 What if these weeks of study reconstructed our vision of militants or martyrs to a perpetual partisan conflict among factions?  We may deconstruct the interests and ideas, the covert violence of any status quo, and the overt violence of anybody’s power.  Power is the capacity to effect or resist change.  War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means.  Violence assumes some integrity of individual or collective boundaries which are violated.  Religion informs and expresses the change we effect or resist. 

 Try out talk of power, war, violence, and religion in terms of those definitions, and these stories. Who’s a militant extremist?  Who’s a martyr?