Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence

A Comparative Theology with Judaism and Islam

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Rubén Rosario Rodríguez
  • Cambridge, UK: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Martyrdom in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam has become a pressing topic due to the influence of radical versions of these religions within the political sphere. Dying for one’s faith demonstrates extreme devotion worthy of emulation, or is seen as folly and even betrayal of the core meaning of that faith. Rubén Rosario Rodríguez’s, Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence: A Comparative Theology with Judaism and Islam seeks to find points of commonality in the ways in which martyrdom is understood by the three religions, remaining accurate and fair about its meaning while setting aside versions of martyrdom which do not represent the “mainstream” of the religion. Inevitably, the question of who speaks for whom and with what authority arises. Islam is not defined as the political Islam of Osama bin Laden or the Muslim Brotherhood. Guerilla fighters inspired by liberation theology are therefore not licensed to engage in unlimited killing in the name of God and kingdom, especially if some kind of peace after a civil war is to be possible. There is a distinction between mainstream Judaism and both extreme Zionism, which would place little or no value on the lives of Palestinian Muslims, and Christian Zionism which equates the Biblical Israel with the State of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu and sees Islam as an inferior religion.

The book intends to be a comparative Christian theology of martyrdom, therefore it must interpret the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible as possessing elements of belief which find convergence with Christian belief. Given the Qur’an mentions biblical figures like Jonah—who was witness to God’s universal love as well as the Exodus—there are connections that can help build a comparative view. All three traditions contain histories of individuals who have born witness to their faith and died to protect it. Their deaths must be sorted from those of soldiers simply sacrificed for political or territorial gains, material profit, or revenge against those defined as the enemy. This is a difficult process as Rodríguez must, for example, demonstrate that jihad’s primary meaning is a struggle to remain faithful to Allah, rather than warfare or terrorism against those defined as the enemies of Islam.

Islam, Judaism, and Christianity can each be interpreted as believing that the one true God prefers “life over death, justice over injustice, peace over strife, and nonviolence over violence” (15). Part of the task of a constructive systematic theology is to protect the community’s theology of martyrdom against manipulation—from within or without. Rodríguez reaches back to the period of the Book of Revelation and histories of the early church, moving forward through the time of Augustine to illustrate how the trajectory of this theology of martyrdom is created and protected from distortion, by engaging the works of scholars such as Candida Moss, 

Richard Bauckham, Dominic Crossan, and others.

Such a theology must proclaim Christ’s call for nonviolence while still maintaining that God is the final judge of humanity and its sinfulness. While seeking convergences between the three religions, it is clear that a Christian comparative theology cannot define the traditions of Judaism or Islam. The validity of the author’s readings would need confirmation by scholars of those traditions, which have their own internal divisions and complexities. A key question for each tradition is when, if ever, is war and violence justified.

Rodríguez focuses on the case of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador who was assassinated for preaching against brutal killings by the military. He maintains that only when governments fail to maintain a just state do coercion and political violence become justified, and then, only to restore the fundamental democratic state. Nonviolence is superior to violence because it does not further brutalize human beings. Here the author might have referenced the outcomes of civil wars which can become very ambiguous. Some scholars refer to control of society by elites even after civil wars as a “captured peace” (Christine Wade) rather than an outcome of national solidarity and social justice. One could explore current discontent and violent protests over the Ortega regime in Nicaragua or the “Long Honduran Night” (Dana Frank). The kingdom is witnessed to, is sought, and is always here and not yet.

In the case of Islam, there is the problem of a radical minority controlling political discourse and advocating a generalized violence. In contrast, there are instances, such as the Islamic theologians’s 2014 letter to ISIL leader Al Bagdadi, which renounce violence and killing in the name of Islam.

With considerable nuance and detail concerning the way in which martyrdom has been constructed over the centuries, and with considerable effort to anticipate possible objections, Rodríguez defines martyrdom as a death by which individuals witness to the truth of God, “exposing the evil of the ruling authorities through an act of non-violent resistance which proclaims God’s sovereignty over all of human history” (215).

The witness of martyrdom, just as the result of civil war and all outcomes in human history, is ambiguous; comparative theology avails itself of an eschatological proviso that all will be well at the Great Ending and the memory of figures such as Romero will be kept alive by their canonization. There are battles over historical memory which play out over decades. San Salvador has a street named for Roberto D’Aubuisson who ordered Romero’s assassination. Rodríguez astutely emphasizes that only forgiveness modeled on that of Jesus will break the cycle of violence. This book is an exemplary effort to sort out how a Christian comparative theology of martyrdom would appear. Ultimately, no religion can justify itself without reference to other religions which accompany it through history, sometimes peacefully and sometimes as antagonists. The author has credibly demonstrated that a viable Christian theology of martyrdom can be written and has honored the memory of its witnesses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael T. McLauglin is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rubén Rosario Rodríguez is associate professor of systematic theology in the department of theological studies at St Louis University, Missouri. His first book, Racism and God-Talk: A Latino/a Perspective (2008), won the 2011 Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award for Theology. He has contributed to two recent collections, The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Latino/a Theology (2015) and Immigrant Neighbors among Us: Immigration across Theological Traditions (2015), and is editor for the forthcoming T&T Clark Companion to Political Theology.



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