Q: Tell us about your new book.
A: The book, Christian Martyrdom and Political Violence: A Comparative Theology with Judaism and Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2017), looks at one of the most pressing contemporary issues: religiously motivated political violence.
As a liberation theologian, I begin from the premise that the three Abrahamic traditions share the belief that God requires liberation for the oppressed, justice for the victims and, most demanding of all, love for the political enemy. Accordingly, the book is an exercise in comparative theology that explores the classical Scriptural sources of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in order to argue that martyrdom is best understood as a form of nonviolent political resistance.
Q: Where did the idea for your book come from?
A: Not surprisingly, the project began at Princeton Seminary as I prepared to take a written comprehensive exam in ethics on the possibility of a “common moral discourse.” This led to The Princeton Theological Seminary Graduate Forum, a symposium of PTS and Princeton University students. The forum coveredthe subject of martyrdom in which we engaged the martyrology of Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino.
Eventually I found myself teaching at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit, Catholic university with strong ties to Latin American liberationists like Jon Sobrino and several of the University of Central America martyrs assassinated in 1989 who had attended or graduated from SLU. In 2009, I began teaching a course on the Latin American martyrs, La sangre de los mártires (“The Blood of the Martyrs”), which proved very popular despite the fact that it was taught entirely in Spanish. After some bumps in the road, this interest in the Latin American martyrs yielded the book project.
I hope that Christian leaders will walk away from this book with a model for deep and meaningful inter-religious dialogue and cooperation.
Q: What did you learn that you had not expected beforehand?
A: That martyrs are created in the collective memory of the survivors. With rare exceptions, martyr narratives are not written by the person martyred, but by the communities of faith who remember and honor the sacrifice of the martyred victim. Consequently, when martyr narratives are manipulated and exploited for political ends (for example, by radical Islamic suicide bombers or Christian fundamentalist abortion clinic bombers), the religious community that has preserved and safeguarded these martyr narratives needs to challenge and repudiate such brazen misappropriation of rich spiritual traditions.
Q: How is your book useful to Christian leaders?
A: I hope that Christian leaders will walk away from this book with a model for deep and meaningful inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Furthermore, I hope they will embrace the notion that martyrdom is less about dying for the faith and more about remaining faithful to God’s self-revelation in Scripture (though a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others or for the truth remains a vital component). Ultimately, I understand martyrdom as nonviolent political resistance to tyrannical rule as opposed to the more traditional definition of passive acceptance of unjust suffering and persecution. With Jesus as our model of faithful witness, the act of nonviolent resistance (which can lead to the martyr’s death) results in a deeper understanding of divine forgiveness.
The Christian understanding of the human condition acknowledges the reality of relationships of domination but refuses to accept this as the natural order, arguing instead that humans are responsible for creating relationships of domination (sin) and that divine action is needed to overcome such domination (grace). A proper accounting of the human condition, therefore, is grounded in the gift of divine forgiveness.
Q: What advice do you have for Princeton Seminary students as they prepare to head out into the world to follow the call of God in their lives?
A: Princeton Theological Seminary is a very unique place and I am forever grateful for the education I received there. My advice to students is simple: avail yourself of every opportunity. The Seminary has a longstanding relationship with The Center for Theological Inquiry and Princeton University; the Seminary also supports such vital programs as the Institute for Youth Ministry, the Hispanic Theological Initiative, and the Center for Barth Studies. Consequently, on any given day somewhere on or near the campus there are multiple opportunities for learning and expanding your horizons. You are blessed to be studying at a very special place—take full advantage of it!