Martyrdom Through Hollywood: Book Review of The Purple Crown

Tripp York. The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom. Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2007. Pp. 198. $19.99, US.

The Purple Crown is the first book written by Tripp York (Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University) and the second in Herald’s new series, Polyglossia: Radical Reformation Theologies, edited by Peter Dula (Assistant Professor of Bible and Culture at Eastern Mennonite University), Chris K. Huebner (Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Canadian Mennonite University), J. Alexander Sider (Assistant Professor of Religion at Bluffton University), and Jennifer L. Graber (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Wooster College).

Probably the best and worst thing about York’s book is its accessibility–it is easy to read. Clocking in at under 200 pages (including breaks, notes, and index), one can blow through it in an afternoon. It is not encumbered by jargon or technical language academics alone understand. The argument is clear: martyrdom is part and parcel of the Church’s missionary work, which is political by virtue of its unique publicity. Politics is bound up with imitation; who you imitate or follow displays your orientation towards the good. Because Christian martyrs are the ultimate imitators of Christ, they exemplify the ultimate political act over-against the powers that kill them. And yet York is quick to connect the martyr to the church that formed her prior to death, emphasizing the social nature of this politics that makes it possible to enact.

The Purple Crown begins with an account of the martyrs of the early church, arguing that they constitute the political agent par excellence for the church. It examines the body of the martyr as the battlefield between God and Satan, intrinsically connecting salvation with the flesh. York then skips to the 16th century, when Christians martyred other Christians, arguing in favor of the Anabaptists as exemplars for the continuity of the suffering church. It is the Anabaptists that maintain a visibly social distinction from the world’s secular civil organization, yet are simultaneously able to “seek the peace of the city.” The tension of being distinct from yet engaged with the world is the embodiment of a citizenship intended to help the nation move towards its divinely oriented destiny. The final chapter is a biography of Oscar Romero, the El Salvadorian priest who displayed this kind of citizenship through his defense of the oppressed and was “martyred” as a result.

York’s argument is indeed timely; martyrdom is a hot topic these days. It is also good to be reminded of the political ramifications of the Gospel, and surely this makes Romero’s story the highlight of the book. The image of Romero’s life spilling onto the floor of his church after administering the Eucharist is irresistibly compelling. But that kind of persuasion is exactly my problem with York’s style of argument–who would disagree? Who would be insensitive enough to side with a corrupt government over Romero? Well, apparently the Catholic Church, who has yet to declare Romero an official martyr (hence the scare quotes above). According to Rome, it is up in the air whether Romero died because he was a political leftist or because of his faith. York, on the other hand, is predictably convinced of Romero’s status and never discusses the politics of naming martyrs. Instead, York is spellbound by the marvel of battle, using its bloody eloquence to furnish a convincing politics.

In other words, the reason why I say York’s accessibility is his worst attribute is the same reason why I hate all movies by Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg–the good guys and bad guys are unambiguously decided (with the possible exception of the latter’s Munich, though even here America comes out as the clear hero). For whatever reason, most people love to watch heroes fight and beat villains in combat, and Hollywood has banked on (and created?) this sensibility. However repetitive and predictable these contests appear, the public will eat it up. York uses this formula to describe the event of martyrdom: though the martyrs die they are remembered as victors not victims. The vulnerable and pedestrian characteristics of martyrs are couched in the language of combat–at one point he uses the term “battle” eight times in eight consecutive sentences to describe the event of martyrdom. As a reader, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and find satisfaction in the ultimate victory awarded to the underdog while the favored oppressor is consigned to suffer for eternity. Instead of inspiring energy for political work, I find this formula unwinding me into a passive malaise.

I do like York’s book, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested finding resources for articulating church politics. I also think that if we must think of martyrs in terms of Hollywood action we should read it alongside the latest two James Bond films. Even though the audience obviously sides with Bond, he is conflicted and ambiguous. His enemies are not clearly decided by his agency or the viewer, leaving a lingering dissatisfaction with his victory that one can’t help but find undesirable. This dissatisfaction, of course, is a flagrant diversion from previous Bond movies, which has led to some backlash (this is a storytelling that can’t be banked on). But in a world where we are constantly told who the good guys (freedom fighters) and bad guys (terrorists) are without remainder, I think it is helpful to remember how our lives are complicated. Perhaps the politics of martyrdom is not a “wonderful kind of Christian anarchism” (140) but a subtle lawlessness–an uncertain whimper whose fidelity is debatable and whose opposition is undesirable.

Comments (3)

  1. Tim Baer

    I liked your parallel into the Bond movies. I also think two of Del Toro’s latest movies work very well too.

    In Pan’s Labyrinth the heroine chooses not fight and instead lives in her own world, a world that those who are engaged in conflict refuse to see. A world with a past and a future that promise peace.

    Hellboy II creates a villian who you sympathize with, a society willing to die out to prevent a war, and a heroine that takes her own life to prevent further bloodshed.

    Both stories, especially the second, really begin to question just how much killing another human being is actually worth.

    I’m not familiar with Oscar Romero nor his religious or political views. Yet, when we are willing to die for our beliefs we become a martyr for something, the question is “What?”.

  2. celeste

    Thanks, Joe, for introducing the topic of martyrdom. I also read The Purple Crown and agree that it was accessible in terms of not being too dense, but the prose left a lot to be desired. I haven’t read any of the other recent releases about martyrdom yet, but it may be that they are better in terms of writing. Does anyone else have one to recommend?

    I agree that York emphasizes the “marvel of battle” especially in recounting the early Christian martyrdoms. Yet I disagree that “the good guys and bad guys are unambiguously decided.” In fact, York points out that during 16th-century, “being a martyr was possible only if one died for true doctrine.” After reading the book, I was able to better understand the motivations of Lutheran and Reformed Christian leaders killing Anabaptists, whom they saw as a threat to the church. York’s book helped me question whether early Anabaptists were martyrs and to see the moral complexity of my spiritual ancestors’ antagonists.

    True doctrine is also the question in whether or not Oscar Romero is a martyr. Romero, the former Catholic archbishop of El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 for preaching against the oppression of the poor in his nation. That oppression was taking place in the context of Central American conflicts in which Marxists and right-wing groups fought each other for power.

    The likely reason Romero is not a canonical martyr for the Catholic hierarchy is because of belief by some in Rome that Romero was a proponent of Latin American liberation theology, which popes John Paul II and Benedict considered to be Marxist.

    Nothing I have read or seen indicates Romero was a Marxist sympathizer, except if one believes Marxist ideology at points resembles the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To this Anabaptist, Romero was a martyr who died for true doctrine. Still, it is possible to see Romero as a martyr without viewing Catholic leaders through a Da Vinci Code-style lens.

    To name someone a martyr is not necessarily to ignore the complexity of those who killed the martyr, but a reminder that what one counts as true doctrine will in some contexts have a high cost.

  3. Joy Kauffman

    I read portions of an advance copy of this book last year and look forward to reading it in its entirety. My review lead me to lots of questions.

    So what is worth dying for these days? Is there a role for modern Anabaptists to discuss, and then act upon, this in the global family of faith? Is injustice anywhere a threat to justice everywhere, as MLK so clearly stated, and if so what do we do about it?

    There are modern Anabaptist martyrs, most recently that have been written about by EMM. I mostly think about this in the context of Zimbabwe and the immense suffering of our brothers and sisters there. Zimbabweans are dying in their struggle for justice and as a result of injustice. Should they die alone, as the rest of us respect international borders more than God’s Kingdom allegiance?

    Since unfortunately the African continent, by almost all objective analysis, contains the worlds most unjust places at this time, I wonder what might African Anabaptist leaders develop if they could come together to develop a CPT-ish organization for themselves that could, at their discretion, invite participation from the Global Anabaptist family of faith. Is there any group that is having these discussions or is there an appropriate forum that anyone knows of?

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