The title of this post may recall to some readers Thomas Dubay’s 1999 book, The Evidential Power of Beauty.  At one point Dubay suggests a further, and more substantial, reason for my allusion to his work when he quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar on Saint John’s Gospel:  ‘it is precisely God’s humiliation which appears as his exaltation.’  Likewise Dubay notes the fact that ‘from the very first century the Church has emphasized the glory of the martyrs:  splendor in humiliation and torture together with the Crucified One.’[i]  The crucifixion of Jesus, the Man of sorrows, is at the core of the gospels and of the subsequent vocation of Christ’s followers.

A recent post to this blog on the passive obedience tradition in Christian and Anglican authorities led to comments relating to tyrannicide.  A philosopher, Professor Michael Potts, suggested that based on the argument of my post, ‘I suppose, then, that a Christian had no right to try to overthrow the Nazi government of Hitler or the Communist governments of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.’

At the time I replied to Professor Potts as follows:

Modern totalitarians do raise…difficult challenges to the theory. But are they [Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot] much worse than, say, Nero?  One probably can distinguish cases among those you name.  Hitler came to power in conformity with German law, and certainly German Lutherans did not believe there was a right to overthrow or actively resist him from within Germany.  Mao would be more questionable, since an alternative, anti-Maoist Chinese government with a strong claim to legitimacy existed.  By the time of Stalin the communists in the Soviet Union were de facto in place and recognized internationally, and so not subject to active resistance by Christians. Again, with Pol Pot I think their claim to any kind of legitimacy was questionable, since the king was their captive, wasn’t he, and then rejected them?

Despite possible winnowing of hard cases by drawing such distinctions, the problem remains.  Passive obedience theory requires in some cases suffering under monsters, such as Nero and Pol Pot, and under systematic persecutors of the Church such as Diocletian and the Tokugawa shoguns.   That is why Henry Hammond (1605 – 1660) calls the theory the ‘doctrine of the cross’.

Canon Matthew Kirby, in other comments to the original post, suggested an analogy with just war theory as a possible way to avoid the hardest cases.  This possibility deserves separate consideration at another time.  Here, however, I would like to suggest the positive spiritual purpose of the passive obedience tradition.  To do so, I would like to begin by considering the usual ineffectiveness in worldly terms of active resistance.  While necessity does not make virtue by itself, clearly if resistance to tyrants is in most cases practically useless or futile in fact, then an argument for its morality surely will lose much of its supposed weight.  The analogy with just war theory would clearly apply in that case:  even if beginning a war meets most of the requirements for justice in going to war (jus ad bellum), one may not begin the war without a reasonable chance of success.

In my original post I already considered one case where resistance to the powers that be was said by my original interlocutor to be highly successful, namely the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688-1689.  I argued that in fact, at least from the point of view of traditional Anglicans, that revolution had disastrous results for Anglicans and produced little real gain for others.

But what of other cases of active resistance to tyrants who most would agree were much more vicious and unscrupulous than James II?  Consider a few cases:

  1. In revolutionary France there was a major uprising called the Vendée war (March to December 1793) against the revolutionary Parisian government. The Vendée rebels had political, economic, and religious grievances, but usually they were Christians.  The rebellion was put down by revolutionary forces with great effusion of blood on all sides.  The French revolution in its Terror phase, with its anti-clerical and anti-Christian program, proceeded unabated by the Vendée resistance, but with many innocents and Christians dead because of the attempted rebellion.
  2. The well-known attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb on 20 July 1944 failed. The principal would-be assassin, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, was arrested and hanged, as were many other plotters.  In practical terms, the plot was ineffective in removing the tyrant but led to the execution of many admirable persons.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose association with the plot was indirect, was executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before its liberation by American troops.
  3. The Pilgrimage of Grace (October 1536-October 1537), in which the anti-monastic and religious policies of Henry VIII were actively resisted, mainly in the north of England, was ruthlessly defeated and its leaders, clerical and lay, were usually executed or imprisoned, as were many of their simple followers. Again, the rebellion was practically ineffective in most respects, but led to the tragic, unfortunate deaths of many admirable and innocent folk.  These deaths in turn weakened later resistance to further religious changes under Edward VI, although for the rest of Henry’s reign he was more cautious in making major religious changes.

Such examples of failed rebellions in defense of natural morality or Catholic faith could be multiplied.  There are not many countervailing examples of successful rebellions which produced outcomes that were clearly superior to what would have followed given simple patience under affliction.  The rebellion against the Spanish Republicans in the 1930s, led by Francisco Franco, is possibly one such countervailing example.  Certainly the resulting Falangist regime was an outcome more favorable to orthodox Christians than would have been a continuation of the anti-clerical, Stalinist-supported Spanish Republican regime.  The Franco rebellion, however, was more akin to a civil war than a rebellion against a well-established regime with a clear claim to both de jure and de facto authority.  And the Franco regime had its own grave human rights abuses.  The general record does not suggest that rebellion often produces clearly positive results in worldly, practical terms.

Of the cases mentioned by Professor Potts, the most notable fact might well be that there never was any real chance of defeating Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot by active, internal rebellion and disobedience.  Even successful assassination would in those cases probably have led to the replacement of one tyrant by another.  The regimes of Hitler and Pol Pot, as well as of Idi Amin and other notable tyrants, were ended because of foreign military might, not by domestic rebellion or resistance.  Stalin and Mao both died while still in power, and their regimes either are still in place or were subsequently ameliorated through process of time after their deaths and not through the influence of rebels and of persons engaged in active resistance.

In short, whatever the appeal of the idea of a supposed right to active resistance to and rebellion against tyranny, the historical record reveals substantial evidence of practical failure for persons engaging in active resistance and disobedience to a tyrant.

There are, of course, many cases of successful active rebellion, often in the form of a palace coup or of a competing claimant to power within an elite.  In these cases, however, there usually is no obvious improvement in governance.  The replacement of one dynasty or president by another does not necessarily amount to the end of a tyrant and the advent of an enlightened ruler.

Movements for national independence from colonial powers and movements for the internal extension of civil rights to previously excluded elements of the community are probably more promising examples of practical success for programs of active disobedience.  I will not go into these cases in detail at this point, since my main goal is to show the positive value of martyrdom and of freely accepted suffering.  But I will note that in the United States many of the greatest civil rights figures used explicitly Christian and non-violent principles, including non-resistance and acceptance of punishment for disobedience to unjust laws.  I would also note that in cases where violence and very active disobedience to laws were used to achieve civil rights or national independence, there often is a heavy price to pay:  internal division, entrenching habits of violence and lawlessness, and economic losses all have to be weighed against the gains when considering the practical, worldly results of active disobedience.

To return to my main point, I would like to propose that there is at least a correlation between martyrdom, on the one hand, and the end of tyranny, on the other; between patient suffering by Christians, on the one hand, and the death and exhaustion of tyrants and persecutors, on the other.

In the Croatian city of Split (Spaletum in Latin; Spaleto in Italian) along the Dalmatian coast, there still stands the palace built for his retirement by the emperor Diocletian, perhaps the greatest Roman persecutor of the Church.  Diocletian’s mausoleum next to this palace is now a church dedicated to Saint Domnius, the bishop of Salona near Split, who was martyred under the Diocletianic persecution in the first decade of the 4th century.  Croatia has been a Christian nation since late Roman times.  Christians defeated the pagans supported by Diocletian, and later endured persecution and domination by Muslims, Nazis, and Communists.  The Christians of Croatia won the day, or at any rate endured, not by force of arms or by physical and active resistance, but by the prayers of Saint Domnius and by thousands of other martyrs and Christians who exhibited ‘patience under their sufferings’, for which they received in due course ‘a happy issue out of all their afflictions.’  The seed of the martyrs under Nero, Domitian, Diocletian, and a host of other Roman pagans, brought about the Triumph of the Church under Constantine and his successors.

The Vendée rebellion against the French revolution has already been mentioned.  While the active resistance of the Vendeé failed to end either the revolution or the Terror it brought, there is reason to believe that Christian martyrdom did end the most vicious period of the Terror.  At least there is a temporal coincidence between the end of the Terror and a great act of martyrdom.  11 Discalced Carmelite nuns of the Carmel of Compiègne were arrested in June 1794 along with three lay sisters and two externs.  The following account of the martyrdom of the 16 Martyrs of Compiègne is taken from Wikipedia:

The Carmelite community was transported to the Conciergerie in Paris, and were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal, condemned as a group as traitors and sentenced to death. They were sent to the guillotine on Thursday, 17 July 1794. They were notable in the manner of their deaths, as, at the foot of the scaffold, the community jointly renewed their religious vows and sang the Veni Creator Spiritus, proper to this occasion.  One of the nuns then began to sing a hymn as she mounted the steps of the scaffold, which the rest of the community took up. Accounts vary as to the hymn they used. Some accounts state that they sang the Salve Regina, accorded a special place in the Carmelite Order; more recently it has been argued that they sang Psalm 117, the Laudate Dominum, the psalm sung at the foundation of a new Carmelite monastery. They continued their singing as, one by one, they mounted the scaffold to meet their death. The novice of the community, Sister Constance was the first to die, then the lay Sisters and externs, and so on, ending with the prioress, Mother Teresa of St. Augustine, O.C.D.

When the Reign of Terror ended only days after their martyrdom, one revolutionary week (10 days) later, on Sunday 27 July 1794, the leader of the English nuns [of the Benedictine community from Cambrai] credited the Carmelites with stopping the Revolution’s bloodbath and with saving the Benedictines from annihilation.

The violent resistance of the Vendée failed to end the Terror or to stop the anti-Christian evil of Robespierre and his henchmen.  The unresisting self-oblation of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne has a much more plausible claim to efficacy against Terror and evil.

The persecution unleashed by the Bolshevik Revolution against the Russian Orthodox Church and against all Christians and religious folk is well known.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago movingly describes the sufferings of the Church.  Within a decade of the advent of Lenin to power, the metropolitan of Kiev, 28 bishops, and almost 7,000 priests were murdered by the Communist regime, and millions of lay Christians were killed, imprisoned, or persecuted.  Soviet Communism in its virulently anti-Christian phases did not end because of active resistance by Christians.  The New Martyrs of Russia, known and unknown, suffered death by a hundred means.  Their prayers surely brought about the relenting of violent persecution under Stalin and then the dramatic restoration of the Church to authority and respect under the post-Soviet regime.

In 1971 the African nation of Uganda fell under the control of a brutal dictator named Idi Amin.   Amin’s rule was capricious, vicious, erratic, and violent.  Among his demagogic acts Amin sought to ban people of south Asian origin from the nation, though many had lived in Uganda for decades.  Amin, a convert to Islam, delighted in humiliating and attacking also the substantial white community that remained in Uganda after its independence from the United Kingdom.  It is generally believed that on 17 February 1977 Amin had Archbishop Janani Jakaliya Luwum, Archbishop of the powerful and numerous Anglican Church of Uganda, murdered.  Archbishop Luwum had previously protested the government’s brutal policies and was arrested and subjected to a show trial on February 16th along with two cabinet members.  The three men were supposedly killed in a car crash while attempting to escape, but Archbishop Luwum’s body was riddled with bullets.  The Amin regime ended in early 1979 after Tanzania, under Julius Nyerere, invaded Uganda and captured the capital, Kampala.  In his eight years in power Amin murdered more than 100,000 persons, and possibly several times that number.

Traditional passive obedience doctrine acknowledges, and in fact demands, that Christians refuse to perform any wicked act whether or not commanded by the magistrate.  In order to form proper intention internally and to witness one’s sincerity externally, such refusal normally must include a willingness to act publicly and to accept the punishment that may be imposed for it.  This element of publicity and willingness to accept punishment helps to prevent insincere lawlessness and the mere avoidance of irksome duties and laws.  This element of passive obedience doctrine is itself akin to the acceptance of martyrdom in more extreme situations.  In both cases the Christian accepts for himself forms of suffering as a testimony and witness to his convictions.  Christian faith confesses belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come’.  The goal of this life is so to pass through things temporal as to lose not the things eternal.  On the basis of such beliefs and goals, transitory sufferings are properly reckoned as relatively insignificant.

In short, certainly under most circumstances, even when a government or magistrate is badly misbehaving, Christians are called to prayer, self-sacrifice, humility, and, if need be, martyrdom.  This vocation is part of our imitation of Christ, who was born as his mother made a journey to be taxed by a foreign overlord and who died upon a cross forgiving his killers.

[i] The Evidential Power of Beauty:  Science and Theology Meet.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1999.  Page 312.  As an aside, I would note an oddity about Dubay’s very fine book.  In a book by an English-speaking writer about the aesthetic dimension of Christian apologetics, it is odd that there is no mention whatsoever of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, the Anglican choral tradition, the Anglican literary tradition, or indeed anything or anyone Anglican:   which is to say, Dubay, while writing to English-speakers about the evidential power of beauty, is silent about most of that which is most beautiful about Christianity in the English-speaking world.

One thought on “The Evidential Power of Martyrdom

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