|SFTS professors participate in workshop on martyrs and religious violence|
San Francisco Theological Seminary Professors Dr. Christopher Ocker and Rev. Dr. James Noel participated in a one-day interdisciplinary workshop entitled “Beautiful Martyrs: Aesthetics and Religious Violence.” It was sponsored by the Graduate Theological Union Dean’s Office and the Center for Jewish Studies in Berkeley, Calif., in February.
Ocker, SFTS Professor of History, organized the workshop along with University of California Professor Dr. Susanna Elm. In his introductory comments, Ocker paraphrased Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten: “How is martyrdom part of a ‘sensual discourse,’ an element within interconnected sense-oriented representations, communicated symbolically in words, gestures or images?”
Noel presented a paper with Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson on “’Treading Our Path through the Blood of the Slaughtered’: Martyrdom in the African American Religious Tradition.” Johnson is an SFTS adjunct professor for the Doctor of Ministry Program.
The workshop also included presentations and responses by scholars in early modern European history, medieval history, Chinese history, the history of art, East Asian Languages and Cultures, and Jewish Studies. Participants came from the GTU, University of California, University of Munich and Drew University.
The idea for the workshop evolved from four conferences sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture several years ago. The conferences focused on various aspects of religion and violence in past and present (Religion and Law, Militancy and Religion, Imagined Worlds of Martyrdom, and Rhetorics of Holy War).
Over the course of these conferences, one issue emerged as especially fruitful for further comparative work, namely the aesthetic dimensions of religiously motivated violence. This issue is situated at the interstice of martyrdom and holy war.
In most forms of literary representation, the martyr assumes a particular kind of agency. She or he may be a sufferer, but often the circumstances leading up to and following a death by martyrdom are represented in such a way that the martyr manipulates the violence suffered and emerges as the primary cause of his or her sacrifice. Such representations involve a skilful manipulation of the real and imagined memories and experiences of an intended audience, and they are aimed to arouse emotions deemed appropriate to the occasion.
The memories and experiences of the martyr are shaped by, and in turn shape, culture at various points, for example, in discourses of noble, voluntary death and in communal experiences of victory and honorable defeat. In martyrdom, approached as a social construct, we can thus locate shared sensibilities about right and wrong, the good, and the beautiful. Martyrdom both reflects and involves aesthetics. “Holy war” also involves aggression and violence, but here, too, violence is “aesthetizised” as a holy act, inserted into or made a religious performance that involves the same interplay of real and imagined memories and experiences. And the concepts of holy war and martyrdom often overlap and merge.
The highly aesthetic dimension to religious violence, and especially its myriad representations, are shared across a great variety of cultures past and present. Accordingly, findings support that a consideration of aesthetics is essential if one wishes to understand how and why religious violence has characterized so much of human history and remains a political and social force in the world today.