In American history, venerating a death as martyrdom has been a way of claiming its significance within a narrative of ultimate victory. The words for martyr in both Greek and Arabic literally mean “witness”: martyrs’ willingness to die is a form of witness to the truth of a tradition. Figures claimed as martyrs in American history from the Mormon leader Joseph Smith to Baptist civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have often prophesied their own deaths, embracing the hope that their sacrifice will inspire zeal in others. Religious communities in North America have commemorated martyrs through stories, paintings, shrines, maps, monuments, poetry, liturgy, and theological reflections. The category of martyrdom tends to become more diffuse over time. Moving beyond a strict definition of death for the faith, Americans have used the language of martyrdom to find spiritual significance in a range of physical and interior sufferings. For example, both French Canadian nuns and New England puritans claimed their daily colonial sufferings as a form of martyrdom. Narratives of martyrdom have also played an important role in political movements such as the anti-lynching crusade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Martyr language can even push the boundaries of what constitutes religion itself. In the 20th century, the suffering of American jazz musicians, denied civil rights, has been described as martyrdom. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks by radical jihadists seeking martyrdom, the term has often been associated with terrorism. Debates about justifications for violence in the Qur’an and the true meaning of jihad have taken place among politicians, religious leaders, and academic scholars. This intense focus on Islamic theology of martyrdom has led both to widespread suspicion of Muslims (and those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent generally) as well as to new ecumenical commitments to a shared ethic of loving God and neighbor.
Adrian Chastain Weimer
Mary Jane Haemig
Martin Luther saw prayer as crucial to human life, a life created by the relationship to God. In this relationship God starts a conversation, communicating God’s words of law and promise. Prayer is a part of the human response to God’s speaking, a response itself shaped by the words of command and promise. Luther thought that God’s promise to hear prayer defines both the nature of God and the nature of the human relationship to God, as well as the human approach to life. Luther’s comments and instructions on prayer permeated his work. Luther sought to build an evangelical prayer practice that reflected the key insights of his theology: just as God redeems the unworthy human, so God promises to hear and respond to the one praying, despite his or her unworthiness. Humans respond to God’s actions in law and promise when they pray regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. Freedom in Christ sets humans free to use prayer practices that help them to do this.
Robert C. Saler
While the term theologia crucis itself is most prominent in Luther’s early works, the later texts bear up the scholarly contention that the fundamental contrast between “cross” and “glory,” with its various methodological and theological implications, remains and is in fact amplified throughout Luther’s later writings. Indeed, considered topically, Luther’s treatment of virtually every significant theological locus throughout his canon—e.g., revelation, ecclesiology, and ethics is impacted by his understanding of the cross. “Theology of the cross” in Luther does not refer to a bound set of theological statements but rather a methodological stance in which epistemological fidelity to the modes in which God chooses to reveal himself—in suffering, death, and contradiction to expectation—marks the whole of the theologian’s orientation to knowledge of God and the world. While the theology of the cross in Luther’s deployment certainly touches on sociopolitical and ecclesial realities within his time, it is crucial for readers of Luther to understand that for him the motif was bound up within the total “thickness” of Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, discipleship, etc. In contrast to the temptation to treat the notion as a critical principle that can be detached from this total picture of Christian existence, scholarly attention to Luther must take seriously the ecclesiastically embedded character of theologia crucis—with all of the interweaving strands of inquiry that such embeddedness necessitates—in order to get the full picture of how Luther understood the cross’s impact on theology and the Christian life. The cross is also crucial theologically for Luther because it gets at the core of what he sees the theological project being able to do—deal with God in God’s self-revelation, under the confusing and sometimes seemingly paradoxical terms by which God chooses to engage humanity. Theologia crucis thus stands as the theological putting to death of the Old Adam—who is aligned, for Luther, with theologies of glory—so as to allow the theologian to hear and proclaim the gospel apart from pretension or undue speculation.