Christians make an audacious claim about the ordering of creation: that everything—everything—is held together by Christ, the one through whom all things are made. In this claim, one finds the germ of all thinking about Christian vocation, the relationship between church and world, and the calling for Christians to be present to the world’s suffering. For if all things have been given by God in Christ, then there is no context in the world in which the Christian should be afraid of bearing witness.
But in no arena is this claim more contested than in what it means for Christians to be present to violence. In violence we find an irresolvable knot: violence is not necessary—it’s not intrinsic to God’s nature or to the created cosmos—but it persists in the world nonetheless.
As we see in the crucifixion of Christ, good may yet come through violence, but what goodness that comes forth is accompanied by scars, from Christ’s own hands to the traumatic dreams of the soldier. And yet the question of what to make of those who engage in violence as part of a Christian vocation remains murky. The halls of Christian saints and martyrs are mostly bereft of those who took up the sword as soldiers and who saw their vocation as an exercise in Christian discipleship. While their piety and virtues may be exemplary, their active violence has not been seen as the occasion for valuing their imitatio Christi. It is here that the central question of Matthew Lundberg’s new book, Christian Martyrdom and Christian Violence, arises: If a Christian soldier fighting for a just cause is killed in battle, why shouldn’t they be counted among the virtuous martyrs?
Lundberg begins by acknowledging that within Christian history there are only a few precedents for including just warriors as official saints. But within Anabaptist circles there is a sizable precedent for naming as martyrs those whose deaths were inseparable from their commitments to nonviolence: the Martyrs’ Mirror provides numerous stories of sixteenth-century Anabaptists who would rather die than defend themselves against their innumerable enemies. Lundberg argues that these Christians, who took it as Christ’s command to live lives of pacifism, are remembered because of their nonviolent imitation of Christ’s teaching and example. For Lundberg, this is the animating concern of the book: If the Anabaptists can name martyrs for their nonviolent imitation of Christ, can those who bear the sword in just wars also be considered to imitate Christ and thus be accorded the honor of martyrdom for their actions? “If something like fighting is legitimate for Christians under some circumstances, then it seems like martyrdom should be a possibility there,” Lundberg observes. And from there he begins his own exploration of the imitation of Christ in just wars. Emphasizing moral reasoning, internal moral formation of the just warrior as conceived by Augustine and Aquinas, and the validity of Christian vocations in the world, Lundberg builds out an account of how the just warrior imitates Christ in their own way and thus can be seen as a martyr.
After laying out the account of nonviolent martyrdom found in Martyrs’ Mirror, Lundberg develops a robust theology of how we identify martyrs. His criteria, well established, include coherence of practice with Christian virtue, but also intention, the self-conscious pursuit of faithfulness, and refusal to remove oneself from danger for the sake of God. Simply refusing to engage in violence does not make one a martyr; imitation of Christ does. Here Lundberg’s theology of imitation of Christ takes an important turn. Following Bonhoeffer’s writings in Ethics, Lundberg argues that Christ is the one who centres the Christian in the world, and the one who summons us to responsibility within the world that he has redeemed: to imitate Christ is not simply to follow the teachings of Jesus but to listen to the call of Jesus in the world. Accordingly, the just warrior seeks to be responsible to the Christ who calls us into today’s world and into today’s murky complexities in which violence is ubiquitous.
Lundberg follows this examination of how Christ calls us into our various vocations (which may sometimes involve taking up the sword) with a second question: What is the role of the context of the martyr’s death in naming them as a martyr? The early Anabaptists, Lundberg rightly notes, neither desired nor sought out martyrdom; it was foisted on them in the chaos of the early reformations. The manner of their deaths (and thus their status as martyrs) came not as a consequence of their commitment to nonviolence per se, but as a consequence of their commitment to nonviolence in the context of hostility toward them.
For Lundberg, by contrast, just soldiering is a legitimate Christian vocation. In determining whether martyrdom has occurred, the question of whether one is following one’s vocation is therefore more important than the context in which one’s death occurs. And if just warriors are following their God-given vocations, then it must be possible that their actions are part of their sanctification, since Christ’s sanctification must be unrestricted and capable of sanctifying all of creation. Lundberg adopts a Niebuhrian reading of Bonhoeffer here: when one acts in responsibility—even though one is held accountable for one’s action—one is acting in a world that Christ has already forgiven. The one who undertakes violence as a matter of responsibility must not despair but must live faithfully as Christ’s disciple in the fog of war.
At this late hour of the debates between just war advocates and pacifists, few imagine that the violence of the world is so discrete as to be limited to war, or that all the tools available for ending conflict involve violence. It is thus refreshing that Lundberg does not begin his discussion by exploring whether violence can be redemptive, but shifts it toward the harder question of whether those who exercise violence do so in a way that is intrinsic to their own redemption. Can the violence of a Christian be not simply an accommodation to the “tragic” conditions of life in the world but rather an act (discretely circumscribed) that invites us to see them as imitating Christ? Lundberg is ultimately interested not in a justification of the just war tradition but in the broader question of what it means for our lives in the world to be sanctified. For the martyrs are exemplars not simply of action but of sanctification: a martyr is not simply one who acts heroically but one through whom the world sees an aspect of the sanctified Christian life.
Lundberg does not begin his discussion by exploring whether violence can be redemptive, but shifts it toward the harder question of whether those who exercise violence do so in a way that is intrinsic to their own redemption.
Having laid out Lundberg’s argument, let us step back and take stock. Given that much just war literature is entwined with questions of political theory, Lundberg’s focus on the sanctifying dimensions of war makes his project much more interesting. He looks beyond the boring back-and-forth debates of whether violence is permissible to the deeper question of what orders permissibility: virtue and sanctification. Naming the just warrior as a martyr has far less to do with whether the just warrior is heroic and far more to do with whether their actions are cruciform. Lundberg’s animating intent is that just warriors be reconciled to the church and to their own lives. It will not do for the penitent just warrior to wander like Odysseus, never able to come home from the war long after he has lost the desire to fight virtuously. In true emergency situations of war (as opposed to the merely rhetorical ones used to justify wars more loosely), the soldier cannot be beyond the reach of sanctification. The church, Lundberg argues, should—in light of the seemingly unavoidable situations of war—work to alleviate the shame of the ones who bear the sword rather than name their work as actual guilt: “Penance would be for the benefit of the soldier, because it is specifically their souls that have been injured, not because the responsibility for war and its killing is being pinned entirely on them.” Again, the de-emphasizing of context here ensures that the just warrior can aspire to the nomenclature of “martyr” given to their Anabaptist counterparts.
The ambiguity intrinsic to the context in which Christians find themselves is, I think, for Lundberg, not just happenstance but a matter of divine design. He frequently makes reference to N.T. Wright’s framework for viewing the narrative structure of Scripture as providing four acts of a five-act play (creation, sin, Israel, Jesus, and church). Our own era is the continued fifth act of God’s economy. In the present age we improvise, make use of precedents. We do not slavishly repeat the Scriptures, but live in light of God’s revelation in Scripture. For Wright, the Scriptures indicate the pattern by which our own faithfulness is to be borne out. By adopting Wright’s description of our age as a continuation rather than a repetition of the fifth act, Lundberg seeks room for the manifold contexts in which Christians might be guided by the christological concerns of the church but not limited with respect to the contexts in which those christological concerns might be enacted. We no longer live with sacralized forms of violence that require sacrifices to the gods, but we live in a world in which violence is a matter of geopolitics and of maintaining order within society. Therefore, the early church (Act 5a) might give us guidance, but Christ’s commands must be enacted in new contexts beyond the narrative of Scripture that are nevertheless compatible with it.
In the end, Lundberg writes, the question of whether to engage in violence is “a leap of faith, a spiritual and moral gamble” that either just war or pacificism will maintain peace in the world. This description of the motivation of the pacifist is erroneous (many pacifists do not presume that nonviolence will bring about peace in isolation from other practices), but it illuminates Lundberg’s project. In calling his thesis—that sanctification is possible through the use of violence—“a leap of faith,” Lundberg affirms that Christ calls us into a violent world. But he leaves the Christian without a clear sense of the content of that discipleship. It seems that, for Lundberg, discipleship must merely take the form appropriate to the context; it is a discipleship which demands that God offer sanctification to all things because our intentions are good.
The martyrs are exemplars not simply of action but of sanctification: a martyr is not simply one who acts heroically but one through whom the world sees an aspect of the sanctified Christian life.
Lundberg’s exploration of sanctification, which lies at the heart of his book, assumes that the Spirit does not require ideal circumstances for his work to obtain in our lives. Here a question arises, not only about the freedom Christians are given (following Wright) to improvise in the modern world, but also about context’s role within Lundberg’s argument. Affirming God’s universal salvific intent presumes that wherever one is, the Spirit must be at work regenerating and sanctifying the Christian. In principle this is true, but Lundberg passes over an important distinction: there is arguably a difference between Christ holding all of creation together—standing at the centre of the village, as Bonhoeffer described it—and Christ sanctifying all possible engagements within those contexts of creation. For the context of just warriors is not one in which, like the Anabaptist martyrs, they found themselves, but one—whether by vocation, calling, or enlistment—they actively pursued. The requirement for Christ to sanctify all contexts thus becomes the more presumptuous requirement that Christ sanctify the chosen arena of conflict. This is where—within war—the roles of the soldier, the mediator, and the medic help us see the underdeveloped problem of Lundberg’s proposal: all three find themselves in the same violent context but not in the same way, and thus they are not all formed by the Spirit after the same fashion. It is for this reason that the concept of moral injury within the armed forces emerged: frequently, soldiers feel dissonance between their actions, which they are told are justified and in accordance with just causes, and their inner moral compass, which tells them otherwise.
One can surmise that one does not hear about moral injury among medics, chaplains, or negotiators for this reason: the context is the same, but their position within the context is different. The damage done by war to chaplains or medics may be similarly traumatizing, but the presence of moral injury among soldiers reveals the difference between going into a violent context and participating in the violence of that context. In Lundberg’s argument, “context” is deployed in a passive manner with respect to the soldier’s sanctification: the soldier is simply there in the conflict, and the Spirit works within their life, enabling them to act virtuously. But, as we saw with the comparison to the Anabaptist martyrs, this attribution of passivity is not entirely true when it comes to the just warrior. Yes, God remains with us in all times and places, but, no, the soldier is not passively present. They received a summons to help repair the world and answered it by becoming a soldier. This is not to say that the Spirit does not seek them out and lead them in the theater of war, but that is very different from claiming that the Spirit whom Christ sends directs the soldier in conducting lethal actions.
Lundberg’s proposal, to find a just war analogue to the Anabaptist martyrs, causes us to ask a different and more potentially destabilizing question for his broader project: What if linking martyrdom to nonviolence is simply a mistake, a mistake that invites the counter-mistake of making martyrs out of just warriors because of their violence? There is good reason for Lundberg to read Martyrs’ Mirror and subsequent Anabaptist history as making this link between martyrdom and nonviolence. In my book Bodies of Peace, I argue that in John Howard Yoder’s celebrated Politics of Jesus, nonviolence follows the contours of God’s work and, accordingly, nonviolence is inseparable from the virtuous Christian life. This tendency was not just Yoder’s within the modern period. Reading backward from the twentieth century, one can see this connection from the beginnings of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, but not as the exclusive marker of virtue. Early Anabaptist writings emphasize a wide range of practical piety, of which nonviolence was one part but not the singular piece. Theologically, naming a practice as such as emblematic of the Christian martyr’s life runs the real risk of detaching the practice from the reason of the practice: to be more like Christ. For the early Anabaptists, it was not enough to simply be nonviolent; one was nonviolent as a matter of embodying Christ’s teaching.
In conclusion, Lundberg is to be commended for clarifying the theological heart of many disagreements between pacifists and just warriors and refocusing these conversations on what violence has to do with the broader contours of the Christian life. The frequently discussed topics within this centuries-long conversation—hermeneutics, church history, the nature of violence—often sidestep this more central theological question of God’s sanctification of the Christian. Without question, God sanctifies the totality of creation: there is nothing that is made that is not made through the Word, John reminds us. But in his account of the sanctification of the just warrior, Lundberg presumes that because a Christian is there in the arena of war, the sanctifying work of the Spirit must obtain. Our actions, in this view, are justified by the needs of the context; they need not correspond to the character of the one who sends us there.
This brings us to the referent of the Spirit’s sanctification—the image of Christ. Lundberg is correct: the Christ who undergirds the world and draws us out into it is the same Christ the Christian wishes to imitate. And when Christ calls us, we will find ourselves led by the hands to places we do not wish to go; the contexts are frequently not of our choosing. But our responsibility can also be used as a justification, a presumptuous assumption of the Spirit’s work that disregards how we inhabit a context. It is here that, as with H. Richard Niebuhr before him, Lundberg must more closely interrogate the concept of responsibility, lest imitatio become one more vehicle for conforming the work of Christ to what appears to us as necessity.