The Question of Martyrdom

Nor does voluntary suffering for the sake of Christ necessarily require martyrdom, although that must remain a possibility in every Christian's life. Speaking in the voice of Anti-Climacus in Practice in Christianity (1850), Kierkegaard states:

I have never asserted that every Christian is a martyr, or that no one was a true Christian who did not become a martyr, even though I think that every true Christian should—and here I include myself—in order to be a true Christian, make a humble admission that he has been let off far more easily than true Christians in the strictest sense, and he should make this admission so that, if I may put it this way, the Christian order of rank may not be confused and the no. 1 place completely disappear as place no. 2 takes over its position. (PC 226-7)

But Kierkegaard seems to be of two minds on this issue, inasmuch as in Two Ethical-Religious Essays (1849), H.H., the anonymous 'author' of that work, maintains that no one has the right to allow oneself to be put to death for the truth as Christ did since no one possesses absolute truth and authority to atone for this misdeed as he did (WA 49, 83-4, 86).36 The martyrdom of the apostles constituted an exception, inasmuch as over against the non-Christian world they may be said to have possessed absolute truth. In relation to other Christians, however, there is only a relative difference between persons since every human being is a sinner. Thus one dare not let others become guilty of murder by allowing them to put one to death for the sake of truth. Even if one assumes that 'so-called Christendom is not Christian at all' but 'far more pagan than paganism was', one dare not accuse others face to face of not being Christians, since only God knows the human heart (87). Thus one cannot justify letting others put one to death on the basis of their presumed paganism. In the spirit of Works of Love, H.H. argues that love for others as neighbours will prevent one from allowing that to happen, for by 'lovingly considering their cause', just as Christ 'lovingly bore in mind his enemies' cause', one comes to recognize through self-examination that one is not superior to others in the possession of truth and therefore must 'keep watch' so that they do not falsely become more guilty than they deserve (88). The upshot of the matter for the present generation of Christians, therefore, would seem to be that they dare not allow themselves to be martyred for the truth. But this conclusion saddens Kierkegaard's anonymous 'author', who wonders how a religious awakening can be brought about 'if one does not dare to use the only true means of awakening, to let oneself be put to death

36 See also Burgess (2006) and Barrett (2006).

for the truth' (84). He nevertheless suggests that in a society ruled by a tyrant, whether that is an individual or the crowd, it is not inconceivable that, ironically, one might be put to death simply because one defends the view that one does not have the right to let oneself be put to death for the truth. Thus the possibility of martyrdom is not entirely ruled out. Indeed, we shall have occasion to revisit this issue in the next chapter in light of the Danish political revolution of 1848 and Kierkegaard's final attack on Christendom.

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