2016 Sherman Emerging Scholar
Dr. John Soboslai
Dying for God? Martyrdom Across the Ages
Martyrs appear in nearly every culture throughout history. These sacred deaths consistently appear to be performed in resistance to an oppressive regime bent on the culture’s utter annihilation. In the face of such threats, martyrs refuse to accept any existence empty of the practices laying at the core of their cultural character, preferring death to a life devoid of meaning. It is this absolute opposition that leads to martyrdom’s celebration as the epitome of devotion and commitment, often framing it as a religious category of self-sacrifice. However, examining the historical contexts wherein martyrs are created reveals those contexts to be thoroughly defined by concerns about political self-determination. Moreover, in some places martyrs are explicitly non-violent, whereas in others the term is applied to people who violently kill others. Some martyrs directly cause their own deaths; others merely allow themselves to be killed. What, then, does it mean to be a martyr?
This talk will discuss three disparate contexts of martyrdom: first, second-century Christians who faced a threat from the expanding Roman Empire and first established our concept of martyrdom. Second, modern transnational jihadi Islamist organizations, who have mobilized the idea into a military strategy known as “martyrdom operations” (a.k.a. “suicide bombings”). Finally, I will look at how the term has been used in reference to Tibetan Buddhists who have self-immolated in opposition to Chinese rule in the last decade. These dissimilar settings all see contrasting existential visions colliding upon the bodies of individuals, leading to the extensive use of “martyr” in designating those who gave their lives for one in the face of demands to recognize another. By tracing the development of these sacrificial ideologies, it will become clear that religious doctrines provide a means of opposing, resisting, and ultimately supplanting the political power of the state. In order for such a utopian situation to come about, people must be willing to show the dedication and piety modeled by sacred figures and directed toward a divine sovereign authority.
Dr. John Soboslai is Assistant Professor of Religion in Contemporary Global Politics at Montclair State University. He earned his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara after receiving an MA in the History of Religion from Columbia University. John is the author of several articles on various topics regarding religion and violence, and in 2015 UC Press released his first book, co-authored with Mark Juergensmeyer, titled God in the Tumult of the Global Square.
Emerging Scholar Presentation
Wednesday, October 19, 7:30PM