What Makes a Martyr? The Movement for Black Lives and the Power of Rhetoric Old and New

Adam Ployd. Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume 55, Issue 1, Winter 2020.

This essay explores the question of what makes a martyr by placing the early Christian discourse on martyrdom in conversation with the protest and commemoration practices surrounding recent killings of persons of color by United States law enforcement. It argues that white Christians, who are often skeptical of the application of martyrial language to the victims of such racialized violence, ought to be open to the theological significance of such practices. Doing so will allow us to learn new ways of understanding and participating in God’s justice and victory over the forces of death in our world.


On Saturday, August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri. Less than a week later, in the midst of protest and militarization, burning buildings, and tear-gassed demonstrators, the Ferguson police chief released a surveillance video that appeared to show Mr. Brown committing a strong-arm robbery at a local convenience store just prior to his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. For many in the public who were tired of the outrage directed at police, tired of hearing how Black Americans are mistreated on a regular basis in our society, tired of the shouts of “Black Lives Matter!”—for many, this video was the evidence they needed for the truth they already believed: Michael Brown was no saint. He was no angel. He was a thug. Therefore, his killing, though tragic, was consistent with a certain view of justice. This man was no martyr.

This type of “no angel” rhetoric has been used time and again to dismiss the pain of and cries for justice from communities of color when state-sanctioned lethal violence is brought to bear against unarmed Black men and women. If Michael Brown were a “thug,” the logic goes, he cannot be seen as an “innocent” victim of police abuse. This creates an impossible standard; if all that is needed to warrant extrajudicial killing is not being completely innocent, then all of us deserve the death penalty that so many unarmed people of color have been assigned. Only a truly holy saint, it seems, would deserve outrage and justice when killed by police. All others somehow must have deserved what they got.

This pervasive “no angel” rhetoric in the contemporary United States context of racialized violence and abuses of state power has important corollaries in early Christian discourse on martyrdom. Indeed, the term “martyr” has routinely been invoked to characterize Brown and others on the long list of victims. Similarly, opponents of the Movement for Black Lives continually challenge the idea that Brown should be described in martyr terms. Moreover, whether or not one uses the word “martyr,” the communal commemoration of the unjust killing of someone by the state comes to resemble practices around the remembrance of communally significant figures on annual feast days.

All of this raises the questions: What makes a martyr? What distinguishes a martyr from other dead humans? These questions lie at the core of key early Christian debates about martyrdom, and the answers that arose in figures such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430) bear a striking resemblance to the rhetoric that deployed the convenience store video as proof that Brown was no angel, no martyr, that he somehow must have deserved his extrajudicial execution. It is the cause, Augustine, says, not the punishment, that makes a martyr. This principle then invites psychological speculation on the motive or moral character of the person killed, often for the purpose—as with Michael Brown and the convenience store video—of discrediting any claims to injustice in his death.

In what follows, I explore the rhetorical nature of early Christian martyr discourse, particularly in Augustine and his North African context, in order to illuminate the rhetoric used to justify (or at least to ignore) extra-judicial killing of persons of color in the U.S. This parallel will invite our consideration of the proper use of martyr language within twenty-first-century churches and other communities that seek to work for justice and equity in the face of state-sanctioned racialized violence.

In the end, I argue that, while it is not up to white allies such as myself to decide when and how communities of color use the rhetoric of martyrdom, we should see it as a valid and powerful discourse for commemorating death at the hands of an unjust system. While I do not personally approve of Augustine’s efforts to deny the legitimacy of his opponents’ claim to martyrdom, I believe his rhetorical work invites us to consider several helpful questions about the nature and purpose of martyrdom, particularly as he highlighted the role of the community, the reason for the death in question, and the purpose of ritualized commemoration. For white, Christian, would-be allies, martyr discourse represents a deep resource within the ecumenical Christian tradition that may allow us to hear better the cries for justice of our siblings of color.

The Power of Martyrdom Rhetoric

Nowhere was the cult of the martyrs more powerful in early Christianity than in North Africa.2 The first Christian text we have from the region is The Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs, which narrates the arraignment that led to the martyrdom of a dozen people. Not long after, the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas inspired a most celebrated text, much of it likely written by Perpetua herself, depicting not just the trial and execution but also an apocalyptic theology that subverted the seeming might of the empire with a vision of conquering in death. As the North African theologian Tertullian observed, “The blood of Christians is seed.” Although the supposed phrase, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” is a misquotation, it still captures the spirit of Tertullian as well as the defiant spirit of martyr discourse in the midst of persecution. From the Roman perspective, killing Christians should have persuaded others to get in line or at least have dissuaded more from joining. According to the rhetoric of Tertullian and others, it had the opposite effect, as the virtues of courage and fidelity displayed by the martyrs (at least as depicted in later texts) testified to the truth of their cause and of their faith. While historians have taken great pains to separate the facts of persecution from the myths, the power and significance of martyrdom rhetoric for early Christians is undeniable as a source of communal identity formation in opposition to an imperial other.

Nevertheless, the power of martyrdom rhetoric also manifests through internecine conflicts. In the generation after Perpetua and Tertullian, specifically the 250’s, Christians in North Africa became divided over responses to persecution. When the emperor commanded all citizens to offer sacrifices, some Christians suffered incarceration, torture, and/or death for refusing to do so. Others purchased forged certificates attesting to their sacrifice. Still others actually did sacrifice. What, then, was to be done about Christians in these last two categories? Should they be read-mitted immediately or over a lifetime of penance, or did their apostasy and pagan pollution prevent them from ever reconciling with the church on earth? After all, they had disgraced the memory of the martyrs in failing to make a true confession of their faith. To make things worse, some apostates obtained letters of forgiveness from confessors awaiting death, promising to appeal directly to Christ on behalf of the apostate. How could a bishop possibly go against the authority of a martyr in deciding an apostate’s fate?

In these second-and third-century incidents, we witness the cultural construction of the martyr and of martyrdom as discursively powerful symbols for the Christian community. This symbolic power manifests itself in practical piety by way of the martyr cults that developed following the end of (most) persecution in the empire following the Edict of Milan in 313. With martyrdom no longer an option for most Christians, those who did suffer that fate (in reality or not) became the objects of devotion, heroic figures, and arbiters of divine power and favor. Shrines developed around supposed burial sites or collected relics, and the “birthdays” (death days) of the martyrs were celebrated with feasts. In refrigeria, devotees would bring food and drink to offer to and share with the martyrs at their graves or shrines, allegedly to the point of drunken revelry—yet also as a way to bridge the gap between the living and the dead through a common table. Much of late antique Christianity saw bishops struggling to bring the cult of the martyrs into the church itself, that is, to domesticate it under their authority.

Thus, when we come to our primary historical focus, Augustine’s dispute with the Donatists in the fourth and fifth centuries, we see that the North African church had cultivated a strong, visceral understanding of martyrs and of martyrdom as central to the nature of the church and at the heart of personal piety. In fact, martyr concerns initiated the schism in the first decades of the fourth century when some North African bishops were accused of having abused confessors in jail, and others were accused of handing over scripture to be burned. The supposed pollution of these bishops led others to reject their validity and separate from them, calling them traditores (“traitors” or “those who hand over”) and collaborators with the persecutors and calling themselves the “church of the martyrs.” The power of this last claim cannot be overstated, for it lies at the heart of this essay. I turn now to explore how Augustine sought to counter that claim by redefining what makes a martyr.

Non Poena Sed Causa

Augustine and other Catholic writers tried for decades to undermine the Donatist claims by means of historical arguments. They produced document upon document suggesting that the Donatist claims of Catholic traditio and collaboration were false, but, a century after the precipitating incidents, the original facts did not matter. The Donatists had the cultural and moral high ground. Coopting the language of martyrdom gave them legitimacy. They were the church of the martyrs, and any community that stood against them was necessarily the church of the persecutor. This rhetorical self-depiction was strengthened by the fact that the now-Christian empire had sided with the Catholics. (Indeed, that is why the Catholics are remembered as Catholic, but the Donatists are given the name of their own leader, to depict them as a separate and illegitimate sect of schismatics.) When the empire enforced religious conformity, the Donatists could depict themselves not only as the church of the martyrs by tradition but also as the church that still suffered martyrdom. Therefore, Augustine and the Catholics had to find a way to reclaim the symbolic power of martyrdom for their own communion. As a former professor of rhetoric, Augustine turned to the classical techniques of argumentation and persuasion he had once taught.

Augustine’s response to the martyrdom rhetoric of the Donatists was summed up in a slogan: non poena sed causa, “not the penalty but the cause.” That is to say, simply dying or suffering in some other way is not enough to make one a martyr. Rather, the cause for which one suffered is what matters. In Augustine’s Catholic eyes, the Donatists were suffering persecution not for the good causes of church unity, love of God, or love of neighbor, but for their own stubborn pride. Therefore, the Donatists could not call themselves the church of the martyrs, no matter the punishments suffered by their members at the hands of the state.

The non poena sed causa slogan arose from the same rhetorical theory and practices that Augustine himself had taught for years. In particular, he was engaging the field of forensic rhetoric, which taught how to argue in the courts. (The relevance of such a skill for the Catholic and Donatist appeals to the imperial authorities and our own appeals to local, state, and national authorities should not be missed.) In forensic cases, the first thing to do is to establish the stasis, or the “issue” upon which the case turns. At the first level, the stasis may be one of conjecture, seeking to determine if X happened or not. Augustine’s efforts to establish the historical record in the Catholics’ favor are an example of this type of stasis. If the circumstances are agreed upon (or if they are unable to be agreed upon), one may move to a stasis of definition, seeking to determine how X is to be labeled or categorized. Finally, if the first two options are in agreement, one can move to a stasis of quality, seeking to determine whether X may have been performed justly.

As may be obvious, non poena sed causa is a stasis of definition. Augustine pleaded his case by claiming that, while the Donatists may have suffered punishment under Catholic authorities, this does not mean they can claim the title of martyrdom. Indeed, the concern of who can claim a reward for something lies at the heart of ancient explanations of the definition stasis. A typical textbook example is that of a tyrannicide. According to a (likely imagined) law, anyone who kills a tyrant could claim whatever reward one wanted from the magistrates. But, what if a man, being caught by the tyrant in flagrante delictio with the tyrant’s wife, killed the tyrant in order to save his own skin? Should that count as true tyrannicide? According to rhetorical textbooks, this is not tyrannicide, precisely because it has the wrong causa or motive.

Augustine’s choice of definition via causa translates well from the tyrannicide example to his martyr polemics. The Donatists often used Mt. 5:10—”Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NRSV)—to justify the exclusivity of their claim to be the true church. Only those who suffer persecution can inherit the realm of God. This idea of a promised reward is an extension of the “martyrs’ crown” language that describes the divine recognition of the martyrs’ accomplishment. Augustine was able to flip Mt. 5:10 against the Donatists by highlighting the “for righteousness’ sake” clause. Without the proper causa, the Donatists negated their claim to the reward and to the very name of martyr.

Of course, the title of “church of the martyrs” carried more immediate rewards as well. Capitalizing on the cultural power of martyr imagery, the church that can get the martyrs symbolically on their side would have a better chance of winning the hearts and minds of the North African laity who found themselves torn between the two communions. Thus, Augustine’s forensic rhetoric sought to convince the court—both the court of public opinion and the local imperial courts that decided how to adjudicate Donatist claims to persecution—that the powerful term “martyr” is a category error when applied to the Donatists, thus stripping them of their strongest rhetorical weapon and calling into question their claims of victimhood and moral superiority.

The parallels to our modern context of contestation over martyr language in the death of persons of color by police are, I hope, obvious. However, they deserve some unpacking and further reflection on how martyr language might be deployed by the church in light of our North African ancestors in the faith. Therefore, I now turn back to twenty-first-century Ferguson and beyond.

What Makes a Martyr Now?

The power of martyr rhetoric is still strong today, and it is no surprise that the terminology and practices of martyrdom have been deployed for the commemoration of Michael Brown and other persons of color killed by police officers. A shrine of flowers and stuffed animals developed on the spot in the street where Wilson shot and killed Brown and where Brown was left on display for over four hours. While out-of-town pilgrims make the journey to Canfield Apartments, local devotees continue to march and demonstrate in a liturgy of righteous anger, calling for justice and declaring that “the whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Even five years after his extrajudicial execution and even as many more are added to that list, you can still hear the chants: “Turn up, don’t turn down. We do this for Mike Brown!”

Of course, Brown is sadly just one of the martyrs honored by the Movement for Black Lives. From Trayvon Martin to Botham Jean, the roll of persons of color killed by police has become a cloud of witnesses testifying to American injustice. Just a few months after Brown’s death, Brittany Ferrel of Millennial Activists United explained her commitment to activism on St. Louis Public Radio: “It’s not solely about Michael Brown anymore…. Michael Brown was a martyr. He was the catalyst for it; we definitely want justice for Mike Brown, but this is so much bigger than Mike Brown now, so much bigger.” This “so much bigger” might be the most martyrial characteristic of Brown. Like the martyrs of early Christian North Africa, Brown’s death has galvanized a community—indeed, called one into being—to construct and perform an identity in opposition to the deadly other of state power.

So, we know that martyrial rhetoric is alive and well and empowering a host of communities working for justice. But, of course, rhetoric of any sort can be used for a host of ends. As with the “no angel” rhetoric and Augustine’s non poena sed causa slogan that dismiss the martyrial claims around many persons of color, martyrial rhetoric is not unilaterally applied but arises out of a complex social discourse of contestation. This raises the question with which I will conclude this essay: What makes for good, faithful use of martyr imagery and rhetoric?

The use of Augustine as a theological interlocutor may lead to some confusion. Am I proposing a one-to-one correspondence between his response to his context and how I think we should respond to ours? Certainly not. Indeed, if there is a correspondence, it is between Augustine’s non poena sed causa rejection of Donatist claims to martyrdom and our contemporary “no angel” rhetoric used to deny the injustice of the killing of people of color. In that sense, I denounce Augustine’s rhetoric just as I denounce the “no angel” rhetoric of our time. Despite Augustine’s efforts, I do not believe there is an objective standard for identifying martyrs that can adjudicate between competing claims.

However, I do believe that Augustine can help us think about what it means for communities to use and deploy martyr language well—not so that other communities can judge them, but so that communities themselves might be constructive in their use of martyrdom and, more importantly for the intended audience of this essay, that would-be white Christian allies who might be uncomfortable with the use of martyr language might come to see and appreciate the real theological and social possibilities of its use. This goal is not to speak for communities of color as to what martyrdom means to them but for white Christian allies to think about how they might understand martyr discourse in ways that promote allyship and justice.

So, how does Augustine help us think about the use of martyr language? First, we may ask, what is the causa? While we may disagree with how Augustine applied his non poena sed causa slogan, he still spoke to an important truth: Being killed by the state might not be enough to warrant calling someone a martyr. So, we should be able to identify what they were pursuing that led to their killing. The cause need not be an actively positive one such as exposing corruption. It could be a passively neutral one—such as trying to walk home on your neighborhood street as you do every day or getting some candy and a drink. In the current climate of police violence against persons of color, such quotidian acts become, for far too many, acts of protest and righteous defiance, simple behaviors that declare one’s human dignity. This concern is precisely why police, news media, and social media go to such lengths to plant a gun, depict the unarmed teenager as monstrously strong, or otherwise prove that the killer legitimately felt his or her life was in danger, no matter the objective reality of the scene. In the face of “no angel” and non poena sed causa attacks, the proclamation of martyrdom is an exercise in truth-telling in a world of “fake news.”

Second, we should ask to what the martyr’s death witnesses. After all, the Greek term “mártys” means witness, such as a witness in a trial. Early Christian texts, however, quickly adapted the sense of witness to be a testimony to the sovereignty of Christ or to the truth of the Christian faith. At times, this second question may be intimately connected to the first. A martyr may be a witness to the very causa for which she or he was killed, but this need not always be the case. After all, Michael Brown’s death became a witness not just for his own particular situation but also for the larger epidemic of police violence and the extrajudicial killing of persons of color. The martyr’s witness, therefore, need not be a positive one; it may instead testify to a particular social evil, using the power of martyr rhetoric to increase awareness of and advocate for change on the issue.

Third, we should explore how the martyrdom manifests within the community. Martyrdom is not just about words. It is also about rituals and other practices that evolve around the memory of the martyr, often to promote the values explored in our first and second questions. Hence, the marches that continue to occur on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing are a modern version of the martyr’s feast day. If martyr rhetoric is to be a vital and lifegiving force, it must be embodied with practices of remembrance and resistance.

Fourth, we must ask where the victory is. One constant theme in early Christian martyr discourse is the way in which martyrs, though they were defeated in the arena, are victors in heaven. Indeed, it is in dying that they conquer by way of an ironic subversion of the perceived power order. We also see hints of this in the modern movement, as signs and shirts proclaim, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” The parallel with Tertullian’s famous dictum should not be ignored. What victory do we seek through our newer martyrs? Is it a proclamation not to fear those who can only kill the body but cannot harm the soul? Is it legislative and policy change? Is it something eschatologically or historically imminent? Is it as simple as the call-and-response chant, “I. I believe. I believe that we will win!”?

Finally, for those of us who would be tempted to interrogate a community’s martyr claims, we must instead always ask what it means to them. There may be times to disagree with claims to martyrdom, but, more often than not, the most fruitful approach is to attend to the martyr discourse as a way to hear what is most important to a community, what pain has defined it, what hope sustains it, and what continued threats it still stands against. When outsiders feel the need to undermine a community’s martyr rhetoric, it is often because we feel threatened or even demonized by the discourse. However, rather than adopting a militant defensive position, we might allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the pain and the values that are expressed through someone else’s martyrs.


Martyr language is powerful. It can place those who deploy it in a position of moral superiority, of unquestioned self-righteousness in opposition to an oppressive, persecutorial other. If we move too easily into the rhetoric of martyrdom, we may be deceiving ourselves and others. However, if we are intentional about our use of the language and imagery of martyrdom, we can point to something beyond our individual pain and create a community of witnesses to living hope in the midst of death. I have personally been moved by the use of martyr rhetoric within the movement for Black lives and the commemoration of such figures as Michael Brown. I have equally been moved, normally in a negative way, by discursive efforts to dismiss or discredit claims of persecution and martyrdom. I believe that a constructive conversation between ancient and modern appeals to martyrdom allows us to develop a way of viewing the possibilities of martyr rhetoric that can encourage reflection and appreciation rather than judgment and dismissal. Particularly within Christian communities in the U.S. it is vital that we cultivate an approach to martyrdom that goes beyond the stories of the Roman Empire in order to account for the theological and pastoral significance of state-sanctioned killing within our own empire.