Acton Institute Powerblog

Economics of Martyrdom

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Although purporting to be a post about the “economics of religion,” EconLog’s Bryan Caplan discusses what is really the “economics of martyrdom,” or, to be even more accurate, the “economics of a particular type of ‘martyrdom,’ suicide terrorism.” Caplan’s comments are in reaction to a paper by Lawrence Iannaccone, “The Market for Martyrs.”

The pressing question, according to Caplan, is “How come American opponents of abortion engage in almost no terrorism, much less suicidal terrorism?” And his answer is, “Despite their fiery rhetoric, almost no Americans want to go to jail or die just to stop abortion.” Apparently self-interest is at work. Not an all-together surprising reaction from an economist.

Both Caplan and Iannaccone engage in a supply/demand analysis of the situation, both agreeing that there is very little demand for such martyrs, but disagreeing over whether there is a supply.

The discussion to me seems to miss a much larger point, that is, the Christian teaching about civil disobedience. There’s a long line of literature in the Christian tradition that talks about the complex theological and ethical considerations of taking up arms, either against the State or in place of the State that has abandoned its responsibilities.
The biblical emphasis is generally on the side of obedience to the State (see Romans 13). That is, at most times and in most places, the Christian will be subject to the rule of the civil magistrate. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, in reference to the fifth commandment (“Honor your father and your mother…”) states that the Christian is to “honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I obey and submit to them, as is proper, when they correct and punish me; and also that I be patient with their failings–for through them God chooses to rule us” (Q&A 104).

So far so good. But what about when the State passes laws that are directly contradictory to God’s law? What about when the State is not doing its divinely ordained job? Are we not to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 NIV)?

The deeply rooted Christian respect for the rule of law and the role of the civil magistrate makes it difficult to say in what way we are to obey God rather than men in such situations. Is it morally right to lie to Nazis when they come knocking at your door and you are hiding Jews? Is it morally right to kill those Nazis? The Heidelberg Catechism, representative of much of the Christian tradition, complicates matters when it says that a good work necessarily “conforms to God’s law” (Q&A 91).

“So why don’t American opponents of abortion do suicide bombing?” The lack of a supply and/or demand for religious martyrs in the case of abortion in the United States is most probably due to a lack of clear understanding about what Christians are to do exactly in such situations. It is not apparent when we are we to cross the line into violent civil disobedience, what form such disobedience ought to take, et al.

The objective evil of whatever practice is being protested against is not the issue. There was hardly a groundswell of Christian uprising against Hitler in Germany, despite the obvious evil of the Holocaust. And even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler, did so with a troubled conscience, in part because he was unsure whether such action ought to be decided upon by an individual rather than by the community of believers.

The lack of American Christian suicide bombers has less to do with the general unwillingness to die for God or a religious cause, I think, than it does with genuine doubt about what concrete actions Christians are to take in the face of such institutional evil. There’s a general impotency resulting from a lack of ethical clarity.

All of which raises the question, “How will people look back on this?”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.