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The martyr is a potent symbol of sacrifice in Western cultural discourse. Understanding martyrdom as sacrifice, however, blunts the potency of the martyr's action. It obscures the violence by which the martyr's death becomes, paradoxically, a means to define institutional life. In this article, I propose an analogous relationship between the early Christian martyr and Giorgio Agamben's enigmatic homo sacer. Like homo sacer, the Christian martyr provides an “other” against which to organize institutional life. Read as a sacrifice, the martyr also exemplifies the threat of biopolitics that Agamben describes, where mere existence can be isolated from political life and made subject to sovereign violence. Distinguishing the martyr from their institutional appropriation is a step toward exposing the modes of violence inherent in sovereign power. It provides the possibility of reconceptualizing the martyr as an autonomous figure of resistance, not as homo sacer but as homo profanus.

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Recla, M. "Homo profanus: The Christian Martyr and the Violence of Meaning-Making", Critical Research on Religion, 2(2), pp. 147-164. Copyright © 2014, SAGE. Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications.

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