Martyrdom: Worst Idea Ever

Martyr accounts play an important role in reinforcing conflict

Posted Feb 26, 2017

    My first nomination for Worst Idea Ever would have to be the notion of martyrdom.  The word, “martyr,” means “witness” in Greek, and it emerged from the struggles of the early Christians with imperial Rome.  Martyrdom narratives focus on the pure innocence of the victim and the joyful, buoyant spirit with which the martyr receives horrific punishment and death.  I am reminded of the accounts of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who died in the colosseum in the year 203 CE.  These saints are considered remarkable for the fact that they were women, and Perpetua was able to record mystical visions in her own hand before her death.  I suppose it is laudable that some saints are female, even in the extreme patriarchy of the Roman and Orthodox churches, but consider what an example this is for women:

Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheatre as it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism. ….Then truly they gave thanks because they had received somewhat of the sufferings of the Lord.

That’s right, folks, the second baptism is the baptism of blood.  This glorification of violence and blood sacrifice does not actually contest the imperial cruelty of Rome: it rather participates in this violence and celebrates it.  I suppose we might admire the commitment of these women--maybe--but there is something deeply troubling about needing to prove your belief by suffering and dying, as though the idea were more important than the person.  

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

    And isn’t this the source of all of the trouble in world history, that people willingly go to their deaths over an idea?  And that such people are idolized in their deaths, made to be superhuman, regardless of their motives? I find it quite an odd juxtaposition to hear televangelists and politicians raving about the dangers of Islam: I wonder if they have ever read the Jewish and Christian scriptures, with their numerous acts of wanton violence in the name of God.  And the violence in martyrdom accounts goes far beyond the pain and suffering inflicted on the “victim.” Implicit in the idea of  pure victimhood is an accusing attitude towards the purported aggressor (note the anti-semitism in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, especially in the book of John).  Any time an account of a spotlessly pure and innocent victim is circulated, the pogroms cannot be far behind.   So it should come as no surprise that the Christians, who were briefly on the receiving end of violence, would very quickly turn around and start killing Jews and pagans, burning down their temples and forcing them from their homes.  The religion that began as a purported rebellion against empire became an imperial religion.  

    I don’t actually buy into the idea that religion is the source of most of the violence in the world, which seems to me a facile argument.  One can just as easily be a martyr for communism, and capitalism, too, demands its blood sacrifices on a daily basis.  Religious violence is usually intertwined with political and economic factors, and it feeds on other markers of difference, like race and ethnicity.  Ethnicity has more to do with religious conflict than many Christians would like to admit: a Christian America is a not-so-subtle code for a white America.   But I do think there is something especially problematic about holding up the ideal of dying for one’s faith to be the model which others should emulate.  The point should be to live for one’s faith, not to die for it.  And martyrs are very useful for prolonging violent conflict: they are the key centerpieces in any effective propaganda campaign.  I do not mean to say that none of the saints were really innocent or that people don’t do bad things--it’s just that martyrdom can be mobilized politically in harmful ways.  Defusing violent conflict has to begin with ratcheting down the martyrdom claims and abandoning the stance of pure victimhood.  

    Aside from the geopolitical implications, martyrdom also upholds the long-suffering person as the ideal.  I don’t know about you, but I want my life to stand for more than just enduring an intolerable situation for a long time before finally dying a horrible death. This type, this cultural symbol of martyrdom, leads people to belief in the virtue of suffering for suffering’s sake.  In the world where we live, we don’t have to go out and look for torments to demonstrate our faithfulness: life provides enough challenges on its own.  We don’t need an evil, externalized enemy in order to reassure ourselves of the truth of our beliefs.  Our beliefs should be able to stand or fall on their own, without a test provided by persecution.  Not to say that persecution isn’t real: it just isn’t redemptive.  The believer who needs to be persecuted in some way, who clings to persecution like a security blanket, actually clings to enmity, needs enmity in order to shore up some internal deficit.  Rather than demonstrating faith, clinging to martyrdom looks to me like a desperate ploy for attention, a blood-soaked battle flag to rally the troops (pure white and blood red as opposite sides of the same coin).  

    I am not one of those intellectuals who takes a giddy pleasure in knocking all things religious, which looks like the same sort of thing that the zealots of all stripes do to each other.  I just think that, for the sake of peace in the world, interpersonal and international, the tired martyrdom discourse needs to go.  In this messy, grownup world of ours, there is no pure, guilt-free place from which to stand and accuse.   Every ideology has its dark side, its unintended consequences, and that applies both to sacred and secular causes.  One of my late teachers, Dr. Otto Maduro, taught me that we must always be cognizant of the negative impact of the ideologies that we espouse, and not just fulminate on the faults of our enemies.  And that is a much more difficult and valuable discipline than undergoing all of the torments in the world.


Medieval Sourcebook: "St.Perpetua: The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity 203."