What is there about martyrdom that can at once repel, fascinate, inspire, and terrify us? The lives of the Christian saints are templates in suffering for devout causes, generally in their refusing in one way or another to renounce God in whom they believed completely and literally. Knowing myself as I do, I can’t imagine living during the Middle Ages or any other such period in history, facing an inquisition of any kind that might lead to my agonizing death from being burned at the stake or being broken on the wheel. Even being denied coffee for more than twelve hours would be enough to make me say anything judges wanted to hear, so it’s very difficult for me to understand sacrificing one’s life for what many might consider an idealistic abstraction with little or no basis in the physical world. Martyr deaths exclude ones from a military standpoint. Such deaths of soldiers from the Allied Forces during World War II, for example, had the immediate and earthly purpose of rescuing civilization itself from possible oblivion. Mind you, my instincts for self-preservation are not hedonistic and might just be considered perfectly normal by many other people. The saints, however, were anything but normal but have left their marks for centuries upon history.
Isis and other forms of the Taliban glorify suicide bombing for their principal cause, which is slaughtering infidels. Such glorification, along with the promise of carnal delights in the life hereafter (paradise) seems to be enough to puff up egos in the world of extreme Islam and, of late, includes some young American converts, who are devoid of identity or self-worth and for whom such majestic acclaim is so enticing, though it is horrible to think that even mass murder can become something that is lauded and rewarded on some grotesque level of ignorance and mental numbness.
People sometimes threaten martyrdom when they haven’t the slightest intention of following through with it. My mother, for example, used guilt as the penalty for the misbehavior of my brother, my sister, and me. Mom would put her right hand thumb and forefinger between her eyes and squeeze the bridge of her nose, tilting her head back slightly, closing her eyes and in a quivering voice utter, “Why do you kids do this to me? Where have I failed? I try so hard to do the right things for you. I cook, I clean, I remember your birthdays, and I make sure you do your homework. I don’t deserve this. It hurts. It really hurts.”
She would then open her left eye the tiniest bit just to make sure the effect of her performance was getting the result she wanted. David and I would look at each other as if to say, “Oh, God! We’ve done it again!” If Mom were in a particularly bad temper, she might increase the voltage of her words by adding, “Yes, I can see it all now…my coffin at Bocken’s Funeral Home. There will be flowers and soft weeping, but in the midst of all the mourning as I lie there, you kids will be wearing Indian headdresses, whooping and hollering at the top of your lungs. Then you’ll punch each other senseless after shaking the casket to plead, ‘Get up, Mom! He hit me again!’ And finally, each of you will scream, ‘I need clean underwear!’ but it will be too late, and you’ll all be terribly sorry.” At last she would take a deep breath, expel a heartrending sigh and leave the room, again looking askance during her exit to see if what she had said was registering in us some level of guilt. Such were many of the sessions with our mother, Saint Bonnie.
Less amusing today are the histrionics of some on the Christian far right, who whine incessantly that they are under attack by the country in its insidious attempts to destroy Christmas, the sanctity of marriage, prayer, and patriotism itself. Especially annoying have been attempts to arouse public sympathy and action regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to render gay marriage legal everywhere in the nation. For many others on the far right, the most important freedom is having no restriction on owning and using guns. The most outrageous threats over recent events are those claiming self-immolation if gay marriage isn’t repealed. Similar threats have been hurled over the Affordable Care Act. Such mean-spirited and dramatic intimidations make me want to gift wrap boxes of matches to help such people achieve their heinous martyrdoms, but the most astonishing part of such pseudo-martyrdom is the disturbing fact that the true victims of injustice for centuries have suddenly become the supposed oppressors, simply because they have been granted equal rights, also despite there never being any lucid, rational explanation as to how gay marriage can in any way destroy traditional matrimony.
Thus, many on the far right of these issues have become befuddled in their failing attempts to reverse the roles of the oppressors and the victims. The very thought of “equal” rights for all sends them into a tailspin of terror and rage. Such persecution has nothing whatever to do with God, the Bible, or anything else but personal fear, misunderstanding, ignorance, and incredible vanity based upon “Us versus them.” Like Don Quixote, they aim their lances at windmills and other imaginary enemies. Poor things. So, put your halos back into the drawer with the moth balls. Martyrdom based upon hate is no longer an option. Redirect your hatred against hunger, poverty, spousal abuse, animal cruelty, toxic prejudice, and the wanton, greedy destruction of our planet. That should keep you busy and prevent you from persecuting and wounding more innocent fellow human beings as your principal occupation. JB