Although it may seem to be an unusual interest to many people, I am a student of martyrdom. By this I do not mean the sort of “martyrdom” that is practiced, for example, by homicidal Muslim terrorists (and those of other ideologies) who believe that by giving their life they will kill many whom they deem wicked with them. For example, I do not consider Samson a martyr for his killing 3000 Philistines with him, although I would consider that a praiseworthy act in extremis. Rather, when I consider the aspect of faith that martyrdom represents, I am looking at those who do no harm to others, even against those who threat one’s freedom and one’s life. Rather than focus my attention on the end results of martyrdom, I would rather like to examine those factors in our life and behavior that lead someone to draw sufficient attention to themselves to be threatened with the fate of becoming a martyr of some kind.
Throughout the melancholy course of human history, many people have suffered anonymously because of accidents of history forced upon them, because of the brutal wars and struggles of corrupt leaders, because of famines and diseases, because of the evil of their relatives or neighbors. Most of these people were not martyrs. To be a martyr means that one’s death or suffering is not merely an accident, nor merely the result of some sort of personal vengeance, but rather that the death or suffering is the result of the larger and deeper aspect of belief that motivates both the martyr and those who persecute him (or her). Sometimes this can stem from the hostility of one’s neighbors, or from some personal drama where some belief or commitment is convenient to use to discredit someone, but most easily it comes from the visibility someone has as a target.
There are really two ways for people to get the visibility that can lead, in corrupt and wicked societies, to some form of martyrdom. The most obvious way is to be a leader of a group that is feared or hated by an insecure government. For example, leading a religious minority or leading a group that is devoted to the improvement of some sort of marginalized or oppressed group is a very easy ticket to some kind of martyrdom, if one is part of a group that has renounced the use of violence to attain one’s goals. Those who are tyrants and bullies tend to mistake a lack of violent behavior or intent for weakness, largely because it represents a higher level of moral development than they themselves possess. The treatment of one’s enemies with love and respect in spite of vicious and hurtful attacks is often incomprehensible to people, and can often lead to greater interest and sympathy in the position of those who suffer so nobly. Obviously, such nobility is not an easy or a pleasant matter, but it can be a beneficial one in the long-term, provided one thinks beyond the immediate and short-term.
The second form of behavior that one can adopt that can lead to martyrdom in some fashion is developing public visibility through one’s speech or writing. A brave and articulate defender of an unpopular worldview or belief system can draw attention through their writing. This does not necessarily imply that the worldview is correct, merely that it is defended and articulated with sufficient skill so as to make it comprehensible or appealing to others. This same skill can be a threat to others, and the natural inclination of people is to attempt to silence those who offend them, whether through forced exile or intimidation or even, at the final extreme, to death, as if death could silence the fateful words cast out by a brave and principled soul that have already taken flight on the winds far from the mouth or pen of the one who sent them on their way far from home as far as those winds may carry their prayers, their hopes and fears, or their cries of anguish.
A certain stubbornness, a certain principled stand that considers one’s honor in the eyes of God to be more important than a temporary respite from the fate which overtakes all men, is necessary to imbue the ordinary sufferings of an obscure life into the sort of self-sacrifice that can be remembered for ages . It is not merely the deed itself that is important, but the memory of the deed. More than death, human beings fear oblivion, to be forgotten as if one’s life had never happened. Some people despair of ever doing or being enough to be worthy of memory and seek that oblivion. Others are so obsessed with memory that like the famed Ozymandias of old, they try to plaster the world with their name in the hopes that they can do enough to escape the ravages of time. Whether we are remembered or not lies beyond our hands, but it is our choice to decide whether and where to stand, and for what reasons.
Sometimes we decide to stand because we have spent a life running, and find that we cannot escape the same sort of situations over and over again, so we decide to stand on the most disadvantageous ground possible, in a place where we have no history, no longstanding reputation, no deep social network, determined to do what is right and make the best of what life has to offer. The story of Lord Jim  is instructive in this matter. In a moment of weakness he abandoned a group of innocent people to their fate, thinking them dead, only to have them show up very alive after he had absconded in fear. For the rest of his life he was dogged with accusations of cowardice, finding himself moving ever more steadily away from civilization into the wilderness, until he was able to make a place for himself in the area of Borneo, in a remote village working on behalf of a merchant. When presented with the opportunity to save his own life by running, he knowingly enters a situation attempting to reason his way out of death, only to die with his honor redeemed.
I do not think my own personal fate is necessarily as dark as that of Lord Jim, dying out of misunderstanding and fear in some remote jungle village while trying to honorably negotiate. Nevertheless, I do not know my own fate. I know my own stubbornness as a person, I know my own hopes and longings, as well as my fears and my shortcomings, and I know that to a large degree much of the happiness I wish for myself is not in my own hands. Neither are the times that I live in subject to more than a slight influence from someone as obscure as myself, no matter how articulate I am. Likewise, such talents and gifts as I have tend to increase visibility without increasing my own personal security. That said, as a brave and deeply flawed man said nearly five hundred years ago when faced with the consequences of his own articulate and unpopular reasonings: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”
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