In watching the movie Insurgent this afternoon, I was struck by the consistency of the approach of Tris Prior, the main character of the movie and the book series it is based on. Among the many changes from the book was the decision to scale back knowledge of the message and the identity of the speaker of the message as one of Tris’ relatives. Among the most arresting images is that of Tris’ walk into Erudite Headquarters to surrender herself in order to stop induced suicides from taking place. In looking at the context of her sad walk, I was struck by some of the factors that played into it, factors that make someone a suitable martyr, a sacrifice for a greater cause than their own narrow personal interests. As this is a rare area in our modern life, particularly in the contemporary West, I wish to explore briefly what noble martyrdom looks like, through the eyes of contemporary literature.
Let us first note that the question of martyrdom is a widespread problem in contemporary juvenile dystopian fiction, and even more mainstream fare like Harry Potter. It appears that there is a consistent strain in contemporary literature that encourages young people to be martyrs in resistance to evil and corrupt authorities, and seeks to steel them to the horrors that are faced by making one’s opposition to tyrannical authority obvious and open. As someone who has felt under compulsion to bluntly and honestly express my skepticism and mistrust of people and their unkind and unfriendly behavior towards me, whether they were peers or authority figures, I can testify to the fact that martyrdom in its many forms is not a particularly enjoyable sort of life to live. Yet there is something more to martyrdom than merely a sense of masochism and an enjoyment of suffering; sacrifice does have real and noble purposes, and is worthy of respect, when done in the proper context.
It is worth untangling the larger context, because the various acts that go into martyrdom generally share tendencies of being inimical to one’s survival and well-being, and it is the context that determines the nobility and meaning of the sacrifice. One of the main factors that determines the nobility of one’s sacrifice is the nobility of the cause that one is sacrificing for. Causes like radical Islam, the lost cause of the Confederacy, Communism, and so on lack moral excellence and so those who sacrifice for an unjust and an immoral cause lose some nobility on account of having wasted their lives and their sacred honor on an unworthy object. It is not the sacrifice alone that imbues a cause with honor, but rather the honor of one’s service and devotion depends at least in part on the honor of the object of that devotion and service. It therefore behooves us to choose our causes carefully, lest they bring dishonor upon us, and a sense of waste at the efforts and sacrifices we made for them.
The martyr’s walk is not something that happens in a moment, but rather something for which one is groomed and prepared by long and often painful experience. There are a lot of strange combinations of qualities that go into someone who is particularly fit for martyrdom, like Tris. There is a combination of hope and faith in a better future and despair that any better future can come about without our suffering and loss. There is a sense of identification with others, and love and concern for them and a desire for their well-being and also a profound sense of isolation that comes with feeling alone in one’s path, and that one is not truly loved or understood. There is often, in addition to this a combination of great nobility of character, kindness and gentleness of spirit, and a sense of being continually tormented in mistreatment, in nightmares, and in ridicule and abuse. Where these factors coincide, one is likely to have someone unconsciously being prepared and groomed for martyrdom, regardless of their own wishes or inclinations.
What is to be done about this? I think, on balance, it is not a good idea to groom people for martyrdom. People should not be pushed to feel as if their own suffering or even death is required to make the world a better place. Unlike our Lord and Savior, for example, we were not put on this earth to serve as a sacrifice for the sins of others, and we should not even approach feeling that way. There should be a sense of loss when good people give their lives to help create a better world, even if there is no other way. A great deal of mourning after people are gone could be avoided if people were better appreciated when they were here. It should not be such a hard matter for people to treat others with love and respect. And yet it is, and so we have people who should be working for their own happiness who instead feel compelled to take the martyr’s walk, when such a sad path should be the furthest thing from their minds.