On Martyrdom

“The ink of a scholar is worth a thousand times more than the blood of a martyr.” – Lupe Fiasco

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” – Susan B. Anthony

This morning I awoke and started watching the History Channel series Mankind: Story of All of Us. This particular episode was titled “Empires” and, at the time I was watching, was discussing the Roman Empire and how it aided the spread of early Christianity. In those early days Christians were quite the outcasts as they were viewed as heretics by the Jews and rabble-rousing enemies of the state by the Romans; certainly not an ideal place to be in. This fringe religion was most popular with those inhabitants of the Empire who they themselves existed on the fringe: slaves, the poor, and women. These small early groups of Christians were very secretive and met in the personal homes of fellow believers to worship and discuss. Amongst these early religious rebels included a 22 year-old noblewoman in Carthage named Perpetua.

Her story is cataloged in a diary that was allegedly penned by her, and then edited at a later date by an unknown male editor. If that is in fact the case (which is a point that is somewhat debated but largely agreed upon by most scholars to be true) then it would be a very important piece of work as it would be the oldest known writing by a Christian woman. The story that is told goes that she was arrested and taken prisoner with several of her other friends & believers sometime around 202 or 203 CE. Perpetua had recently become a new mother at the time of her arrest and was still nursing her infant child; her family was permitted to bring the child into the prison when they visited so she could still nurse. During these visits her father pleaded and begged with her to offer a sacrifice to the state in recognition of the godhood of the Emperor and denounce her identity as a Christian and be granted her freedom, to return to the family and raise her child. However, the belief at the time held by Christians was that any denial of one’s faith would guarantee burning in Hell forever, and Perpetua was firmly cemented in her belief and following of Christ. Perpetua refused to renounce her belief system despite the pleas from her family to think of them and her infant, and at her trial was sentenced to death with her fellow Christian captives. These Christian soon-to-be martyrs were first set upon by wild animals (a boar, a bear, & a leopard for the men and a wild cow for the women) and after being maimed and bloodied were finally slain by a sword. The only other woman named in the account of this martyrdom is a slave girl who had just given birth in prison named Felicitas. The fact that these women were identified by name and their personal stories told as Christians in the early church is highly significant given the reigning patriarchy that has continually dominated Christianity, and is certainly an important piece of information to take note of.

Perpetua is a woman that prior to this morning I had never heard of before in my life. When the story first started unfolding about this young passionate woman in her faith I was really hoping to hear an inspirational and little known story about a woman in the early church movement who led others in the faith, a woman who might have become a fascinating historical figure due to her intellectual contributions to the early development of Christianity at a time when the young religion was still a little more egalitarian. Ah yes, I am still somewhat hopeful and naïve at times. How silly of me! Instead, her story ends far too soon with her violent and painful death as a martyr. This became a vehicle for my thinking over what the whole point of martyrdom actually is and what purpose it serves. My conclusion? Well, as I’ve thought before, and after hearing this rather depressing tale made it even more concrete, my belief is that martyrdom is one of the most pointless actions one can take. Not only is it pointless, but the glamorization of martyrdom over the centuries by religions is probably one of the most destructive and damaging institutions of faith that have been created. Why is that you may ask? Well, I’ll be happy to share!

First and foremost, when someone believes that their purposeful death on behalf of their belief system is not only condoned by their deity of choice but is actually encouraged, that creates a very dangerous mindset. Forget ancient Christian martyrs for a moment and think of the present day. When an Islamic extremist straps a bomb to their body and detonates it in a crowd of people they aren’t concerned about the people around them in the least. The focus of such an action is purely on the glory they believe they are about to receive by God for killing themselves for their faith and for their God. Anytime anyone can hold the belief that their actions of death and harm are divinely sanctioned by God, whether they are a suicide bomber or a Christian who is so “pro-life” that they assassinate an abortion provider, you are dealing with a person who is completely separated from reality. Their mind is now in a place beyond the reach of reason – it’s with God. And how can you argue with God? Therein lies the danger of the basic foundation of the martyr’s mindset: When you know that God is on your side you can do anything, no matter how devastating to yourself or the world around you. Such a belief and the actions carried out by said belief are based purely in the narcissistic self-delusion that what you think and what you want precedes any other person’s rights.

Think back to Perpetua: she had a family, an infant child who needed her, and rather than concede her beliefs outwardly to be able to be there for her child she chose instead to place her priority on a belief system. She could have said whatever needed saying and still believe in her heart in Christ. Her decision, however, was to sacrifice her own life and possibly the life of her baby for a belief; nothing tangible, nothing remotely consequential to her life and the lives of those around her, but just what she thought  was true. What kind of a God would want or condone a mother to die in his name for his own glory?

And finally we arrive at the pointlessness of a martyr’s actions. Killing oneself contributes nothing to the world of any importance or impact. What you could have accomplished in this world with your life is immediately stamped out by the deluded selfish action of taking your life for God, or any reason for that matter. What was contributed to the world by Perpetua gladly and willingly choosing death over life? How has the world benefited by the countless numbers of people lost to the actions of those convinced God was on their side? How many works of art or scientific discoveries have there never been? How many potentially world changing ideas will we never hear? And for what? As much as I myself am a believer in God, I can’t help but believe that any death that has occurred as a result of a religious belief is a pointless one. Because God wants you to love: love yourself and love others, to do all the good you can while you can, to make a difference in your life and the lives around you that is good. Not kill and maim and use him as an excuse for what you did. Those are actions of self-serving narcissism, not actions of God.

 

+ K +

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