"There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for." - Albert Camus
A False Assumption
There are many in the religious world who claim that the martyrdom of others is a validation of their beliefs. After all, those people wouldn't have offered their lives for nothing or for a lie would they?
I think that's the wrong question to ask ourselves here. What we should be asking is what sorts of things others are willing to kill for or in the name of. The answer to that is painfully simple - anything. Human beings will murder over the clothes on our bodies, the words we say, the ideas we hold true, or anything else. In this light martyrdom loses much of its clout as a validation of anything other than a capacity of humans to murder each other over nothing at all.
These people did not die for what they believed in. They died because others were willing to kill them for what they believe. It's really no different than the American colonists eventual murder of the native Americans. Those natives didn't die for their land. They died because others thought that land was worth killing for.
Sacrifice and Senselessness
I want to offer you two scenarios. One is an actual sacrifice and the other is merely a senseless act of violence.
I jump in front of a gunman and shield my child from being shot. I am shot and die instead. This is an actual sacrifice. In this instance I have offered my life to save that of my child.
I believe unicorns are real. Another man believes they are not and that anyone who believes they are should be killed. That man murders me. In this instance I have not given my life for my belief in unicorns, but rather someone has taken my life because they believe otherwise and were willing to murder for what they believe.
We have to face a harsh reality here though. Although most of us would see the act of my sacrificing myself for my child as noble, it in no way validates his worth or mine. The harsh reality is that it was simply my choice and I value my child's life above my own. In the same way, these religious martyrs saw some value in doing what they did. It doesn't mean that value is actually there and it doesn't validate that position in the least.
What Would You Do For a Klondike Bar?
I've come to realize that I find many things are worth sacrificing all I have and am for. I find that the idea of equality and justice are noble pursuits and that if I were to lose my life fighting for those things I would die without regret. I find that the lives of my children are so valuable to me that I would do anything to protect them.
There is a fairly popular program I enjoy on AMC called The Walking Dead. For those who haven't seen it, it is a zombie apocalypse show that is quite possibly one of the most dramatic shows on television. One of the things that makes the show so great is that it highlights just how far people are willing to go to stay alive. In one of the last episodes of last season, we saw what can happen when a father's child has his life threatened. I watched that episode and as the bad guy threatened to rape and murder Rick's son I felt the same rage I saw in the character of Rick. When Rick bit out the throat of the man holding him and then overpowered and proceeded to beat the man who had been holding his son to death with the butt of a gun, I felt myself thinking, "Good for you Rick. Serves them right."
In that moment I realized that if pushed, there are things I would kill for. I too would kill for my children. As logical and rational as I like to think I am, in a situation like that my drive to survive and protect my children would overrule all logic and compassion.
Standing Your Ground
When it comes right down to it, all those martyrs did was stand their ground. Most likely they were well aware that no amount of words were going to change the minds of their tormentors. Their tormentors were out for blood and only blood will slake a bloodlust. The Christians should well understand this. They have the crusades and inquisitions to look back on. So too the Muslims and Jews can look back and see a trail of blood left in their wake.
People die for nothing every day, because other people kill for nothing every day. It doesn't validate the idea that these many have stood their ground in defense of. We must remember that every soldier in every war ever fought has simply been a man standing his ground about what he believed. That includes every Nazi troop who died in WW2. Are we to now call them martyrs as well and offer validation to the Nazi ideology simply because of the strength of their convictions and willingness to stand their ground for their beliefs...?
Rage Against The Machine - Killing In The Name
Photo Credit: Jes Wang