One of the themes that keeps coming up
in the current crisis is martyrdom. Evidently the lure of martyrdom, of being
admitted without delay into heaven's highest rank, is one way al Qaeda recruits
This concept causes us discomfort. First, it is frightening to fight against people who are willing, in fact eager, to die. It seems to give them a great advantage in almost every kind of combat. In the early stages of this campaign, the willingness to die is just another of the aspects of the adversary -- along with the willingness to terrify populations, shut down communications systems, and deal enthusiastically in germ, chemical, and nuclear weapons -- which makes them almost supernaturally scary. It is like going to war against the undead -- the old tactical rules no longer apply.
But the martyrdom problem goes deeper.
I think the key is that what they call martyrdom is different in its nature than
what we call martyrdom.
First of all, our tradition is
suspicious of martyrs. If we want to make fun of a mother-in-law, we say she is
a martyr. We usually mean that instead of being straightforward and saying what
she wants, she constructs scenarios in which she can suffer when she doesn’t
get what she wants. She wins not by winning, but by making everyone feel guilty.
When we say martyr, we really mean manipulator. The adjective for which is
Religiously, martyrdom is a more
serious concept. We apply it to those people who died for their faith. It
applies to everyone from the famous painting of Saint Sebastian, pincushioned
with arrows and thrown into the sewer; Pere Jean de Brebeuf, the brave Jesuit
priest who was tortured and cannibalized by Huron Indians in Quebec in the 17th
century, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who resisted the Third
Reich and was executed by them. Like the suicide pilots of al Qaeda, these
people were very brave, and willingly surrendered their lives for their beliefs.
But there is a big distinction between our martyrs and theirs. Our martyrs did not set out to be martyrs. It just happened to them. Indeed, in our tradition, you may not set out to be a martyr. If you plan your own death well in advance, no matter how courageous you might be, we see that as a form of suicide, which is traditionally a sin. The reason it is a sin is theological: because by taking your life you are taking upon yourself the role of God. Suicide, by this thinking, is a form of hubris or vanity. To further assume that you know you will be ushered into heaven strikes us as theologically presumptuous. This stuff is always best left to God, in our tradition.
In our tradition, it is OK to throw yourself on a live grenade to save your pals, in the heat of battle. But it is not OK to plan your own death for years, and to lovingly anticipate glory for your deed.
Now, of course, we are furiously angry
with the al Qaeda martyrs, because they not only took their own lives, but they
murdered thousands of people who were just trying to go about their daily
business, flying to see relatives or sitting at their work areas. It is
incomprehensible in our system to think of such persons as being on the side of
God. We have no martyrs on our side who would do that.
Well, there is one Biblical exception
-- Sampson, the hero in the time of judges. Sampson killed himself intentionally
at the end of his story, as he was led blinded into the palace of the
Phillistines. We are to believe that God was pleased when Sampson pitted his
strength against the palace pillars and caused the building to collapse, killing
thousands of the enemy.
Were there likely to be innocent people
among the Phillistines? We would surely imagine so. Making Sampson a different
kind of martyr than St. Peter, who was crucified upside down at his own request,
or Rolf Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved so many Jews from Nazi death
camps, then disappeared himself into the Soviet gulag.
But that was Sampson, an impetuous, disappointing hero until his stunning last moment of conviction. And that was the Old Testament, in which the innocent died with the guilty, and no one thought to object.
But these martyrs today, in our more judging world: can God welcome them in a loving embrace after they themselves played God?
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