Beyond the cult of heroic martyrs

Who is remembered fondly for dying for the cause of a rebellion, like for the rejection of a particular idea or phrase in language? What popular fictional characters? How about the founding fathers of US Tea Party movement heroes like Patrick Henry (who said “give me liberty or give me death!”) or even the once-violent Malcolm X?

Malcolm X may have felt guilty about his prior advocacy of violence. So, he acted to compensate for his guilt- speaking out against the advocacy of “political violence” – as in the phrase “by any means necessary”- and soon he was killed and many have glorified him as a hero or martyr.

So many of the heroes of our culture have been martyrs who lived (and often were killed) for some rebellion against some conformity: Jesus, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. (who was named after the man who inspired the first seven letters of the word Protestant: Martin Luther), as well as Gandhi, former “terrorist leader” Nelson Mandela, a protesting Chinese college student in Tiananmen Square who stood in the path of a tank, the Vietnamese monk who burned himself alive in protest to warfare, and so on. Do these heroes actually serve as models of our behavior or do they mostly just remind us of the possible consequences of non-conformity?


Given that virtually none of the people who glorify the heroism of Jesus follow his actual life choices to become a wandering ascetic, consider that these heroes are not so much models of behavior as reminders and warnings. We may use these martyrs to produce guilt within ourselves, with the idea being that we should not conform as we actually have been, but that we should become a wandering ascetic like Jesus or the Buddha and so on.

Focusing on that ideal perhaps creates and sustains the experience of tension and guilt and shame, if believed.

Jesus, according to popular versions of his life story, publicly rebuked the religious leaders of his day as hypocrites, apparently resulting in his death. That pattern of action is actually rather distinct from simply developing inner peace and promoting a spirit of cooperativeness. 

Was the story of Jesus the first ever story of the rebuking of hypocrisy? Even Moses is well known for condemning the behavioral traditions of “his people,” though he was not killed for it by the people he rebuked. Further, Jesus frequently quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, dramatically referencing the distinction between the activity of simply using words such as “peace” and “respect” as distinct from an actual experience of peace and respect.

Can one be peaceful and respectful while rebuking someone? Does rebuking imply animosity and resentment and antagonism and aggressiveness?

Also, should people experience shame for behavior patterns that could be labeled as selfish? Should people keep certain behaviors secret, at least from inquisitors who threaten torture and execution? Should people lie about selfish behaviors and rationalize them as actually having been unselfish? 

Should people always conform? Should people always condemn conformity? Should people always condemn hypocrisy? Should people discontinue the condemning of other people? Should people condemn condemnation?

My experience has been that I have repeatedly condemned other people (whether particular people that I personally know or remote groups even from distant times), and further that I have eventually noticed that I have sometimes done very similar things to much of what I have condemned. I can accept that the intensity of my condemnation of something may be proportionate to the extent of my own practice of that thing. I can also accept that the intensity of my glorifying of something may be proportionate to the extent that I avoid practicing that thing.

“Wouldn’t it be great if people completely stopped being involved in commercial activities and just donated all their wealth and all their time to other people?” I may say things like that, implying that such a pattern of action might be great or greater than some other pattern, but I might not really know if it would be great or not because I may not have actually done it and I may not ever, even though I may talk a lot about how great it allegedly would be.

What if what I really meant was this: “wouldn’t if be great if EVERYONE ELSE EXCEPT ME simply donated all their wealth and time TO ME?” I might experience that the competitiveness in the commercial economy in my midst is challenging for me. I might really like the idea of government benefits received by me that are derived from the collection activities of governments that result in me effortlessly having what used to be other people’s wealth or productivity.

“Government mercenaries, please go and find some rationalization to condemn or criminalize some behavior of other people and bring me the spoils of the conquest. Please hurry!”

“If the spoils come from a distant nation or from traffic tickets and confiscations from convicted local drug dealers, just keep these roads well-maintained and these medical services free. Do not betray me by leaving it to me to be responsible for my own finances, my own welfare, my own health, my own family, and my own experience of inner peace and respect.”

“If people insult us and disrespect us and threaten us, punish them. If people refuse to do business with us at the prices we consider fair, conquer them. If they have values and cultures distinct from ours, like if they decline to commit to pacifism (as in us having a monopoly on nuclear weapons), then give them an ultimatum between unconditional surrender and us bombing them to ashes, but please do not enlist me to be directly involved in the bombing, because that sounds rather dangerous… plus, military drafts are undemocratic, and our militant, imperialist bombings are the most democratic in human history so far, though we only bomb civilians when we are absolutely forced to do so by the majority voting for it and only in order to promote and demonstrate loving-kindness, peace, the combined compassion of Christ and Buddha, and of course the inalienable right to life of all people everywhere, except of course for those who do not recognize and worship the ideal of the inalienable right to life.”

So, do these words sound like the jokes of Charlie Chaplin or the ramblings of a mental patient or the typical statements of politicians and religious leaders throughout history? How about all of the above?

Remember, a martyr is someone who dies for identifying with a cause. Identifying with something involves language. Martyrs die for their language.

Should all people everywhere glorify the ideal of dying for a particular linguistic ideal? Uh, well, if that appeals to you, then you can go right ahead and “march on the Vatican to protest the inquisition” or “occupy wall street” or “march on the pentagon to protest bombs and propaganda and imperialism.” 

By the way, consider that no one is going to march on the pentagon because, for one thing, there is no open physical space there to make that convenient. Further, the popular conception that the US is a democracy does not fit with the idea of marching on the pentagon (or on to a military base or occupying a federal courthouse). Those who believe that a particular government is a democracy are more likely to march on the great temple of the elected senators (and the lobbyists who fund them).

If you think that you can go conduct a public demonstration on a military base or at the pentagon or in a federal courthouse (or a police station or fire station) simply because you live “in a democracy,” you may soon find that you are conducting demonstrations in a jail cell… if you are that fortunate.

Democracy is a component of many political processes. So is organized coercion. That is not a contradiction. Not every government in human history has involved any democratic procedures, from the governing of a household to an empire. However, has any government failed to use the procedure of organized coercion?

Should we be ashamed about a particular government’s use of organized coercion? Should we keep it a secret? Is there a general pattern of punishing with organized coercion those who directly reference organized coercion? 

Or, is there only a specific pattern of the punishing of those who directly antagonize the agents of organized coercion? Wouldn’t you be wary of populist campaigns to occupy the pentagon or even occupy to an airport in China? Your coercion is probably not even close to organized enough to successfully accomplish that kind of result!

Be realistic. In other words, if you like, for an interesting afternoon, go ahead and gather up a few thousand friends to occupy wall street. 

Further, if being a martyr especially appeals to your pride, then identify some linguistic ideal and commit to dying for it. If your idealistic sacrifice attracts enough publicity, then you may even be remembered fondly as one of a rather long list of trailblazers in the promoting of other people’s right to make themselves in to martyrs, too.

Of course, such a path of drama, pride and possible fame may not be the path of inner peace. If inner peace appeals to you, then dying for a linguistic ideal may not be of any relevance to you. You may find it more inspiring to question the nature of all linguistic ideals, including the ideal of the heroic martyr.

As-Salamu Alaykum. Aleichem Shalom.

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