Sunday, December 06, 2009

Where is the virtue in martyrdom?

I've always been uncomfortable with the idea that it is virtuous to die for one's beliefs. I remember, as a young Christian, listening to stories of brave missionaries, often in totalitarian states, who were forced to renounce Christ or be killed, and then were martyred for choosing the latter. Even then I could not help thinking how silly these missionaries were, for surely one's life is more important than a few words.

In Jill Paton Walsh's fictional novel, Knowledge of Angels, set in medieval Europe, an atheist,
named Palinor, is marooned on a Christian island. Throughout the story he refuses to proclaim belief in God, to the point of being tortured and burnt at the stake by the island's inhabitants. I don't know if I would have done the same; if someone threatened to kill me if I didn't renounce my atheism, I would without hesitation proclaim belief in God. Because, again, I believe that one's life is more important than a couple of words, especially words said without conviction.

After all, what value can one add to the world if one is dead? The Christian who willingly dies for her beliefs renders her beliefs valueless, in a sense that she can no longer turn those beliefs into actual, positive change in the world. The missionary who renounces Jesus lives to see another day, and is granted with the opportunity to continue helping those around her who are in need.


The whole concept of martyrdom seems to be rooted in the idea that standing up for one's beliefs is more important than the value of human life. And this worries me because those who are prepared to die for their beliefs are often prepared to kill for them, too.


So I don't see any virtue in dying for what I believe. In order to add value to my own life and to the lives of those around me, I find it far better to live for my beliefs instead.

21 comments:

Phil said...

You make good points, Kevin, and your position is understandable from the point of view of someone who doesn't believe in God or an afterlife (why not lie to save your life if this life is all there is?). However, since Christians hold different beliefs about these issues, it should motivate a different response to persecution.

First, to the Christian, it is not merely "a few words" at stake, but the truth concerning God's glory. Christians are to proclaim what they believe to be truth at all times, and this mission (giving glory to God) is more important than life itself.

Second, Christians in general believe in God's sovereignty in all circumstances, good or bad. Therefore a believer does not worry that "[he or] she can no longer turn those beliefs into actual, positive change in the world." If God is providentially sovereign over circumstance, then He can easily use the death of a Christian to cause even more good than the continued life of the Christian, if He should choose to do so. It doesn't take much creativity to imagine how this can happen (and, I believe, has happened many times in history). Additionally, this can actually make things easier for Christians-- they no longer have to weigh the pros and cons of each circumstance to determine whether it is "worth it" to tell the truth in a particular situation.

Finally, Christians believe that while God wants to use them in this life, it is ultimately better to be delivered from the suffering of this life into something far better. Therefore, death is ultimately not something to fear (Php 1:21, Matt. 10:28).

I agree with you that holding radical positions often makes it more likely that someone will be prepared to kill for their beliefs, but I think that if someone truly lives according to the tenets of the bibilical gospel, the opposite will be true (1 Pet. 2:21-24).

Thanks for another great discussion topic.

phil

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

If it's a matter of lying about belief in God and then being released that's one thing, but having to live out the rest of his days pretending to be something he's not, I can see choosing not to do that.

What about William Wallace aka Braveheart? He would have been selling out his whole country and all he loved if he gave in. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X are two modern martyrs I can think of.

I agree that dying because you refused to "say uncle" is silly, but dying to protect freedom is something entirely different.

I know missionaries who go to dangerous places, yes to preach the gospel (which I think is silly, but that's a whole different discussion), but they also go there to support those who live there and must hide their faith or be jailed or killed.

Thanks for making me think today. :-)

CRL said...

To me, this is a question of whether you will accomplish more in your death or in you life. In the vast majority of cases, I think a person can accomplish much more in a lifetime of work than in a single, dramatic death. For instance, in the example of The Knowledge of the Angels, if Palinor had pretended to convert, he could have spent the rest of his life working to make the islanders more tolerant, so that if another atheist landed on the island, perhaps his beliefs would be accepted.

I think this is also a question of whether it is preferable to die or to live a dishonest life. While I might prefer to hide my faith (or lack thereof, really) and live, I can see how someone would rather be put to death for being gay than hide their sexuality by marrying someone they cannot love.

CyberKitten said...

I can't help but wonder if human life is devalued if we *don't* stand-up for our beliefs.

In a world where we either shut up or renounce our beliefs because our welfare (or our life) is threatened don't we simply become the mouthpiece of people who would resort to violence (or the threat thereof) to get their way?

Would we have had any social progress in such a world? I think not, don't you?

atimetorend said...

What about the sociological impact a martyrs death can have, becoming a rallying cry for those who follow afterwards, compelling them to sacrifice and commit more to their cause? Jesus, John the Baptist, Stephen, Paul, Polycarp, etc, etc. Certainly to some degree these stories acted as catalysts for the early church.

I have thought along similar lines as you have. After I had children it became a much bigger fear, that my children might one day become involved in a cause where they would die needlessly and only for words, as you wrote about.

Temaskian said...

I think there is a very real but unwarranted fear of "denying the Lord." Peter denied Him thrice, and still went on to be one of the chief apostles.

Even as a Christian, I had always said that I would deny my faith if held at gunpoint. I wasn't looked upon favorably after that.

Christians love the idea of sacrifice. Why is probably why churches always have no problems raising money.

Laughing Boy said...

Most Christians would, understandably, be like Peter before the crucifixion, and deny Christ at the first hint of danger. But then Peter was eventually crucified himself, and maybe it was that level of devotion that caused him to become one of the chief apostles.

It's important to remember that, according to Christian theology, God is sovereign over all circumstances in the life of a believer. If circumstances are such that you life hangs on trusting God, whether it results in delivery or death, or denying God, the believer would continue to trust. (Easy to say.) Either you trust God or you don't. The idea that denial will allow you to continue to serve God is a lame rationalization, because when you were presented with the chance to trust and serve God in the circumstances He engineered, you failed. Why would you think that you would show your faith in any meaningful way after that?

...churches always have no problems raising money.

I'm sure about 99.9% of church treasurers around the world would disagree with you. You should ask to see several of your local church's budgets and see if you keep that opinion.

whynot said...

Christians believe as Phil commented above. Even if a person could do more good in other people's lives by living, by denying in what you believe in you destroy everything you have been standing for. If you try to show people through your whole existence that you are a Christian and you want to bestow that ultimate value to their lives, you destroy all the good you have done by not denying it at the first or last sigh of danger. Take a scenario where in you are in a foreign country spreading the gospel - then you're caught and set up for public prosecution. If you stand there and deny what you believe in and so deny what you are spreading, you are sending a message saying that what you are telling them is a lie and that it's not even worth dying for. In the end you would have done more harm than good.

Flubber said...

I found this blog after beginning an ex-Christian blog myself.

This is an interesting point here. And I am concerned with the comments made regarding "God's sovereignty." I don't believe it is wise to hand over any control of your life to an invisible being that you can't even be sure is real. It promotes the idea to just mindlessly follow what the Bible says and assume everything will work out for the greater good.

It removes any responsibility to think through one's actions and seriously consider the consequences of our actions. After all, if the actions line up with the Bible, they WILL lead to the greater good in the end, even if it causes some temporary suffering now because God will end up working it all out that way...or so Christians assume.

Wouldn't it be better to stop and consider the true ramifications of our actions using our past experiences, the experiences we've seen of others, and rational thought? One thing I liked about the movie Bruce Almighty was the fact that it was pushed that people should seize hold of their own destinies instead of waiting around on God to do that for them.

Laughing Boy said...

Wouldn't it be better to stop and consider the true ramifications of our actions using our past experiences, the experiences we've seen of others, and rational thought?

How does a person's belief in the sovereignty of God preclude them from considering their own and other's past experiences and the ramifications of their actions? What if those past experiences indicate they really are better off doing so?

If the Christian God exists and if He has revealed to us how to make the best use of our lives, what is so mindless about our obedience to Him? To me it seems like the most reasonable response. In fact, if these things are true, can you see the absurdity of thinking we should do what we think is best even if it goes against what God has said?

Of course this assumes the Christian God does exist, but that is not the question at hand.

Flubber said...

You answered your questions yourself. What is mindless about it? you said yourself that a belief in this God would make you go ahead and do what God has said even if our own thinking tell us something else is best ("can you see the absurdity of thinking we should do what we think is best even if it goes against what God has said?").

It is the decision, "It doesn't matter what I think, just do what this God says to do." That is mindless following...it's not considering anything except what this God...for whom there isn't any evidence that he even exists in the first place...says to do without even evaluating if those "instructions" make sense.

Laughing Boy said...

...for whom there isn't any evidence that he even exists in the first place...

This is not the issue. You can't have a useful discussion on God's sovereignty and our obedience to God without, at least for the moment, granting His existence. Of course, if you deny that, all the rest is pointless. So if you want to talk about evidence of God's existence you should wait for the proper forum. If you want to address the issue you raised then my reply follows:

a belief in this God would make you go ahead and do what God has said even if our own thinking tell us something else is best

I can almost agree with you (perhaps my wording is not as precise as it should have been*), except for the fact that acknowledging a superior is not (can't be) mindless. First, you have to use your mind to discover the superior. Then you have to use your mind to discover the options (obey/disobey/third path). Then you have to use your mind to choose among the options. Then you have to use your mind to trust, if that's what you choose to do.

Perhaps a person can just do what they're told without thinking, but even if that's possible, it is not necessarily the case. Can you admit that, in some cases, obedience (trust) is the proper response of the engaged mind with the facts of the situation?

* By "best" I meant "best by my own estimation when explicitly ignoring what I know about God". God's way is not "the best way" by default, at least not in a practical, personal sense. A person needs to learn to trust and they have to use their minds to determine who to trust and when. Even the initial step towards trusting must have some internal validation. Is there really any such thing as a blind leap?

Flubber said...

My initial post was referring to doing what the Bible says no matter the consequence or cost. I can discuss that without having to acknowledge the existence of God. I referred to "God" in my response to you, laughing boy, because I assume by your comments that you believe the Bible is written by God. Thus, my referencing what the Bible says and what God says are synonomous in a conversation with you.

but, no, I don't think it requires any thinking to just up and decide to do whatever the Bible commands in any and all situations. Even if there was someone in my life that had proven through many experiences that they know more than me and that have really, really good advice and that I trusted fully generally knew more than me and cared about me...I STILL would not ever follow their advice in any circumstance without first evaluating it. I would never decide that their advice always trumps my own and just do whatever they say I should, assuming it must be right without considering its implications and ramifications first.

Laughing Boy said...

Can you give me an example of a decision one might make by mindlessly following the bible without evaluating the situation for themselves?

Flubber said...

Yes. you can find it in this thread. Someone is faced with the decision to deny Christ or be killed. Some offered reasons why lying in that situation would be more beneficial. Others argued that it'd be a matter of obeying or disobeying God's commands. So, even if the cost was their life, they would still just do what God says to do even if doing the opposite would be the better conclusion according to their own thinking.

Laughing Boy said...

Let's take that example.

Phil argued that denying Christ at that point would involve denying what that person thought was true. By not "lying" the martyr was not acting mindlessly, but quite the opposite, according to his convictions.

Mike argued that, "lying about belief in God and then being released that's one thing, but having to live out the rest of his days pretending to be something he's not, I can see choosing not to do that." How is this mindless?

CRL said something similar, "I think this is also a question of whether it is preferable to die or to live a dishonest life." Mindless?

Cyberkitten added his usual excellent perspective, "I can't help but wonder if human life is devalued if we *don't* stand-up for our beliefs...Would we have had any social progress in such a world? I think not, don't you?" More mindlessness?

atimetorend followed up by saying, "What about the sociological impact a martyrs death can have, becoming a rallying cry for those who follow afterwards, compelling them to sacrifice and commit more to their cause?" Are these considerations mindless?

Then I joined in and the thread got much less interesting.

In each case above, the martyr is considering ramifications, not simply acting in blind obedience in complete opposition to all his own thinking.

It seems to me that your personal dismissal of religious convictions as being completely groundless and irrational leads you to assume that anyone who acts according to them is acting without grounds or rationality, i.e. mindlessly. However, you could be wrong about that. People can act according to their religious convictions, and against some other options they have open to them that may seem, in some way beneficial, without acting mindlessly. I say "some" because when a person considers the articles of faith and their personal religious experiences, those things count as viable options to be weighed along with the others.

It could be that Christianty is true. If so, those who live according to Christian principles do so with their minds, not without them, and in doing so they find rational confirmation of their choices and accumulate experiences that make plain to them the veracity and reality of their faith. Then, when faced with decisions, from the mundane to the extraordinary, they can draw upon those experiences, and trust in the God who has shown Himself trustworthy. If, in your opinion, this is mindlessness, then I'll leave you to your opinion. But to me it clearly is not.

Leslie said...

Perhaps your experience with Christianity has been different than mine. I know I was regularly taught to have "more of God and less of me" and to ALWAYS trust God's commands over our own rational thinking.

If someone is a martyr over standing up for a belief that they know would benefit society, that is one thing. To not want to continue to live in a lie is another (though one would wonder why, then, wouldn't you just move somewhere else?). But, then, one most wonder how a Christian concludes that dying over denying Christ really does benefit society. Do they just assume so because God tells them it does? What is the reasoning for insisting that it would be better for others?

I read a book...and can't think of the name of it off the top of my head...about a year ago written in a time in which Christians were persecuted in Japan. And it is about the journey of a man that went to Japan intending to be a martyr. And he learns in the end that denying his faith in public while living as a servant silent about the beliefs he holds so dear is for the better. Who knows, maybe that's right. Maybe it's not. But, to assume it is wrong because it goes against what God says is again not really thinking.

Yes, a person can take into account their beliefs in making a decision...but, they should also take into account that their beliefs might not evenb e right.

Laughing Boy said...

One must also take into account that their "rational thinking" might not be right, either. In theory, rational thinking is always trustworthy, but in practice it's unreliable for a number reasons including a) we rarely, if ever, have all the facts, and b) we mix subjective personal experience and emotions into our reasoning which can distort what facts we do have. I'm sure you can think of others.

simplesmente said...

Just found your blog, through one of your book reviews at amazon. Great well thought posts. I see you have plenty of comments already, but let me just add my 2cents to this one:

I agree completely with you, and I would say that as an atheist I fell awkward in religious situations, but would never create a great fuss about it (neve be a purist). Being an atheist (an out-of-the-closet atheist, I mean) is being truthful, sincere above average. I suspect many many churchgoers are atheists/agnostics who just don't want to create a confusion or make people unconfortable or disconnect from friends and family.

But on the other hand the meme theory would say that if the death of one "meme carrier" helps the meme to gain acceptance into other people's minds, then definitely, the meme should make the person be willing to die for it.

Now a quick comment on Phil (comment #1 here). He said "Christians are to proclaim what they believe to be truth at all times". And that reminds me that in the first chapters of the bible god lies to Adam and Eve for no good reason. Do take a look at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33H8ENtMP5Y


Well, I'll try to visit your blog in other occasions. Keep it up.

Phil said...

simplesmente,

Thanks for your comments, and for taking the time to read my comment above. While the standup act you linked to is definitely witty, I wouldn't trust Rick Gervais in matters of theology or interpretation of scripture (he's a comedian!). The assertion that God lied in Gen. 2:17 is based on a faulty understanding of God's warning to Adam and Eve. He was not saying that man's death would occur on the same day he ate the fruit; He was saying that man's death would become certain in the day he ate the fruit ("you will surely die"). The phraseology in the original Hebrew supports this interpretation. What God warned is exactly what did happen to Adam and, subsequently, all of mankind (Gen. 3:9, Rom. 5:12).

Anonymous said...

yeah like why do we need to defend God. Let God defend himself for fuck sake. Oh right... God doesnt.