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September 7, 2006

Dying for Jesus

Dark Sided has a link to the trailer for a documentary called "Jesus Camp," in which children are asked if they are prepared to die for You-Know-Who. A fair amount of children are being indoctrinated to die for various You-Know-Whos in this supposedly enlightened world today.

Many have died because of an absence of belief in the supernatural qualities of Jesus and The Others, but rarely with head high -- proudly declaring disbelief. Instead the tendency has been to choose Galileo's strategy and, when faced with the threat of execution, cave. Is the problem that atheists don't have summer camps? Or, as I suspect, is the problem that their martyrs can't expect heavenly reward? Wouldn't there be less killing and dying if fewer among us expected heavenly reward? Would there also be a reduction in the number of people standing up, with head high, for various dangerous causes?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 7, 2006 8:55 PM


I am fascinated with how you are bringing out the setting for the history of unbelief. The accounts of unbelief that you write in the book will also essentially need the setting of a largely believing world.
And for believers in any deity, I would guess it is advantageous to indoctrinate the person at the earliest opportunity.
And when you can gain people to believe in the same god you claim, there is an ability to control. Then the older can say to the younger that he is speaking "for God" to sponsor his agenda. And once someone is willing to die for a god, the god-speakers can ask for anything lesser and stand a far better chance of being obeyed.
Also here is a link concerning a book I became familiar with over 25 years ago...a book I could not live by. It surely did smack ( pun intended) of unnatural and abusive parenting...http://www.stoptherod.net/biblical-child-training-excerpt.html

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at September 7, 2006 10:04 PM

Actually, Mitch, there is a summer camp for atheists with camps in Cincinatti, OH; Bloomfield Hills, MI; Navarre, MN; Louisville, TN; Camp Watanda, CA; and Ontario. It's called Camp Quest and opened in 1996. You can read about it here: http://www.camp-quest.org/

As for "martyrdom", I think that only requires believing that you have something worth dying for or killing for as the case may be. Nationalism, for instance, has encouraged secular "martyrdom" in the name of the nation-state. Nationalists also indoctrinate the young with the idea that dying for one's country is the ultimate act of honor and heroism. Both atheists and theists have carried their nationalism with them to their graves.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 8, 2006 9:21 AM

One more thing. Religious martyrs die seeking the immortality of heaven. However, this isn't the only form of immortality offered in exchange for "martyrdom" to some cause, nation, deity, etc. The immortality of fame, of one's name living on through history on the monuments erected to national heroes/"martyrs", is a strong draw for those who do not wish to go meekly into oblivion.

We all seek some form of immortality. Some of us (like you and I, I presume) seek immortality through emblazoning our names in the annals of literary/journalistic/artistic history. We seek to contribute new thoughts, perspectives, forms etc. that will live on (with our names attached) long after we're gone. Others (like myself again) fight for noble causes, risk our lives in the pursuit of justice, (foolishly perhaps) in the hopes that even if our names are obliterated, the effects of our lives will be felt long after we're gone. Others seek the "noble" death of martyrdom and the immortality of "heroism".

Some of us live for immortality. Some of us die for it. Few of us would willingly accept the prospect of a mortality that leads us to true oblivion, where even our names and the effects of our lives are erased in the moments of our deaths.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 8, 2006 10:15 AM

I have to disagree with Melinda. One crucial element of "martyrdom" is that it is a public, individual and exemplary act. Dying for one's country may be public and exemplary (in patriotic terms) but it's not individual. Far from it; traditional warfare is a collective act -- hence, perhaps, the idea of monuments to the 'Unknown Soldier'. Martyrdom is also, perhaps, distinguished by death being either elective (as in the current wave of Islamicist suicide attacks) or easily-evaded (as in the case of "martyrs" in the Reformation, on both sides, where a recantation could have got them off the hook). Neither of these, I suggest, apply in the case of 'dulce et decorum est | pro patria mori'.

There are some interesting takes on this in the flawed but fascinating book by the late Keith Hopkins, Prof. of Ancient History at Cambridge. (Hopkins, Keith. A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld, 1999.)

Posted by: Michael Bywater at September 8, 2006 12:13 PM

How would you explain the Kamikaze? Or Nathan Hale's "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country"? Or the near deification of those men whose individual sacrifice was above and beyond the call of duty--such as running into enemy fire to provide an opportunity for others to escape? Or the practice of refusing to give anything but name, rank, and serial number when captured--the expectation that the individual submit to torture and death rather than betray his ideals or his country? Is this not martyrdom?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 8, 2006 12:34 PM

I believe we all know the only real peace we will ever experience is in death. Having once been out in the ocean and having given up on living for an hour I know how seductive that peace can be. It is awareness beyond explanation.

People can and do believe in just about anything imaginable to the point of self-sacrifice. We search for "meaning" even when it means dying. What a hoot!
To be or not to be is the easy-hard question.
The hard-hard question is to be what and do what?


Posted by: Jay Saul at September 8, 2006 2:19 PM

Melinda - As far as I know (a friend, a pilot, flew with a man who had been one, "saved" at the last moment by the surrender of Japan) kamikaze was something for which one was "volunteered" and was essentially a *collective* act. The name, rank and serial number was a rule of warfare under the Geneva Convention; very different, I think. It was a refusal to affirm anything at all; rather the opposite of martyrdom where the death is the extreme form of "witness". Your other two examples are more of a blurred area, I agree. There's no obvious clear line between "heroism" and "martyrdom" though it would be interesting to try and tease one out... I suspect the answer may lie in the attitude to death. Perhaps, as a starting point, the martyr *wants* to die, the "hero" is *prepared* to die?

Posted by: Michael Bywater at September 8, 2006 9:11 PM

Actually, the Kamikaze volunteered. Being a kamikaze was seen as a testament to a pilot's skill, honor, courage, and loyalty. (There were also "suicide bombers" who volunteered to ride torpedos underwater to guide them into their targets. These were never used in the war.) As for "name, rank, and serial number", this tradition precedes the Geneva Accords and even precedes the issuing of serial numbers to soldiers. Captured soldiers, spies, warriors, etc. have long been expected to provide only the most basic information and die if necessary to protect their nation's secrets and their own honor. Of course, we should also consider the tradition of committing suicide (by cyanide capsule or keeping a single bullet for that purpose) rather than allow capture and risk being unable to stand up under torture.

As for martyrs "witnessing," that's definitely a good definition for the Christian martyrs (the first to be referred to as such) who died because they refused Roman orders to stop witnessing for Christ. However, when we consider the Jewish martyrs, for instance, "witnessing" falls out of the equation as proselytizing is forbidden in Judaism. The Jewish martyrs, like those killed during the Crusades, preferred death to conversion and thus, they were executed. The Muslim martyr dies to protect holy lands from infidels--a tradition many scholars believe is linked just as much to Arab nationalism as to Islamism (or even more so).

I don't know if the martyr necessarily wants to die, but simply prefers death to the alternatives--abandonment of or betrayal of principles, faith, ideals, nation, cause, etc. I wish I remembered the source of this quote, but I read somewhere that martyrdom is death with a specific intent.

As for more specific examples of nationalism and martyrdom, I'll refer you to two historical and one modern example.

1. The Republican martyrs of Irish nationalism, who felt that they would gain victory in death by dying in such a way as to reinvigorate and unify the nationalist cause in Ireland. These include the Fenian "Manchester Martyrs" who were executed for attempting to rescue Fenian leaders captured by the British in 1916.

2. The Chinese nationalist martyrs, led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen (a hero honored in China as well as in "China Towns" throughout the world, such as the Sun Yat-sen gardens of Vancouver), who died in the Huanghuagang Uprising against the Qing Dynasty in 1911. They are honored as martyrs in Huanhuagang even today.

3. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. The Tamil are decidedly Marxist, nationalist, and anti-religious but (like radical Islamists) use suicide bombing squads (The Black Tigers) as part of their nationalist struggle. They also prepare themselves to use cyanide capsules rather than to evade capture.

This all leads me to an interesting conundrum as to which standards should be applied in defining a martyr. For instance, Christians, Jews, and many Muslims would exclude suicide bombers and any others who seek or cause their own deaths from the defintion of martyrs b/c suicide is a morally prohibited act. I think they have a point, but I don't know if it's correct to allow the religious definition of martyrdom to hold sway over hte discussion. Probably the easiest is to accept as "martyrs" those who used martyrdom as part of some cause; viewed martyrdom as an ideal; or were considered martyrs by their compatriots. However, I don't know if that fits all cases of martyrdom.

What do you think?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 10, 2006 10:50 AM

It isn't the people who want to die for Jesus who scare me, it's the people who take the short additional step of wanting to kill for Jesus.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at September 14, 2006 1:28 AM

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