Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rick Warren and the Religious Right's Martyr Mythology.

Paul Rosenberg at OpenLeft looks at Christian Right claims of worldwide Christian martyrdom and finds Warren and others use bogus numbers to advance the belief that Christians are under dire persecution. He writes:

A couple of weeks ago, in "Uganda 'kill the gays' story underscores--bearing false witness lies at 'Religious Right's' core", I quoted the following from Rick Warren's belated public rejection of the Ugandan bill that would put gays to death:

5. What did you do when you heard about the proposed Ugandan law?

I wrote to the most influential leader I knew in that country, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, and shared my opposition and concern. He wrote me back, saying that he, too, was opposed to the death penalty for homosexuals. There are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world that kill people (For instance, last year, 146,000 Christians around the world were killed because of their faith.). In this case, I knew the Archbishop in Uganda, so I did what I could, but my influence in that nation has been greatly exaggerated by the media.


These figures are patently bogus--as I will shortly demonstrate. But they are also, apparently widely believed in the evangelic community. It helps to notice first of all that there is simply no comparison to executing people for being gay. Murdering people because of their religious beliefs is utterly heinous, but it is not state action, and not the least bit comparable to the sort of law beingcontemplated by Warren's purpose-driven fans. (Depsite his attempts at distancing, Uganda is only the second African state to declare itself a "purpose-driven" nation. Their purpose, apparently, is state-sanctioned murder. Aimlessness and slackitude never looked so good.)

The total number of state murders worldwide in 2008 was around 2400, according the NY Times article on Amnesty International's report in March of this year:

Amnesty International said at least 2,390 people were executed worldwide in 2008, compared with its 2007 figure of at least 1,252.

With at least 1,718, China was responsible for 72 percent of all executions in 2008, the report stated. After China were Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), the United States (37) and Pakistan (36), according to the group.

"Together they carried out 93 percent of all executions worldwide," the report said.

Nice company we keep, no? And it's even possible that some of those state murders have a religious component to them. But martyrdom is something a bit more specific--it's death that results from refusing to renounce one's beliefs. While it's equally heinous that one should be put to death, say, for publicly observing a forbidden religious practice, that's notquite the same thing--unless, of course, one is told that the death penalty would be dropped, if only one would renounce one's faith. Because of such subtleties, it's certainly possible that cases of true martyrdom can be found in these numbers. But there is nothing here comparable to the mass executions of martyrs in olden days.


There's something even worse than a lack of evidence of widespread martyrdom: evidence of false marytrdom. Such apparently may have been the case with one of the victims at Columbine, as recounted in a 2008 article in Christian Century, by Jason Byassee, "How martyrs are made: stories of the faithful". The article begins:

ONE OF THE TEENAGERS killed in Colorado's Columbine High School shootings in 1999 was Cassie Bernall. Soon after her murder, reports emerged about how one of the shooters had found Bernall under a table, pointed a gun at her head and asked, "Do you believe in God?" She said yes and was promptly shot.

Within weeks of that event I heard a sermon at an Episcopal church praising Bernall's witness and urging Christians to imitate her faithfulness. Prognosticators predicted another Great Awakening in American life sparked by Bernall's martyrdom. Billboards appeared that announced, "She Said Yes." Her mother penned a memoir using the phrase as its title, and a Web site started selling "She Said Yes" T-shirts and other merchandise.

There was one problem: the reported exchange between Bernall and her killer may never have happened. Students who were within earshot of the event disputed the account. One survivor claimed that she, not Bernall, had been the one questioned by the shooter. Those who made grand claims for Bernall started backpedaling. Some suggested that the story was important whatever the facts behind it. Elizabeth Castelli, who recounts this history in Martyrdom and Memory, points out that this latter rationalization was an odd one to come from Christians who also adhere to biblical literalism; they would never say the truth behind a biblical story is what counts, whether or not the event happened. Stories like Bernall's suggest some of the reasons to hesitate when confronted with claims to martyrdom.

It's not Byassee's intent to deny Bernall's martyrdom, or to dismiss martyrdom in general, but to unsettle people from their preconceptions. Indeed, his article is a very serious consideration of martyrdom, drawing largely on the non-violent Anabaptist tradition (particularly Mennonites.) But it is permeated with questioning, and challenges to certainty. For example:

In To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church (Brazos), Craig Hovey, a Mennonite theologian trained at Fuller and Cambridge, argues that Christianity is a training for martyrdom. Martyrdom is not a tragic mistake, nor is it a historical relic from a bygone age. It is "a gift of God to the church." Christians cannot and should not hope for martyrdom, but they must be prepared for it.

Hovey argues against any utilitarian reading of the martyrs. Martyrdom makes no argument. Martyrs should not be used to argue that someone else's religion is bad or that some other country deserves retribution. In the New Testament "martyrs do not die because they fight for what is right, but precisely because they refuse to fight for what is true."

Of course, the evangelical practice of using martyrs is what got me writing this diary in the first place. And it's the deeper meaning of the phrase "False Martyrs" that heads this section. The Anabaptists cited in this article point in a very different direction:

Chris Huebner, another Mennonite theologian (he teaches at Canadian Mennonite University), argues in A Precarious Peace (Herald) that the ambiguity that surrounds claims to martyrdom is all to the good. The truth about martyrs is always something a community must pursue, without claiming to capture or possess it. In fact, arguing about martyrdom is part of the church's growth in holiness. Martyrdom is a "work of memory"--no one can declare herself a martyr, only the community can. "The very designation of martyrdom is a fragile and tenuous one, existing ... between the twin extremes of suicide and victimhood." Huebner grants to Elizabeth Castelli the point that remembrances of martyrs are always constructs, never able securely to capture truth.

The attitude here is strikingly different from the smug self-certainty of the evangelicals, which Byassee does not comment on directly.

The assignation of martyrdom as a gift from God allows that it not be reliant on facts from Amnesty International or any other study/advocacy organization - or indeed on facts at all - to serve as a "gift" to the church and believers.

But even among non-believers, as I look more closely at ideas of redemptive suffering and doctrinal medicine (predominantly practiced by the 624 Catholic hospitals in the US), I find that statistics regarding pain and suffering at the end of life are often much less powerful an opponent in the fight for elder rights than the myth of martyrdom or suffering as a necessary and redemptive aspect of life.

Disclosure: The fabulous Elizabeth Castelli, mentioned in the lengthy quote above, is a friend. You can find her books here, including Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making, cited above.

The image above is from Martyrs' Mirror, the 1660 book of martyrs that chronicles the deaths of Christian believers, the second most common book found in Anabaptist churches.

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