How To Be A Martyr

A few weeks ago, when I published an article on vegetarianism as a political tool, I received emails and comments from people in India contesting the opening graphs, which were actually designed to set the stage more than be a driving point. 


Their basic contention: vegetarianism was a deliberate, moral choice, not a political one, as my research had shown. When I asked for research supporting their claim, I never heard back. One email included the following: 

Marvin [Harris] is using western framework to analyze and evaluate Indian practices and with little or no context into the culture he is talking about he seems to have missed the point.

If Harris was attempting to define the manifold polytheistic Hindu deities in the context of a biblical god, that would be ‘using Western framework.’ But his argument had nothing to do with rationalizing theological constructs; he was reporting on a historical incident. Unfortunately these two are often confused.

Confusing theology with history is the exact scenario needed for another repetitive occurrence in religious thought: martyrdom.

In order to create a martyr, you need the written word. As Karen Armstrong wrote, it was the Deuteronomists that made ‘Yahwism a religion of the book.’ From that point onward scripture trumped oral storytelling for spiritual guidance. This also opened the floodgates for a whole host of interpretations.

‘The problem lies not with the use of these texts as religious stories,’ writes Notre Dame religion professor Candida Moss, ‘but with their acceptance as historical records.’ Capitalizing on the inhuman and mystical feats literature affords is the perfect recipe for instituting a lasting religion, regardless of how factual those stories prove to be.

If one positions oneself on the side of the martyr, Moss continues, you'll certify your claim of being oppressed. Such a circumstance played out in the recent sexual misconduct lawsuit brought against Bikram Yoga founder Bikram Choudhury. Defending himself, Choudhury shot back, ‘People talked bad about Jesus also.’  

This is how a multi-millionaire yoga businessman aligns himself with an oppressed—and righteous—martyr. The not-so-hidden (or humble) sentiment: Bikram too is a prophet, or so he wants you to believe. As Moss writes,  

If anyone claims to stand in continuity with the martyrs, and if that authenticates their message, they can claim to be right.

Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero devoted an entire book to detailing the ways in which Jesus was transformed by followers into being whoever they wanted him to be. An especially poignant time for the savior’s publicity campaign came in the late 1960s, when the Christ figure was used simultaneously by hippies, the black power movement and the growing conservative sect in America. The fact that his historial origins are not clear only adds to the mystique and malleability of his image. 

Two dangers exist. First, for the person claiming to be a martyr, such as Bikram, those susceptible to falling for his claims will give up personal power and identity in following someone plagued with neurotic delusions. This is why it took Sarah Baughn many years to file the suit, which may work against her—she continued to attend his classes after the incident. 

Second, and probably the more relevant for many, is romanticizing deceased humans. One important example of the ‘perfected’ human can be witnessed by invoking Gandhi. While an exceptional human on many fronts, he was not infallible. We should not disregard his faults too quickly.

As an aging mendicant, Gandhi regularly battled with his long struggle with celibacy. Besides never consulting with his wife in the initial decision, he later forced his teenage great-niece to sleep naked with him nightly to prove to himself that he could overcome desire. While that might have seemed an admirable cause to himself, I’m going to guess that the girl might have taken issue with such an arrangement.

When we claim any human being perfect, we strip them of their humanity. While this might be a goal of some—Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, for one, attempts to force national media to play to only her good side—it is important to remind ourselves that perfection is an unattainable concept, not a factual reality. 

Humility can be its own form of arrogance when attempting to feign martyrdom—if someone tells you how humble they are, run away. Fast. More importantly, as Moss concludes in terms of the Christian focus on martyrs, 

It makes collaboration, and even compassion, impossible.

We should expect the best of ourselves, and demand the best of others. This should never come at the expense of denying our shared humanity. That's what compassion requires: seeing the better in someone when they falter, not pretending they have not lived up to some level of unwavering idealism. Nor should we act as if any one person has reached such a plateau. As Alan Watts famously wrote,

When you confer spiritual authority on another person, you must realize that you are allowing them to pick your pocket and steal your own watch. 

Image: Renata Sedmakova/shutterstock.com

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