Does anyone besides me remember Butler’s Lives of the Saints, or better yet, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs? As a morbidly curious child, I used to pore over the gore-spattered pages of these venerable tomes, held in a rigid spell of terror and fascination. These mostly forgotten classics of hagiography spare no detail and serve it straight, no ice.
Being a Christian used to hurt. A lot.
Whether burned at the stake, thrown to the Coliseum’s lions, flayed alive, broken on the rack, roasted over coals, or what have you, the martyrs of the early church and the Reformation all have a few important things in common. They died grisly deaths, lost all their possessions, were branded as criminals, and appeared insane to their contemporaries. Oh – and they all had it coming. You would be hard pressed to find a prominent figure in their ranks who did not escalate the conflict by refusing to back down. They all took a stand. Some died because they would not surrender their virginity, others because they wouldn’t burn a pinch of incense to the emperor. A few got nit-picky about papal authority or the notion of purgatory. William Tyndale was condemned to the fire for translating the Bible into English. Yeah, that’s a fun one.
In short, each one was a fanatic who fixated on one issue and was wiling to carry his – or her – crusade all the way to the grave, via deprivation and torture if necessary. In his classic socio-historical study The True Believer, Eric Hoffer draws some compelling parallels between this kind of behavior and the enthusiasm that motivates suicide bombers or cult devotees. His argument, which provides a neat morphology of “mass movements,” should strike the thoughtful reader with a moment of doubt: are the martyrs, from John the Baptist to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, nothing more than the froth on a heady brew of infectious hysteria? Surely we rational, comfortable, tolerant denizens of the modern church are not called to anything so… distasteful? So … dangerous?
This is a wonderful century to be alive, if you are a coward. I should know, being a convicted coward; from the first day I laid eyes on Butler’s, I knew I didn’t have the guts to die in protracted agony for the truth. I wanted to faint just looking at some of the engravings. Fortunately, I belong to a complacently dualistic culture. Cordoning off “faith” to the realm of private conviction and devotion, we are free to relegate every other choice and gesture to the authority and power of the world’s whims. If the government were to suddenly mandate tin-foil hats to ward off the evil eye, we could happily embrace the superstition, knowing that our “faith” was secure in the realm of the subjective. If our technocratic high priests decided to graft tails onto each of our posteriors, we could submit in good conscience, confident that the “image of God” was tucked away in some immaterial and abstract plane of existence. If – and I know this is too far fetched to be plausible – totalitarian ideology were rammed down our collective throats and reinforced through censorship and propaganda, we could join the hive-mind without a shudder of remorse because the demands of “faith” never impinge upon the good, the true, or whatever secures our retirement investments. As I said, our epoch is neither dangerous nor distasteful for the Christian — so long as he keeps his faith from interfering with his life.
That’s right: living in twenty-first century America, we will never face the grim choice put before our fathers in the faith, if only we remember this one cardinal rule: never take a stand. Never draw a line in the sand and say, “no further.” Never stake a claim for one small part of the truth or sanity. Never draw a dichotomy between the Almighty and powers-that-be. Never love your neighbor by preaching that Big Brother’s love is no love at all. Whatever you do, don’t be weird and awkward like those charred, broken, and mutilated corpses known as the great saints. Instead, wear your tin-foil hat like a good citizen. Stand in line to receive your monkey-tail surgery. Post “thumbs up” on all the fatwas of the internet demagogues. DO all these things and they – whoever They are – won’t deprive you of your job, your home, your freedom, or your life. That treatment is reserved for the truly depraved, the truly outcast, the fanatics and the fundamentalists. Thank heaven, or Progress, or whatever the deity-du-jour happens to be, that you don’t live in a primitive state like those guys in the old books whose lives ended in bloody carnage, all because they wouldn’t keep their faith shackled in the confines of the subjective.
Because the alternative is scary. In fact, it could get really really messy.
And maybe we just don’t have the guts for that.