In our last post there was an attempt at covering a lot of ground as an intro to the generally complicated intersection of art, politics and martyrdom across cultures over time. To sum up: this series of posts started when I read Michael Rennier’s “Come Rack! Come Rope!” last year and was reminded of how incredibly nuanced the process of relating to martyrs/martyrdom actually is the modern world. Or any world, really.
Part I went on quite a bit about the martyrs themselves and how easy it is for them to disappear behind a symbol or idea (one that’s then often used by others for reasons innocent or nefarious), but the piece came to a close by vaguely referring to issues that pop up while thinking about other factors in the martyrdom besides the martyr him/herself – namely that other, essential participant: the one actually doing the deed.
To say the issue of martyrdom, especially the act of veneration, comes with heavy cultural baggage is an understatement worthy an ancient Chinese(ish) curse, and one of the hardest things to work one’s way through is the subjectivity of the whole damn affair.
What that ultimately boils down to is the fact that there are different sides involved that often see the martyr (and the reasons leading to their death) in a completely different way. The whole “one person’s terrorist/political enemy is another person’s religious sage” thing and all that. A case like Jan Hus’s is pretty clear – yes, there were definitely politics involved, but he was condemned at a Council for religious reasons and was killed for what he believed. A case of religious martyrdom through and through.* But take, on the other hand, the Canadian Jesuit Martyrs.
When the French landed in North America they entered an alliance with the Huron people, a tribe who themselves were eventually caught up in a conflict with the Mohawk known as the Beaver Wars (no, I’m not making that up). It was primarily over the control of various trade routes dealing with pelts and whatnot – the Mohawk and members of other Iroquois tribes happened to be armed by the English, who were in turn constantly butting heads with the French over control of the continent. So, what happens when Jesuit missionaries are captured by the Mohawk? They’re treated like enemies of the state. The French God, to them, was the god of the enemy and obviously shouldn’t be listened to. So, when they were killed off one by one, were they killed for the fact they were Catholics, or for the fact they were French? Were the Mohawk considered enemies of the Church or of France?
This is what generally happens when a political force allies itself with a particular religious tradition: a killing, from one side, is taken as an act against God/the faith, but the other group might have seen it as a mostly political act, one that defended a threatened people and way of life. All of a sudden, the choice between honouring a Catholic or Orthodox martyr might be perceived as showing more sympathy/support to, say, either Hungary or Romania over a land dispute. When nationalist feeling gets tied up with religious practice, intellectual integrity often takes a moment to blitz to the nearest window and leap.
A list of nationalities or countries identifying with a specific spiritual tradition would be long indeed.** This complicates the stories of particular martyrs in Europe (such as Edmund Campion’s) because, in Elizabethan England, being Catholic didn’t shout “believes in transubstantiation and apostolic succession” so much as “believes the Tudor Church of England to be founded on bull.” Meaning that killing Catholics happened to be more a political act than a thoroughly thought-out denial of the Eucharist. I wonder a lot about whether most “religiously” motivated violence happens more when spirituality becomes synonymous with a cultural identity than when people actually quibble over theological subtleties. Karen recently wrote about some of the positive sides of cultural spirituality, but this is the other, bloodier side of that coin.
A mob (read: you and I) can hold up the image of a martyr as a national symbol, whitewash the complicated events leading up to why a killing happened and flatten it all to a single chorus: “they killed our saint, they stabbed our priest, they offended God, they’re aligned with the darkness.” When this kind of frenzy takes hold, even the act of challenging how oversimplified things are getting can be taken as an act of betrayal. The crucial difference between criticizing a martyr vs critically analyzing any non-spiritual reasons for their death is lost, and the ability to think with a cool head’s lost with it.
Things, as mentioned last time, get dicier when art’s involved. Going back to the case of Campion’s era, the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (which’s been mentioned on the blog before) dramatizes Elizabeth as hero during the Spanish Armada’s invasion. Which means that Spain, along with Spanish Catholicism, are the bad guys. And King Philip’s not just a bad guy, but a moustache-twirling, emotionally unstable dictator walking among the shadows of the dozen-odd creeping cardinals orbiting his court. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett spends her royal hours in gauzy dresses basking in all the sunlight the studio could muster on budget.
Well-intentioned films, plays or paintings about martyrs can still very much end up turning complicated realities into black-and-white morality tales. Yes, there’s obviously nothing wrong with emphasizing genuine sanctity and decrying the very real heinousness of torture, but works of art revolving around martyrdom (or sainthood in general) tend to lose nuance when dealing with the messier elements of the martyr-hero and/or, critically, the personhood of the offender.
The veneration of a martyr, as mentioned in the last post, has the potential after-effect of erasing the personhood of the person killed – but it’s important to note the same thing often happening to the one doing the vile deed itself, especially in the eyes of the group/culture/religion who support the martyr. It’s all too easy for them to be dismissed as the Other.
“To other” has become one of the most popular new verbs used in the cultural conversation over the past fifty years, and it basically just means the process of actively splitting people up into camps of “us” and “them,” a process that’s suspected to be an built-in part of our brain chemistry. Which, if true, would be a huge pile of suck because when we “other” someone it becomes that much easier to dehumanize them and skip the essential (and already difficult) work of understanding who they are and what place they genuinely occupy in this world. And said complications hit full throttle the moment we define part of their particular “them-ness” as “against-us-ness.”
The way we use language is front and center here because all it takes is the wrong word at an awkward time to start piling up walls and boundaries. As an example, think of all the connotations we have for the word “extremist.” It’s a downright explosive word and, in the same vein as “fundamentalist,” no one wants to be associated with it. As such, it turns out to be a tempting way to discredit someone without actually going through the real work of having something useful to say about what they do and why (which, yeah, awkwardly requires you to understand them) – all you gotta do is call someone an extremist feminist or a fundamentalist missionary and all of a sudden they’re pariah. Cue all respectable people in the room taking a long step back.
Part of the problem, as always, is the fact that we’re not actually thinking about why we do what we do. Like, what is it about extremism that makes us so uncomfortable? I mean, what exactly is extremism if it isn’t the willingness to take a thought past the bounds of respectability? Wasn’t Fr. Damien of Molokai an extremist? What about Rosa Parks? Why don’t we react in the same awkward way to their stories as we do to, say, Michael Moore or whatever raving prophet de jour‘s hanging around? Well, the fact they’re dead (and thus can’t knock on my door asking me to do something uncomfortable for the sake of the right thing) does help. So does the fact that we tend to use the word “heroism” to describe extremisms we support. But both heroism and extremism, in the end, are just fancy words for not wanting to compromise something that means a lot to you.
So that’s a lot of ranting: how can we try doing things better? For starters, if someone’s “extremism” is making us uneasy, maybe instead of othering her/him we can stop to ask ourselves “what is it exactly they’re not willing to compromise on?” All of a sudden, a crazy suicide bomber turns out to be someone trying to do the will of God as they understand it, right to the point of giving it all. Even if every cell in our body screams out against the act they’re doing, we can still (and perhaps should) admire just how much this person is willing to do for the sake of their spirituality. Then maybe, just maybe it’ll make them more relatable and, in turn, makes the chance of dialogue more possible. Even in something deeply repulsive there’s often something human we can see, admire, relate to and mourn when lost. If we learn to look at it the right way, anyway.
There’s been a lot of talk about dehumanization here, but the process mentioned above is the exact opposite: humanization. But that’s a harder pie to bake, because sometimes it seems like we’re psychologically primed for the opposite. And what’s more: if the artistic representation of martyrdom makes it complicated to humanize the one doing the martyrdom, it does the same to the martyr him/herself.
One of the comments down at the bottom of Michael’s article highlighted the trend we have of setting up our martyrs on a pedestal, as if they were superhuman or otherwise had something we lack. As if they weren’t weak or concupiscent or scared in the same way we get – and what’s more dehumanizing than stripping someone of their flaws and making them into some kind of old school Disney princess? An unknowable hero on a pedestal is just as alien as an extremist promoting a message that makes us uncomfortable. It’s just as hard to see ourselves in either of them.
Part of the issue is in the fact that some of these folks became insta-icons after their deaths. Terry Fox, JFK, Sister Dorothy Stang, Aleksandr Litvinenko and Martin Luther King Jr. have all become posthumous superstars in their respective communities (and, in some cases, the world), which, by nature of how huge they are, gives the rest of us mere mortals an excuse for not stepping up to the plate. I mean, who can compete with cultural figures of that scale? How many kids trying to live their dream get reality-smacked by well-meaning parents who imply (either in word or action) “what, you want to be like them? Who do you think you are?” As if those public figures weren’t just kids (or adults) with a dream at one point or another. It only ever gives us another reason to settle for less in the world.
It also robs us of the ability to get to know a particular martyr as a person with knock-knees, a stutter, or well-hidden admiration the latest incarnation of My Little Pony.*** Maybe some really did hold to their guns purely from religious conviction, but maybe there were just as many elements of pride or compensation involved. Maybe there was a particular love or hate in play. Or obedience or doubt or guilt or any of the myriad emotions, but in any case the humanity of the martyr gets washed away by their blood and they’re remembered first and foremost for courage and sanctity. Which they may have had in spades, but only along with all the other awkward bits.
For example, we’ll never know if Saint Thomas More was as much of an iron man (sorry, Robert Downey) as he’s been portrayed in art since his death:
He is portrayed here as, well, a man for all seasons – incorruptible, humble, gracious, courageous, courteous, and a notable deliverer of zingers: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” Men (or women) of this scale of integrity don’t just pop up out of a black hole, and through the film there’s no sense given of what kind of life Saint Thomas led in order to become such a likeable badass. So you can’t blame people for thinking his portrayal a bit, well, whitewashed.
Which is exactly what it is. And it’s this trend of glowing personifications of the saint (The Tudors was, given, more complex but no less congratulatory) that likely led to Hilary Mantel’s controversial portrayal of the same events in Wolf Hall. We’re still trying to get to the point as a culture where we’re able to deal with complicated heroes in history – maybe it’s just that there’s an inescapable part of us still wanting to collectively cling to the simpler, black-and-white, us-vs-them dichotomy of struggle. I mean, all we still have to do to destroy the image of a historical figure’s accomplishments is drag an unrelated piece of dirty laundry into the sunlight (Kennedy was a womanizer! Gandhi had uber-weird chastity experiments!) and the “white knight” image caves in along with swathes of our support. For some reason we’re still way too attached to the sterilized, whitewashed image of a hero – and Jesus only used the adjective “whitewashed” to describe one thing: tombs. As in, the hypocritical souls of certain, rather local pharisees.
But we don’t just have to look at cultural icons for examples – religious icons do a number of the same things:
This is an image painted of the twenty-one Coptic Christians who were kidnapped and beheaded by representatives of the Islamic State in Libya during the first few months of 2015 – they were declared martyrs shortly afterward by Pope Tawadros II and given the feast day of Feb 15th in the Coptic calendar. No one knows on exactly what day they died, but Feb 15th was when the video of their beheadings was released. I didn’t watch (and am not planning on watching) that horrifying piece of political theatre but, from what I’ve heard, the twenty Egyptians (and one originally non-Christian from Sub-Saharan Africa, as far as I’ve understood) accepted their fate with grace and put their souls in the hands of God. This image speaks very much to that spirit.
What comes next is in no way meant as a criticism (in terms of the low meaning of criticism: petty name-calling) of these men, the artist or the nature of modern Coptic-influenced iconography – nor is it trying to say there was a mistake done in doing it the way it came out. That would be a slap in the face of a courage I don’t know if I possess (and hope I won’t have the opportunity to check). But the nature of this kind of art and iconography undeniably does leave certain elements out.
First, almost all the faces are the same, which again makes us think of them less as twenty-one unique and irreplaceable beings and more of a group unified and defined by an act. They become generic, and as such deprived of humour, temptation, fear, joy, shame, longing, regret, charm and, in a word: personality. Which is a kind of soft dehumanization.
It also, by its very nature, doesn’t engage with the intentions of the people who actually did the killing. Yes, followers of Daesh are not the biggest fans of Christianity, but they, as directed by Islam, are encouraged to show more mercy for members of Abrahamic religions than for other faith traditions – so what provoked this particular display of carnage? Well, the orange jumpsuits worn by the martyrs (and reproduced in the icon) are a reference to the fact that there’s an element of (misdirected) vengeance against the sins of Guantanamo Bay. The executioners also claimed this was comeuppance for the odd happenings around a pair of disappearing acts by one Kamilia Shehata.**** Clearly there are more than just religious motivations behind the beheadings.
The icon doesn’t point to those realities – though to be fair, that’s totally not its job. Its job is to be an aid for devotion and respect, but it can (and already has been) used as a weapon of hate against Muslims (of Daesh/ISIL-persuasion or otherwise). Another example of something beautiful being inverted and used to support an anti-Beauty.
So yeah, this series has pretty much been a downer the whole way through so far – um, so what’s there to do about it?
For starters: something uncomfortable. There are examples of great depictions of martyrs out there in art, but I’d like us to take a look in Part III at an example that is VERY MUCH not associated with traditional Christian views. Which will probably be a useful exercise in more ways than one, as it gives us an opportunity to identify some potential principles for representing martyrs in art while working in an uncomfortable space typically reserved for “them.”
As for a little hint about who we’ll be talking about:
*Obviously he was a heretic from the Catholic perspective, but the definition of a martyr isn’t “one who dies for the truth” so much as “one who dies for what they believe in.” Which makes every execution for the crime of heresy an act of martyrdom.
**Not limited to:
Poland = Catholicism
Saudi Arabia = Sunni
Cambodia = Theravada
Germany = Lutheranism
Belarus = Orthodoxy
Iran = Shia
***The answer before you ask: no.
****There were a lot of dead ends looking for information about her: there’s basically a controversy (wiki-recounted here) over whether or not she was prevented by Christians from converting to Islam or if she was kidnapped and coerced to convert.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.