Martyrdom

The above is a song by Flyleaf written about Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott who died in the Columbine school shootings in 1999. Cassie is widely believed (although erroneously identified according to Wikkipedia) as the girl who was asked the question “Do you believe in God?” before being gunned down by the Columbine killers after she replied in the affirmative. This song is proceeds on that assumption but whether or not the girl in question was correctly identified is not an issue here. My point is that the song and the underlying story is compelling and inspirational even to a non-Christian like me, not because of the religious undertone but because it is the story of a person refusing to capitulate to a bully even in the face of overwhelming force. This is the quintessential hero story for our times and as such it is the kind of stuff cultural icons are made of.

This sort of heroism is admired in every culture and is the basis of many of our shared mythologies, back to and including the story of David and Goliath and even modern day ballads such as Jim Croce’s Leroy Brown. It is part of human nature that admiration for this type of bravery is ubiquitous and upheld and for good reason. Among the myriad things that human beings regard as exceptional, the ability to hold to your principles in the face of certain death is among the highest on the order of worldly deeds. Stories like this fulfill the need humans have for creating heroes (sometimes out of whole cloth) in order to impose meaning and redefine senseless tragedies as the Columbine massacre as battles between good and evil. This happens in part because as ego driven entities, human beings are repelled by the notion that our lives and death may exist devoid of purpose. This mythical Cassie image is raised up as the personification of a heroic believer who willingly chooses death rather then to deny her faith when faced by the ultimate theist’s dilemma.

A close examination of the public record in the Columbine case, however, will show this interpretation to be almost entirely fictitious and created after the fact, a reality the public willingly ignores because the story fulfills our need for cultural heroes. In this instance, this deception fuels a hyper moralized worldview where the nihilistic rage of the Columbine killers is transformed into an anti-Christian action. I point the misrepresentation because, while this tendency for self deception in creating cultural icons serves a psychological need, it necessarily does so at the expense of truth. The fact is that the person who was asked “Do you believe in God” by the Columbine killers was said to have given conflicting responses, which is understandable given the circumstances, and that even when she did reply in the affirmative, when she was further asked why she said that it was because it was what her family believed. On top of that the girl who was actually reported to have been asked the God question, Val Schnurr, was shot but in fact did not die which is probably the main reason that the question/answer was later attributed to Cassey Bernall. In all of cultural mythology there is nothing quite so problematic as a martyr who doesn’t have the decency to die. I believe it is for this reason that the Flyleaf song is entitled “Cassie” rather than “Val.”

Secondly this story opens up an interesting window into the human fascination with martyrdom. The subject is most often associated with religious figures such as devout (if theologically suspect) Christians and Muslims but the non-theistic types have their fair share of admiration for this type too. The most common non theistic martyr worship occurs with military exploits (e.g. phrases such as “He gave his life for the nation”) but there also exist a good amount of people who honor the sacrifices of cultural icons such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King for entirely non-religious reasons (I would include JFK in the present example but, while certainly the victim of assassination, one would be hard pressed to make the case for his being a martyr in any strict sense of the word). If there is any question as to the value our culture places upon martyrdom, imagine the irrelevance and even ignominy these figures would have experienced had they lived out the term of their full natural lives. In the case of MLK much is already known about his extramarital affairs with white women (a revelation which would have played out very badly among members of both black and white races) but his assassination overshadows all that. As is often the case death goes a long way to improving ones public image.

Also lost on the concept of martyrdom is that simply dying for ones cause in no way establishes that the cause in question was just in the first place. If Muslims martyr themselves on one side of a battle while Christians martyr themselves on the other side then what? Neither cause was proven in such a case and it’s still quite possible that both sides were wrong (not to mention the fact that the ensuing hero worship serves only to exacerbate the rift between the groups). Besides that, speaking of the Christian camp I don’t think any group that extols martyrdom as a virtue has any business propping itself up under the banner of pro-life in a different argument but that’s another argument entirely. My point is that martyrdom does nothing to sanctify a cause (else we would be obligated to hold Japanese kamikazees in the highest regard rather than vilifying them as the sneaky jackasses of all time) and in fact, by its insistence of using human beings a means to the ends of others (a concept which flies against our inherent sense of morality), it does everything to corrupt it. No ethical philosophy demands martyrs or self-sacrifice. I quote Ayn Rand on the subject:

“Of course whether a man should die fighting for freedom is a different issue. Such a man is not dying for the nation. I honor the men who died fighting for freedom in the past, and I honor them when I say I hope they died fighting for their own freedom. Because we profited from their actions, we should appreciate what they did; But it was not their duty to be martyrs for us.”

In conclusion I love this song but don’t be a martyr because martyrs have to die and being dead is dumb. Thank you drive through.

3 Responses to “Martyrdom”

  1. Phelps says:

    No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

    — Patton

  2. Jenn says:

    Hahah! Your ending is why I miss you, damnit.

    GREAT post, Mexi, but that’s not new. You always have great posts. This one, however shows your softer side. Aww!!

  3. R says:

    Augh! Come on, man! Write something new!

Leave a Response