Part II. Chapter 4
The Desire for Martyrdom-Pathology or Saintliness?
Martyrdom already exists in Judaism, it is also an important trait of Christianity, especially in its beginning phase. In pagan antiquity on the contrary, it hardly exists, Socrates being the exception that proves the rules. When, like Socrates, Aristotle was threatened with death, he escaped from the city: Why allow the Athenians to commit a new crime of 'lese-philosophy'? he said.34
Saint Clement of Alexandria must have reasoned in the same way when, after having glorified martyrdom in the StromatesÆ (Book IV), he fled Alexandria and the persecution of Septimus Severus letting Origene take his place as teacher.... Perhaps he was thinking of ChristÆs advice: When they persecute you in this town, go to another (Mat.X: 23).
Martyrdom has been attested in the Bible, especially since the time of the Maccabeus. The desire to suffer and to die for the Torah (I Mac. 2: 50) can lead to dramatic suicide. Razis, who was called the Father of Jews because of his affection for them, was surrounded on all sides by enemy troops: He nobly chose to die rather than fall into criminal hands and suffer outrages unworthy of his nobility. His attack having missed the target in the heat of battle, and the troops having retreated behind the doors, he ran briskly to the top of the wall and threw himself down fearlessly upon the crowd. Everyone having stepped back, he fell to the ground. Still breathing and full of fervour despite his deep wounds, he rose, covered with blood, and ran through the crowd. At last, standing on a steep rock, already having lost most of his blood, he pulled out his entrails and threw them out over the crowd, praying to the master of life and spirit to return them to him one day. This is how he died. (II Mac. 14: 43-46).
From the psychological and spiritual points of view, martyrdom has the advantages of setting an example of courage and of proving ones faith in a Reality and a Consciousness that are independent of the body. Martyrdom also has a political interest. Rene Girard has shown how a scapegoat and blood letting were necessary for the foundation of a human group. Generally, he who was sacrificed was presented as being guilty by the sacrificers. In the Bible, however, this mechanism began to be gradually unmasked. Isaac, Abel, Joseph, and the suffering Servant of Isaiah are not guilty. This awareness culminates in the Passion of Christ. It is no longer the persecuted who is guilty, but the persecutor. The mechanism is reversed, and that is how it remains in the Christian conception of martyrdom. According to Girard, who is particularly interested in Christianity, this progress is unique in the history not only of religious consciousness, but also of consciousness itself. In the Christian mystics and the Indian sages, however, I see a progress which is even greater: the sublimation of sacrifice by its internalisation. This evolution is perceptible in India since the transition from the Vedic mantras to the Upanishads, before the 5th century B.C.
Among the Fathers of the desert, it seems that after the great persecutions, some of them succeeded completely in this sublimation, while others only half-succeeded. The latter are the pure, austere ascetics who mortified their bodies feeling disappointed in not being able to be devoured by the lions, like in the good old days!.... It is true that in asking their disciples only to eat and sleep less, they are more lenient than the bishops who asked their followers, including frail women like Saint Blandine of Lyons in the 2nd century, to face the beasts of the arena. The ascetism of some monks of the desert took the form of sacrificial violence against themselves. The constant prayer which was on their lips bears signs of it: Lord Jesus, have pity on me, poor sinner. Of course, trampling on the ego could be considered to be the treatment it deserves, but this method is a double-edged sword. It instills a sense of painful complacency about his own worthlessness in the person who practices it. Starting off with the idea of forgetting the ego, one ends up thinking more about it because having been tormented, it suffers; as they say in India: One becomes what one thinks one is.
The Hindu mantras seem to be psychologically more healthy : they are prayers of praise, aimed at reminding man of his divine nature, and that is all. Some Fathers of the desert, however, seem to have attained complete sacrificial sublimation and the freedom that it gives. One of them gave the following simple advice: Do all that your soul wishes to accomplish according to the will of God, and it will be saved.35
Among Hindus is found this difference which we have mentioned above there is the 'tapasvin', the pure and austere ascetic who turns his aggressiveness against himself, and the 'jivan mukta', the liberated being who has succeeded in making efforts without efforts. He has practised the control of his mend to such an extent that it has become spontaneous, a second nature to him.
We could consider this matter of Jesus and the Christians viewed as victims by closely examining the symbolism of the Lamb. There is, of course, the suffering Servant of Isaiah, unjustly persecuted, who is compared to the Lamb, but there are also the Paschal Lamb through whose grace Israel was liberated from Egypt and the seven-horned Lamb, the conqueror of the Apocalypse which threatened the great of the Earth. (Apoc. 6, 15-16). The latter is the all-powerful Lamb. Christ as a Lamb takes upon Himself the sins of the world and dies. The Hindu guru also takes upon himself the sins, the karma of his disciples but he does not thereby sacrifice his own body in an unnatural death.
There is, however, a strange story about Shankaracharya, the Vedantic sage, in which he seems to accept the prospect of a violent death. A Tantric practitioner, jealous of Shankaracharya, asked him to come to a place at midnight, because he needed to cut off his head in order to succeed in his magic rituals. Having no ego, Shankaracharya did not see why he should refuse to help this sadhaka in trouble and went to the macabre rendezvous. Fortunately, in Indian stories, the sages usually are not martyred with his third eye, one among ShankaracharyaÆ' disciples perceived his masterÆs danger and sent a psychic missile against the tantric who was destroyed in less than a fraction of a second: all's well that ends well ...... the master returned unharmed.
If the fact that the sage can accept death because of a total absence of ego is acknowledged, the death of Jesus can be understood in a somewhat less tragic way. Jesus knew very well that there had been an uprising against the Romans at Jerusalem which had left thirty thousand dead, a large number for a small country. He also knew that the slaughter could recur with his name used as a pretext for it, since he had accepted to be acclaimed almost like a king when he had come to Jerusalem. Given the particular historical circumstances, he understood the high priest's need to find someone to die instead of the people. He used it to give a lesson of detachment to his disciples. His telling Peter not to defend him was only a matter of common sense, as against the high priest's numerous servants, Jesus had only Peter, James and John with him. Peter would certainly have been killed needlessly, which would also have jeopardised the future because Jesus was relying on Peter to become his successor.
This interpretation has the advantage of separating the facts from two equally prejudicial dramatisations : the first which considers that Jesus has been persecuted, knowingly and maliciously, by wicked Jews, Indeed, once reversed, this pathological logic of persecuted-persecutor is an obvious source of racism. The second dramatisation which could be challenged is the metaphysical interpretation given by Saint Paul to an unfortunate historical event: according to Saint Paul, the Father asked his Son to offer his blood for the sins of the world. No matter which way this interpretation is looked at, it can neither be considered rational nor even reasonable. On the contrary, it follows the sacrificial logic of all primitive religions perfectly : whatever misfortunes that occur are seen as the vengeance of a blood thirsty God who has not been satisfied enough by the sacrifices and demands a major offering like the blood of his own son, for example, in order to be satiated, no one knows for how long. This interpretation of the Passion by Saint Paul reduces JesusÆs teaching to a quasi-animistic level. A sublimation is certainly involved in presenting ChristÆs death as the last of the holocausts. Unfortunately, is it really the last? The violent death of almost all the apostles, and then of the Christian martyrs represents a much more serious holocaust than the sacrifice of an animal, especially since animals continue to be killed in slaughter houses and eaten, without even the solace of being considered as sacred...............
By stating this, I do not wish that the cross of Christ be made of no effect (I. Cor. 1, 17). I only wish that it be regarded with the minimum of bizarre psychological projections. ChristÆs Resurrection represents this paradox of Christianity well : the positive aspect, i.e. a luminous, almost unreal body, needed faith to believe in him, but the negative aspect, i.e. the holes left by the crucifixion in JesusÆ body were quite real and tangible, since Saint Thomas was able to touch them. The Hindus, like Aristotle whom we have quoted above, do not see the utility of martyrdom : they believe that fleeing persecution or making sacrifices to the statue of an emperor without much conviction is a far less serious fault than leading the persecutor to commit a crime.
In the desire for martyrdom can sometimes be perceived a counter- phobic attitude, as described in psychology. The candidate for martyrdom has secret doubts about the validity of the beliefs that he defends : these doubts frighten him so much, that instead of facing them, he prefers to throw himself into the water and die, which is easier, in a way.
Of course, Indian society has its violence and its scapegoats who are mainly outcasts but the notion of persecution has not really entered the spiritual domain, and in this way India provides an example of psychological health to the religions of the Book. The clear separation in Hinduism between the ækshatriyaÆ, responsible for armed defence and the æbrahminÆ responsible for religious teaching helps to explain why a Hindu will not feel the need to give his life just for religious ideals.
The first Christians, who taught even children to go and have themselves tortured and killed, represented a hard sect. Today, a leader of this sort of sect would certainly be imprisoned. The question of martyrdom was a major point of dissent between the extremists, that is the official church, and the moderates, i.e., the Gnostics; the latter did not see voluntary death as having any spiritual utility. Their teaching is about suffering, like that of the East, was more therapeutic: Learn how to suffer and you will suffer no more (Acts of John).
The discussions about whether Jesus really suffered on the Cross, and about whether he really died and was resuscitated, were not merely metaphysical debates. The political repercussions was immediate: was it necessary to proclaim one's faith to the point of martyrdom, or not? The officials of the Church said 'yes'; they wished, to have at their command, a disciplined militia, ready to die if the policy of the institution so demanded. The Gnostics said ænoÆ, and were thus considered traitors in the texts of Irenaenus of Lyon, they were even more harshly criticised than the Roman persecutors themselves. Indeed, by questioning the emotional epidemic of martyrdom, they did more to undermine the courage of the martyrs-to-be and sow more seeds of doubt in their minds than the brute force of the Roman authorities and the violence of the populace did. Those reflections may help to better understand why, in Christianity, the notion of martyrdom arouses such strong passions, and why questioning it seems to shake the very foundations of the Church.
The Gnostics criticise Tertullian when he says, I wish to suffer martyrdom in order to obtain complete pardon for my sins from God in exchange for my blood.36 They doubt whether God would appreciate human sacrifices : according to them it is a primitive notion, unworthy of an evolved religion: These are those official bishops who oppress their brothers, saying, 'It is through this martyrdom that God shows us his mercy since our salvation lies in it.... They are mistaken if they believe that they will live forever by rushing to the authorities to have themselves martyred.
From a psycho-pathological point of view, it could be considered a delirium of culpability leading to collective suicide. In a purely political domain, there was a recent example of this type of behaviour in India. In September-October 1990, 200 adolescents burnt themselves alive, refusing to accept an increased reservation in administrative jobs for the backward castes. Neither these youths, nor Hindus who die in clashes with Muslims, will be worshipped as martyrs of the only true religion, nor will their death be used to convert enemies by making them feel guilty.
The Japanese, on the contrary accept suicide within the politico-social framework of their society. The hara-kiri is the ultimate way to convey something important to society.
To return to the psychology of martyrdom in the West, it would be useful to recall that Jim Jones's cult or the Golden Temple movement was not Eastern, but Christian in its orientation. About twenty years ago at Guyana, Jim Jones made 900 of his disciples commit suicide by asking them to drink orange-juice mixed with cyanide. A very personal interpretation of the Apocalypse seems to have been one of the factors responsible for this collective psychosis. In classical times, Corneille carefully analysed the mixture of mystical exaltation affective dependence and desire for death through martyrdom when he staged the character of Polyeucte. Whatever the importance attached to giving one's life for Faith in the three religions of the Book, the fact that it is hardly taken into account in venerable spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism should make the followers of the Bible ponder.