We don’t need another martyr. This thought first came to mind as I listened to a spoken word performance by a friend of mine, Manon Bullock. She was referencing the death of Rekia Boyd in Chicago, a Black woman shot dead by an off-duty white police officer in 2012. She said if we could have chosen any outcome for Rekia Boyd, martyrdom would not have been included in the calculation. This struck a chord deep within me — a chord of dissonance. Growing up in the evangelical Christian church instilled within me many positive associations with martyrdom. One could show no greater commitment to a cause than to be willing to die for it. I thought martyrdom was honorable, selfless, and typically served to bolster whatever cause the martyr was willing to die for. The greatest example of the glory of martyrdom was believed to be Jesus. Some understand that Jesus willingly allowed himself to be crucified so that we could have access to God’s forgiveness. I once believed these things, but life experience has a strange way of challenging assumptions.
In the gospel of John, the High Priest Caiaphas is quoted as saying, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50 NRSV). The author of the gospel then adds an explanation. “He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51–52 NRSV). We have two separate myths at play here: the myth of martyrdom and the myth of the sacrificial lamb. Readers might imagine the author of the gospel wants them to believe Caiaphas felt Jesus would eventually cause such a problem that the Romans would send in their army and destroy Jerusalem. It would therefore be a social good for Jesus to die so the people would be spared. Caiaphas seemed to believe, by killing Jesus, the Jewish leadership could ward off a Roman invasion. Jesus then becomes the sacrificial lamb.
While Caiaphas seems to view Jesus as a lamb to be sacrificed, the author of the gospel of John is operating with the myth of Jesus as the martyr. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13-14 NRSV). Here the author purports that Jesus is hinting at his death. The words “lay down one’s life” connote a voluntary sacrifice. When Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, he willingly asks who the soldiers were looking for and steps forward. This paints a picture of Jesus as voluntarily choosing to die for a greater cause. The author suggests Jesus, by giving his life, will bring together God’s children.
Both myths are driven by our propensity to discover something positive in bad situations, or to justify actions with unintended or evil consequences. To frame assassinations and martyrdoms as anything else than the tragedies they are is an easy, and almost natural, thing to do. We seek to attach greater meanings to deaths in order to make the loss more palatable, but the deaths of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and many others were not part of God’s plan, nor were they preordained moments required to realize freedom, peace or stability. How could the God who is synonymous with love create a plan that involves the brutal murders of her children?
The myths of martyrdom and the sacrificial lamb have allowed the church to support ideas which run counter to the love of God. If we believe the crucifixion was a necessary precursor to the glory of the resurrection or ascension, it becomes easier to understand, for example, Dr. King’s assassination as a necessary precursor to increased Civil Rights protections for African Americans. It wasn’t. In fact, the most monumental legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were accomplished while Dr. King was still alive, motivated by the protests he led in Birmingham and Selma respectively. Progress is possible without murders and assassinations. If we can glorify and even celebrate the crucifixion, or any assassination, as outcomes of God’s will, then the deaths of Mesha Caldwell, Rekia Boyd, Pedro Villanueva, John Wallace III, and countless others become easier to stomach as necessary events on a path to social and legal reform. As a result, by idealizing death, we become numb to the reality of the losses we’re experiencing.
This myth that murder inevitably leads to progress is problematic for those who believe in social justice because we can tell ourselves these deaths, while tragic, will help advance the movement. Although in reality, we’re losing the talent, energy, and perspective of those who are murdered. It is preposterous to think we can improve as individuals or as a society if we have fewer people dedicating their unique talents, energies, and perspectives to the fight. As leaders such as Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were assassinated for their work and beliefs, the Civil Rights movement was weakened significantly. By the 1970s, most of the legislative momentum and unity had waned. The recent white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, VA, served as evidence of the fact that the fights for civil rights is as necessary today as it was in the 1960s. But rather than moving toward the ultimate good we seek, these myths help to keep us caught in the same cycles we’re trying to break free from.
In the fight against white supremacy, for instance, it only benefits the white supremacists to have more martyrs and sacrificial lambs. White supremacy does not want minorities and their sympathizers to survive and thrive. In a news report by Vice, one white supremacist stated he expects more people to die before their agenda is realized. If we continue to accept the beliefs that martyrs and sacrificial lambs can help us take steps forward, we will keep playing into the hands of those who wish to halt progress. It’s inconceivable that more holidays with our loved ones and fewer hashtags in their memory would hinder social progress. Young men and women shouldn’t have to exchange careers for caskets, for progress to be achieved. Progress doesn’t require martyrs, nor does it necessitate sacrificial lambs. As my friend Manon said, we didn’t need another martyr, Rekia. In fact, maybe we never needed any to begin with.