To Live Among the Martyrs

A few weeks ago I was killing some time during a break at work, just puttering around on Facebook, when a friend shared this image…,

Arrow Plane

I was pretty sure it had been faked.  After all, the resolution of the image was pretty low, and I felt doubtful that wooden arrows would be quite so effective against the fuselage of a low flying plane.  Still, I couldn’t help myself from smiling as I looked at the image.

I could see the scene in my head…,

The Piper Comanche sweeping low over the jungle canopy, only to be pelted with a sudden barrage of arrows from below; the frantic pilot and passengers shouting in fear, fighting the suddenly unresponsive controls to gain altitude before it was too late.  Then, back at the tarmac, the looks of disbelief from those on the ground as the wounded plane sets down, having just made it back before the last of the fuel drained away from punctured tanks.

Still, the whole thing seemed pretty unlikely, so I responded to the post by saying, “Assuming this isn’t photoshopped – good for the tribe – keep those arrows flying!”

When I glanced back at the post later, my smile diminished somewhat.  What followed my comment was a brief discussion about five men, Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Roger Youderian, and Ed McCully, who were killed in 1956 while attempting to evangelize the Huaorani, an Ecuadorian tribe which had previously resisted all attempts at contact from the outside world.

Except, of course, “killed” is not the word that was used in the discussion.

These men were not killed, they were “Martyred”.

Because, when you intrude where you are not wanted, when your goal is to disrupt the social order of a foreign people, to make them question their beliefs and ultimately, to convince them that they must conform to your beliefs, and when you are slain in the pursuit of that effort, you are a Martyr in the eyes of those who see the world through that same twisted logic.


A few days later, came the news of violent attack against the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Paris.  And then two days after that, news that the two gunmen, along with a hostage, were now surrounded by police, in an industrial area north of the French capitol.  The words that were repeated again and again, in the news reports during the standoff, “the two men have announced that they wish to die as martyrs.”

In the end, I suppose they were given their wish.

Ye gods, am I ever so sick of martyrs!

And yes, before you ask, I am with no reservations whatsoever, equating the actions of the Paris gunmen and a pack of Christian missionaries killed in the jungles of Ecuador, almost exactly 59 years ago.  Because they ARE the same, all of them, and I don’t care that their methods differ.

Both groups intrude themselves into innocent lives with the goal of disrupting a social fabric of which they disapprove.  They seek to quash the beliefs of the “infidel” or the “savage” and replace those beliefs with their own.  Their final goal is absolute conformity of thought and action, and it matters not if their target is an isolated jungle tribe or modern western secularists.

I have long held that there is no difference between fanatical branches of Christianity and Islam when it comes to this point.  Each religion, hammers it into the heads of their faithful, that the greatest gift that you can give of your god, is the gift of your own life, taken while spreading the holy word to all corners of the globe.

Generation after generation, raised upon such a belief, have birthed a society which embraces the martyr, even when the cause falls far from the religious sphere.  And so we see efforts to paint the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo as martyrs in the cause of free speech.

And perhaps those poor artists and writers really are the ones who should be seen in this context.  At least they didn’t try to push their agenda upon anyone at gunpoint.  At least they never tried to force their book and their message into the hands and hearts of people who only wanted to be left alone.

Maybe they are the real martyrs here, but I’d rather not think of them as such.  The cause of free speech does not need martyrs.  History has shown that the dead do not speak with their own voices, but with the voices of those who choose to speak through them.  Free speech is, I think, a cause for the living.

I fear for our future because I don’t think it is possible to live among the martyrs.

Take a long look at the world around us, and remember that the architects of that society have been, by and large, a people who believed that this life, this world, was only a proving ground for the Kingdom of Heaven.  And now, close your eyes and imagine what the world might look like, if its custodians were, instead, a people who believed that the greatest thing that they could do to honor their gods, was to live long and peaceful lives.

Ah, but what about that airplane, pierced by so many wooden arrows?


Well, it was neither an invention of photoshop, nor evidence of a jungle adventure gone wrong.  A quick search revealed it to be the centerpiece of an Argentinian art exhibit called Avião.  So, it would appear that no missionaries were harmed in the making of this sculpture.

Many of the comments I’ve read on this piece fall into the, “That’s not art!” variety, which are so common when a work does not fit easily into a frame, and on a wall.  Personally, I love it.  I find the image to be both beautiful and frightening.  Like any good work of art it takes my mind in several directions, some of which, I have little doubt, the artists involved never intended.

The Arrows

What I find beautiful, is the contradiction between the ordered elegance of the flying machine, and the sudden chaos of feathered wooden shafts which pierce its perfect surface.  And then there is the something of the lilliputian here, as a thousand tiny spears threaten to bring down the behemoth of modernity.

And what do I find so frightening?

Only the seeming futility of it all.  I look at this sculpture and I smile.  But hiding behind that smile is the knowledge that a thousand thousand arrows could not hope to bring down all the airplanes, boats and busses that will carry the faithful to their next jungle village.

Kill one missionary…,

Kill one terrorist…,

…and his fellows will brand him a martyr, his name will become a rallying cry, and more will follow.


Unless we stop celebrating those who die for our pet causes, and instead learn to celebrate those who lead through living.  It may be hard to accept, when we have been raised to believe otherwise, but the path which I am suggesting is, by far, the more difficult one.

Dying is easy.  And dying a “meaningful” death is only slightly more challenging.

But to live a full and meaningful life?  Well now, that is task which every single martyr, those we are taught to revere with such dedication, failed miserably.


Filed under Art, Culture, Death, Modern Life, Philosophy, Proselytizing, Religion

11 responses to “To Live Among the Martyrs

  1. locksley2010

    Well fucking said!

  2. Reblogged this on As I see it and commented:
    This is thanks to my friend Stone of Destiny. I think he makes a great case here in exploring Martyrdom and questioning of our reverence of them and may be even the relevance?

  3. I enjoyed and reblogged this. You brought it all out in a way I would have had trouble doing and using the art piece as the center was a great idea.

  4. I think this is an interesting train of thought. I am a Christian but I can kind of see your point. I would like to give a different perspective though, just bear with me a moment. Imagine if you have been blind, you live in darkness but you can hear, feel, and taste everything around you. You hear other people’s descriptions of the world and you long to see it for yourself and one day after a long time of darkness, suddenly something happens and you can see. You can see what everyone else has been talking about. You see the birds, the sky and the grass. How would you feel? You would be so overjoyed you would want to tell the whole world what has happened to you. Another scenario, say one day you meet the most wonderful person in the world. The person literally walked out of your dreams, and the they have the largest, kindest hearts and not only that, they are completely and utterly in love with you and you start to fall for them too. And then you find out, that everyone you know has the chance to experience this amazing love but they either just don’t know it or don’t believe it. Would you not want to share the love that you are experiencing with everyone? Wouldn’t you want to try to show them what you are experiencing? That’s how Christians feel or I feel. That’s what we do when we try to tell others what we are going through. We love so much that we are willing to die for what we believe. I do believe that we shouldn’t try to shove our faith down the throats of others because that doesn’t fulfill anything but think about it from our perspective. If you believe that, for example, drinking clean water is good for you, wouldn’t you want to tell everyone else? I’d love to talk more about this if you are willing.

    • Discussion is fine, for its own sake. I simply want to be clear that i will not entertain attempts at proselytizing in these comments. That being said, lets look at your two examples. In the first you have compaired being non-christian to a physical handycap. It would be easy to take offense at this for several reasons, but the thing you need to understand that that from where I am sitting, the view seems pretty clear. It would be easy for you to argue that corrective lenses wpuld improve that view, but i could easily counter with the same advice. The difference being, im not going door to door trying to sell eyeware. In the second example, you’ve found this great girl and i guess she has a sister that you think would be perfect for me. Problem is, im already with someone. You may not like her, you may think your girl is better. And im sure she is, for you. But most guys would consider it pretty disrespectiful if their bro kept trying to hijack their relationships. Beyond all that, i understand that you guys have the great commission to spread the good news. Thats great, except that its been done already. Constant repeated attempts only serve to harden our hearts against your cause. Sure, there are still a few remote places out there that have not heard of jesus, but you really need to ask yourselves if the harm of forced comtact doesnt outweigh their need to know. Was bringing christianity to the americas worth the smallpox and loss of land that followed for the 1st Nations Peoples?

      • I see your point. I am so sorry, I did not mean to come across that way (proselytizing). The last thing I of course would want is to harden your heart even more about Christianity. You have definitely given me a lot to think about. I have to do some more research on Christianity being brought to the americas. From what I know about it, back in the day Christianity was used as a tool to gain power and build social stratification in the society, so I wouldn’t exactly say that it was spreading the word of God that caused the loss of land, it was more a need to gain more power. I guess we are really… or rather I am really just trying to figure out my faith. Looking at it from your point of view, I can see how different people telling you the same thing over and again would get really annoying really quickly.

      • No offense was taken, I just wanted you to see how the language of the examples you used can work against you when having a conversation with someone if another faith. When the approach is colored by an desire to persuade, it leads us to points of opposition. A better approach, especially for someone who is just exploring their own faith, is one of genuine interest and dialogue. What is it about ‘my’ beliefs that differ from your own? When we compare and contrast in an open manner, we learn more, about each other and ourselves. As to the question of missionary efforts – you don’t have to go as far back as the colonization of North America. Look into efforts in Africa, Asia, and South America in more modern times. Such efforts have often led to poverty, dissolution of the tribal structure, loss of precious traditions/knowledge, and desertification of the land. Good intentions can come with some weighty consequences.

      • Thanks for the feedback I really appreciate it. I definitely want to get to why you believe what you believe, I hope you don’t mind that I keep replying to this post, I am enjoying this discussion. As for the efforts in Africa, I actually have some family in Nigeria. And I’ve tried to talk to them about this. It’s a little different. The tribal structure is definitely still very prominent over there and a lot of the cultures are still very heavily based on traditions and poverty is definitely a huge problem. In fact, I have been told that a lot people attribute the basis of the advanced corruption to the colonization of the ‘British’ so I definitely see your point there. But I was also told that the invasion of the British was different from the coming of the missionaries. In a sense, the missionaries and British upended the culture but up until a few decades ago, people killed twins because they thought they were evil, especially identical twins, a woman’s only place in the home was to be a slave to the husband and to produce children, sick people were mostly thrown out of the communities and left to die, people were killed senselessly and brutally without much of a legal system, and blood sacrifices were frequently given to the gods. So when the missionaries came, and spoke of a God who forgave and loved, who didn’t need blood sacrifices and women didn’t have to be slaves, many were grateful, almost eager to accept this. Yes there was a lot of change that happened and a lot of people died fighting for what they believed in, but ultimately things got better. So I don’t know. I am definitely not defending colonization or uprooting traditions sometimes these changes are for the better. At the same time, who’s to say what works for us will work for others? It’s a tricky argument. I would ask you why you believe what you believe but I’m not exactly sure what you believe. So what do you believe? Like do you identify with any religion? Do you believe in the existence of a higher power?

      • I am glad you are enjoying the discussion, and I apologize for taking so long to answer. While I have no direct experience with missionary efforts in Africa (as if such a thing, spanning a land mass far greater than North America, and comprising hundreds of cultures, could be spoken of in such a succinct way) I have done quite a bit of research on the topic over the years. I’ve known a few missionaries myself, and have learned not to put too much faith in their observations – colored as they are by that particular belief/agenda that carried them across the sea in the first place. Suffice to say, there is no easy answer to the question, “what is good for these people, ” except perhaps that outsiders should stop making decisions for them.

        As for my own spiritual/religious beliefs – that again is too large a topic to be covered in a comment section. Indeed, the whole of this blog is committed to answering that question (bit by bit, as I either discover those beliefs for myself, or a way in which I can express those beliefs so that they will be more easily understood). Let’s simply say that I am a polytheist, believing in the gods of my Celtic ancestors. Beyond that, I can try to answer very specific questions here, but you might try poking around a few of my other posts as well. Thank you again for your comments and conversation.

  5. I give tours of the St Paul Cathedral (not for the archdiocese but for another organization) There is a stained glass window there of the 8 North American martyrs, French Jesuit priests- I always give a slightly irreverent explanation of it- that these priests came to spread the Gospel to the Native Americans, who apparently weren’t interested ‘cuz they killed them. Interestingly, so far no one, even self-identified Catholics has expressed offense by this. I guess I manage to get just the right tone- irreverent but not mean. There’s also people who die for standing up for their beliefs/principles, but not for shoving them on other people in an obnoxious way.

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