The Martyr as Criminal / The Criminal as Martyr

I would like to thank the Mennonite Church in Edmonton for bringing this Exhibition to our city. The subject of martyrdom is an uncomfortable one—martyr’s deaths, for reasons I will talk about later, tend to be messy and uncomfortable ones, and perhaps we prefer not to think about them. I also appreciate the date for which this invitation has been given. For me, as an Anglican, this is a significant date on which to be speaking: August 3rd nowadays is the date on which we celebrate the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen.

It is also the anniversary of the tragic death of my daughter, Catherine Greeve, on August 3rd, 1988.

So I speak to you as a victim. We live in a world that is becoming very sensitive to the hurts and the rights of victims: victims of crime, victims of harassment, victims of persecution, of war, and so on. A lot of us claim to be victims of one sort or another—and ask for compensation for our status. But although a martyr is indeed a victim, a victim is not the same as a martyr. Let’s look at some of the differences.

Victims certainly are people who suffer. A martyr, however, is someone who has chosen to suffer—or at the very least, has chosen actions that make suffering extremely probable. He, or she, has chosen to ‘march to the beat of a different drum.’ Martyrs, rightly or wrongly, have chosen to follow an authority which they consider to be higher than that which seeks to impose its will on them, and pay whatever penalty comes as the result of that choice. It is the martyr who says “Some things are worth dying for.”

Secondly, and almost universally, the martyr has been given an opportunity to recant. In the Old Testament, whether it is Joseph resisting the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife, or Daniel refusing to bow down to the image of Nebuchadnezzar, or Eleazar refusing to soil his mouth with pork, there was an easy way out, that the persecuting authority would have been quite happy to allow, and which the martyr refused—refused because it would mean submitting to the authority’s way of doing things.

Thirdly, martyrdom is something imposed by authority. Generally, but not always, that authority is the State. The martyr’s attitude is regarded as treason—as undermining the authority of the Emperor. The final argument of the Jews to persuade Pilate to crucify Jesus was “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.” So in the time of the Emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, was ready to put Christians to death if they would not burn incense to the Emperor, and abjure Christ, not as a matter of religious persecution, but on grounds of disloyalty to the Civil power. And not only in this century, but in many centuries in many lands, thousands have been the martyrs who have given their lives rather than accept the belief structure that the State sought to impose on them, particularly when some form of religion was ‘established’. Catholics, Protestants, Puritans, Aboriginals, Jews and Muslims alike—all, because of their religion, have from time to time suffered martyrdom as disobedient to the State. And from the time of Joshua to the days of our residential schools for aboriginals, in many countries and circumstances, the ‘moral majority’ have been guilty of imposing persecution, if not martyrdom, on others who have refused to accept their beliefs.

Fourthly, a martyr’s death is cruel and ferocious. Ordinary criminals may be hanged—those guilty of Treason are hanged, drawn and quartered. Heretics are burned to death at the stake. Racks and thumbscrews are used to persuade the heretic to change his or her beliefs. Daniel’s furnace is heated “seven times hotter” than usual. The persecution of the Jews throughout history, whether by Antiochus Epiphanes or Adolf Hitler, has been of quite exceptional cruelty. The farmer who deliberately defies the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board is treated with unusual severity. The list goes on.

What is it, then, about the martyr’s behaviour that arouses this degree of cruelty and hate? I suggest that the answer lies on one single word—fear.

The more comfortable any of us are in this world—whether in power, prestige, or money and the creature comforts it brings—the more we have to lose, and therefore the greater our hostility to any person who would threaten our position. Yet this comfort can only come to us from some established order of society: worship, or at least respect, for the Emperor, respect for one’s position in the religious or social hierarchy, respect for a person’s knowledge and wisdom, respect for our person and our wealth.

Those who are comfortable also have a singular way of taking something more than their fair share of the nation’s wealth and power by perpetuating various myths about the world—how it works and how it has to be run. So the Emperors of this world develop their power by exaggerating the hostile intent of neighbouring nations, seeing ‘spies under every bed’, and using this myth to develop huge armies, deny political freedoms, aggrandizing their political and economic power through an arms race. The priests of this world, certainly in times when the Church has political power, talk about Hell fire and Purgatory, and create a fear of the hereafter to maintain their importance and their incomes in the here and now. The Bankers of this world make a great mystery out of the process of creating money so as to justify the enormous rewards they receive out of the processing of Debt. The police, media, and justice system have a vested interest in making the problem of crime appear as desperate as it can be. Bureaucracies have the strangest way of insisting that only they can solve the social and administrative problems of society. The learned of this world—lawyers, doctors and academics in particular—make mysteries out of matters that are inherently simple, so as to create a market in which they can earn the rewards that come from a monopoly of a knowledge that only they can dispense. And so on.

All these people are well off and respected as long as their myths are preserved. But what happens when some child points out that “The Emperor has no clothes!”? Poverty, disgrace and disobedience stare them in the face. And it is the fear of this poverty, disgrace and loss of control that leads to the furious backlash against all who challenge the myths that provide the comfort and security of ‘the establishment’—ending, if they can achieve it while still preserving their ‘good guy’ image, in the martyrdom of the whistleblower. For an illustration, look no further than the sad history surrounding the story of Canada’s Somalia Inquiry: the difficulty of the investigation, the efforts of the administration to protect its position and its reputation and destroy that of its critics, all adding up to a monstrous attempt to preserve credibility and territory—at the expense of the whistleblowers and the victims.

One way to maintain the status quo is to make the offending conduct a Crime. Crime, after all, is something we have been taught to hate, fear and detest. Crime, ostensibly, is the State’s way of punishing the moral sins set out in the Ten Commandments. There is therefore something semi-sacred in causing evil to those who have broken the Law. And Judges and Lawyers, just like Doctors, Royalty and academics, have a funny way of dressing up in robes like Priests in order to emphasize the unquestionable mystery of all that they are doing in this direction.

But let’s look at Crime—honestly. If we think it is connected with the Ten Commandments, there’s a surprise coming. “Thou shalt have no other Gods”? A religion decreed by the State is passé—though a sop is given to churches in certain tax advantages to clergy, church properties, and charitable donors. “Graven Images”? Idolatry is not currently a crime. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain”? Nor is Blasphemy. “Keep holy the Sabbath”? Sabbath observance has gone by the board in Canadian law. “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”. Providing for parents has been replaced by Old Age Pensions, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Welfare State. Prohibition of Murder remains—indeed, has been vastly extended by many, many offences involving injury, or even the threat of causing injury or discomfort to others. Theft likewise, with another vast array of laws that affect and protect rights of property in a thousand different ways. Adultery, however, and some other forms of sexual misbehaviour are not crimes. Perjury is rarely punished, and Defamation is almost universally dealt with as a Civil, not a Criminal matter. Coveting is not only not criminalized—it forms the basis of an entire advertising industry, let alone that of gambling and lotteries.

The myth then, is that the Law is based on morality, and exists to protect the poor and downtrodden. The fact, however, is that the Law is more often used to keep the poor and the downtrodden from challenging the comfort of the rich. “The Law, in its infinite wisdom, prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges.” The fight throughout history, to bring the creation of Law out of the hands of a privileged elite and to make it genuinely responsible to the will of the people, has been a long and often a bloody one, and it is by no means over—indeed, in Alberta, I wonder if in some ways at the present time we are going backwards. When we look at the strange processes of politics, the strange privileges given by Government to strange people and groups of people, the enormous amount of the national wealth that is taken by Law from those who have earned it, to be spent on the processes of Government and in buying popular support for it, or how reasoned enquiries on public policy such as those on Aboriginal Rights, Armed Forces administration, Poverty and the like are so regularly shelved and forgotten—one can sympathize a little with Timothy McVeigh or the I.R.A. for trying to rattle the established order with explosives, even as we recognize that their way of righting the world’s wrongs is only making matters worse.

The Criminal, then, is a person who has chosen, because of his allegiance to an authority other than that of the Establishment, to defy the Establishment’s dictates. A Martyr is that type of criminal who has conducted this defiance for reasons that he—or we—would consider noble and justified, either because of the worthiness of his or her cause, or the venality of the Establishment, or both. And the distinction between Martyr and Criminal is one that is not easy to make, and one where we are likely to meet the most vehement differences of opinion. To George III, I am sure, George Washington was a treasonous upstart. To a true American, however, he was the hero who brought liberty and democracy to his people. One distinction that can be made, though, is that the Martyr receives the punishment for his beliefs, not for conduct that injures his neighbours. Crime is alleged to involve such conduct—though when Gandhi is sentenced to six years in prison for refusing to pay the salt tax, the difference between Crime and Martyrdom becomes a very narrow one indeed! What about our Grim Reapers? Or all the current hullabaloo concerning Marilyn Manson?

How, then, do we treat our Martyrs and our Criminals? There are four main processes that society undertakes to deal with them. One is Retaliation. Another is Restitution. Another is Reformation. A final one can be Reconciliation.

Retaliation, or Retribution, is simply the use of force to cause pain to the offender—generally with the idea that, if enough pain is inflicted, the offender will not think his course of conduct worthwhile to repeat it in the future. This is the idea of the use of corporal punishment in the bringing up of children. When the death penalty is inflicted, it is supposed not only to prevent a criminal from repeating the crime, but also deter others who might commit it from going ahead. This presumes, of course, the middle class assumption that life is worth the living. For those on skid row, at the bottom of the social scale, where drink and drugs can be all that can make life tolerable, this may well not be the case. In such cases, the deterrence factor means very little. In fact, in the case of Martyrs, history has repeatedly shown that the punishment approach has had a reverse effect. Far from exterminating the behaviour or the belief, the ‘blood of the martyr’ becomes the ‘seed of the church’—something illustrated even today, for instance, by the strength of the Christian church in Communist or ex-Communist countries in spite of many years of persecution.

A second approach is that of the Civil Law—ordering Restitution—to compensate the victim rather than to establish the authority of the State. Those who cheat on their taxes, for instance, or defraud their employers, are forced to pay compensation to make good the damage they have caused. The ecological martyrs who render timber dangerous to harvest by driving spikes into trees, or hold up the Alaska ferry system, may be ordered to pay damages to those whose property they have injured. Those who try and slow down the progress of Business by unsuccessful litigation will be faced with counterclaims and costs. No matter how pure their motives, those who interfere with the lawful operation of an abortion clinic by obstruction and protests may well have to pay for the damage and disruption that they cause. And so on.

A third approach by society to the Criminal and/or Martyr is that of Reformation. Chinese governments in particular are fond of it—using force to persuade dissenters of the error of their ways. With us, the mildest form of this treatment is Probation, or Conditional Discharge. If the offence is serious enough to justify ‘Federal time’, the imprisoned offender will find himself subject to a barrage of psychological testing, training courses of all kinds, Correction Plans, evaluations and finally Parole, as long as he will toe the line in accordance with the dictates of the Authorities. It’s the “Clockwork Orange” approach. Those who refuse to cooperate and reject all of this, are imprisoned longer, and may even be kept indefinitely as ‘dangerous offenders’, because they refuse to have their minds tampered with. Particularly this is the case with those who maintain (occasionally correctly) that they have been wrongly convicted. The typical martyr, of course, will be the very last person to cooperate with any form of Reformation at the hands of the authorities. In their eyes, he is an ‘incorrigible offender’.

Finally, there is the prospect of Reconciliation—something that goes on in families all the time, but is quite alien to the official justice system. It involves the actual meeting of Victim and Offender, the understanding by each of the situation of the other, and the acceptance by each of some mode of understanding that will enable each to live peacefully in the same world as the other from this point on. The past is treated as the past. A most marvelous example of this in recent days is the amnesty given by the Truth and Justice Committee in South Africa—to at once recognize the immorality of the ‘dirty tricks’ used to preserve white supremacy, while making it possible for the two nations in the future to live side by side without civil war.

The State cannot force reconciliation on either victim or offender—the best it might do is to make mediation facilities available, so that the position of understanding can be arrived at. And in doing this, the State is forced to acknowledge its own powerlessness: reconciliation has to be the voluntary act of the two parties involved.

What we are left with is this—the tendency of the Establishment to want to preserve its privileges, and the need of the Martyr to point out where those privileges are undeserved, and to lay his life on the line for the sake of his understanding of Truth and Justice. It is when the public at large senses that the sufferings of the martyrs are out of all proportion to the evils they have done to their fellow men, that the Establishment is ultimately dislodged, and a new policy of tolerance to the Martyr’s creed is adopted. So the Roman historian Tacitus recorded how the people of Rome were revolted by the sufferings of the Christian martyrs in the time of Nero—and in the end, Christianity moved from being a persecuted religion to being the official religion of the Roman Empire after the time of the Emperor Constantine. The martyr’s suffering is an essential element in this change of attitude.

Society also should be glad of its martyrs, because it is only through them that the fossilization of institutions can be prevented, and individual freedom of choice be allowed to replace the dead hand of tradition. It is a continual process, essential to the development of a free and responsible society. But it cannot be achieved without dedication and pain.

How, then, as a civilized society, do we deal with those who disagree with our prevailing culture? Complete tolerance means complete anarchy—every person doing whatever seems best to himself, regardless of its effect on others. The four methods I have described above can be easily categorized into two classes.

With retribution and reformation, we have the response of a closed mind. Retribution says “You will do it my way, or else you will suffer.” Reformation, in a slightly more gentle way, says “I will show you how to do it my way, so that you can do it my way, or else …” But in neither case is there any input from the accused to explain his needs, his beliefs, or his conduct.

With restitution and reconciliation, however, there is at least some input so that each side can start to explain itself to the other. With restitution, the damage is evaluated, and a degree of compensation ordered to be paid. With reconciliation, the human cost of the disagreement is approached. Both give a chance for mutual understanding, and finding a way towards a settlement of differences.

These two attitudes come strongly to the fore in the political debate at this time taking place on society’s attitude to crime. On the one hand there is the Reform Party position, shared by our current Provincial administration, of harshness and deterrence. On the same side, there is the program of intensive re-education in a more relaxed atmosphere symbolized by Corrections Canada—particularly in the debacle attending the recent opening of the Edmonton Women’s Prison. One aspect of both of these approaches is the lack of input from either accused or victim—something that in particular leaves victims extremely angry and unsatisfied.

On the other hand, there is the move currently on to cut back on bureaucracy and its intrusive inspections and legalistic approach: to leave enforcement of standards as a civil matter, and to divert less serious offences into community mediation programs. Not martyrdom, but understanding and solutions.

So we are left with the question. Will we listen to our martyrs, some of whom we choose to call criminals, or ignore their message and blindly continue to punish? Many of them, for sure, may be misguided, and we cannot change the culture of a nation to suit everyone’s whim—but on the other hand, the culture that never changes becomes in the end oppressive, out of touch, and unable to deal with the needs of the times.

A culture need to listen to its martyrs—and its criminals. Let’s remember the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Scottish Covenanters, whose zeal for righteousness needed to be brought under control: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, have the humility to consider that you may be mistaken.”

It is a plea for such humility, on the part of those who are drunk on the elixir of power, that is the message of the martyr—and the criminal also.

– Notes for a lecture delivered in August 1999