Several centuries later, as the Christian myth lost its power and a new myth – nationalism –replaced it, Europe enacted the old stories of the sacrifice of the children on a scale that no one could have previously imagined. Between 1914 and 1918, depending on how we count, some ten thousand young men were machine-gunned, gassed or blasted apart by artillery every single day. And most of them marched willingly into the sacrificial cauldron. The only difference was that now they did it for the Fatherland, rather than for the Father in the sky, although theologians of all stripes encouraged them.
Curiously, it was at precisely this moment that the new field of psychology began to speak of the “martyr complex” in terms of what we now commonly understand to be a desire to emphasize, exaggerate and create a negative experience in order to place blame or guilt on another person. But perhaps they were not looking at what was right in front of them, the religious roots of this malady. My etymology dictionary states that this “exaggerated desire for self-sacrifice” first appeared in print 1916. On July first of that year, after a week-long bombardment, several hundred thousand British troops rose out of their trenches at dawn on the Somme River to attack the German trenches. Within two hours, 60,000 of them were casualties, 20,000 of them dead.
This of course is the dark side of Hero mythology. On the other hand, we have countless examples of people who stood against real evil and were willing to sacrifice their lives for the greater good – not necessarily for an abstract concept, even one such as “freedom” – but for actual, living people. Each of us has our own list. Mine would include other Germans who resisted Nazism and the Muslims in that same war who risked everything to protect their Jewish neighbors. My essay Kind of a Circle tells one of those stories.
We all admire American anti-war and Civil rights activists, and we ought to praise our whistleblowers, from Daniel Ellsberg to Ed Snowden, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, Reality Winner and Chelsea Manning, and journalists such as Julian Assange for the same reason. Here is Mario Savio’s ‘bodies upon the gears’ speech from 1964. And even this week, two Oakland mothers who took over an empty house asked for support and hundreds turned out to put their bodies on the line. We all have our lists of those we admire for sticking their necks (or other body parts) out. How about those people who donate kidneys to save a life? The list goes own.
It does get a bit sticky, however, when we consider those throughout the past century who went on hunger strikes – and many of them died – to force the wider world to pay attention to their causes. Again, some might ask, what did they accomplish? Did anyone notice? Even this week, two asylum seekers in ICE custody have been on hunger strike for over seventy-five days. Have you noticed?
It gets even stickier when we consider individuals such as the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest South Vietnamese government in the early 1960s, or the Hindu practice of Sati. A Wikipedia article describes this widespread phenomena here.
During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as “fire baptism”. The example set by self-immolators in the mid 20th century did spark numerous similar acts between 1963 and 1971…Researchers counted almost 100 self-immolations…In 1968 the practice spread to the Soviet bloc…Since 2009, there have been, as of June 2017, 148 confirmed self-immolations by Tibetans, with most of these protests (some 80%) ending in death….A wave of self-immolation suicides occurred in conjunction with the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and North Africa, with at least 14 recorded incidents.
Sometimes we need to reconsider some of these images. Father Greg Boyle, the “real Christian” I referred to above, who created Homeboy Industries to put former gang members to work, has reframed the contemporary urban phrase of deep friendship I’d take a bullet for him into Nothing stops a bullet like a job!
But why do we celebrate and venerate – in thousands of stories and films – one very particular kind of heroism? For context, we have to take another digression, this time into American mythology. And we have to acknowledge that for well over a century, American popular culture, disseminated by Hollywood, has overwhelmed indigenous and local storytelling nearly everywhere to become, for better or for worse, world mythology. While we remember Joseph Campbell’s foundational text, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, we need to understand how the American story completely inverted it. Chapters Seven and Nine of my book address this theme in much greater detail, but here is its essence.
The classic hero enacts the three-part initiation theme found in nearly all cultures. Born in community, he hears a call, ventures forth on his journey and returns, sadder but wiser, with the gifts of insight and knowledge. The community welcomes him home, with the old wisdom that each generation must endure these trials in order to remake culture and keep it fresh.
By contrast, the American hero comes from elsewhere, entering the community only temporarily and only to defend it from malevolent attacks. Its leaders, who are weak, incompetent or corrupt, often betray him. Though he cares about them, he is not one of them.
Often his identity is a secret; he may wear a mask or bizarre costume. He is without flaw but also without depth. He is not re-integrated into society, and in recent versions, the community itself is not fully re-integrated. The Other – Terror – is now a permanent threat. “If the function of the enemy is to represent uncontrollable human desire,” writes James Gibson, “then he must constantly be reincarnated in some form or other.”[i]
Classic heroes often wed beautiful maidens, enact the sacred marriage (hieros gamos) and produce many children. But the American hero (with few exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) doesn’t get or even want the girl. Even Bond remains a bachelor. Often the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and duty to his mission. Some (Batman, the Lone Ranger, etc.) renounce marriage altogether, preferring a male “sidekick.” John Wayne (in almost all of his roles), Hawkeye, the Virginian, Superman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Rambo, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, John Shaft, Captains Kirk, America and Marvel and dozens of others: all are single. They may be divorced or widowed, but they are all unattached to the feminine principal. In this essentially Christian story, their sexual purity ensures moral infallibility, but it also denies both complexity and the possibility of healing.
Indeed, sexual impurity corrupts Eden. The hero often enacts his savior role in disaster films (Earthquake, Towering Inferno, Tidal Wave, Jaws). In these films, the sexual license of certain (usually female) characters seems to trigger the destruction, and they die first. Nature responds with a moral cleansing. The pattern was set in the Old Testament: only the pure and faithful escape. The first victim in Jaws (one of cable TV’s most popular re-runs) is a sexually provocative woman. The final scene, in which the hero (who is married but who has refused to make love to his wife) destroys the giant shark, perfectly recreates the 4,000-year-old story of Marduk’s killing of Tiamat. Once again, the hero vanquishes the feminine serpent.
The classic hero endures the initiatory torments in order to suffer into knowledge and renew the world. This old, pagan and tragic vision recognizes that something must always die for new life to grow, and that this is a symbolic process, not necessarily a literal one. But the American hero cares only to redeem (“buy back”) others. Born in monotheism, he saves Eden by combining elements of the sacrificial Christ who dies for the world and his zealous, jealous, omnipotent father. The community begins and ends in innocence. And though this hero may be willing to sacrifice himself in order to restore innocence to the community, he usually doesn’t actually die. But he does leave when his work is done. Even if his heroism does result in his death, he returns like Christ to “a better place,” his father’s house.
The hero’s superhuman abilities reflect a hope for divine redemption that science has never eradicated. Only in our salvation-obsessed culture and the places our movies go does he appear. Then, he changes the lives of others without transforming them.
I can’t emphasize these insights too strongly. The redemption hero, whom Americans admire above all others, has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He gives us the model, wrote James Hillman, “for that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation.” He is utterly disconnected from relationship with the Other, whom he has demonized into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. Since he never laments the violence employed in destroying such an evil presence, he reinforces our own denial of death. His appeal lies deep below rational thinking.
This hero requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes. His renunciation justifies his furious vengeance upon those who cannot control their appetites for power or sex, and this clearly has a modeling effect on millions of adolescent males in each new generation. Defending democracy through fascist means, he also renounces citizenship. He offers, write Jewett and Lawrence, “vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without… intellect.”
His work is too important for the trivial distractions of relationship with real people such as his wife and children because his true allegiance is to the father gods of the sky. Again, the pattern was set two thousand years ago when Jesus returned to his father, leaving the tomb empty. Yes, we admire Franz Jägerstätter as a perfect exemplar of that mythic narrative, as one who died for, perhaps as Christ. But many of us are parents and grandparents. And we all had, even for the briefest of times, a father. Franz went to a better place, but he left his children here.
So – The final scenes of A Hidden Life unfold, the credits role, and we sit in the still-darkened theater weeping. This much is certain. But why are we weeping? I won’t lie: I heard the voice of John Lennon:
Mama don’t go!
Daddy come home!
Mama don’t go!
Daddy come home!
Is this old, irrelevant stuff? Shira Lander describes an adult study session she conducted at a synagogue on the subject of martyrdom. She asked the participants how the subject made people feel.
Most were unsettled by the images, and even were repulsed by the idea of martyrdom—all except the rabbi, who declared with confidence, “I think I would have to choose martyrdom if faced with apostasy. How could I fulfill my role as a model of faith for my community if I didn’t? That’s part of being a rabbi.”