Martyrdom, Anyone?

September 21st, 2017

“We have to be ready to die for the rights of others!”

Aaron Eick said that yesterday, or something very similar to it. This is not an exact quote.

Aaron is a teacher at Horlick High School in Racine, and he is a labor organizer. Aaron has dark, curly hair and dark, piercing eyes. He was speaking to us, a small group of people, standing in front of the office of Congressman Paul Ryan in Racine. We were all there with Voces de la Frontera, to demonstrate for the rights of DACA recipients. Aaron had started talking about DACA, and then he gave everybody a quick history of the struggle for workers/immigrants rights in the twentieth century. As he spoke, Aaron got increasingly passionate, and he ended at a fever pitch. That is when he suggested that we might have to sacrifice our lives for justice.

The immediate reaction in my mind to Aaron’s words was: “Who the fuck are we?!” I don’t remember signing up for for martyrdom.

In a way, Aaron’s words sounded a bit excessive. It is never wise to talk about death in a overly dramatic way. His comments seemed a little over the top because at this time, and in this place, we are not risking our lives for our beliefs. America isn’t Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Not yet. 

I could be wrong. Remember Heather Heyer? She was the woman who died in Charlottesville last month when some right-wing fanatic ran her over with his car. She was a martyr. She died for her beliefs. It’s hard to tell if her death was a fluke or a harbinger of the future. Her death does bring up the question of what risks we run if we fight for our beliefs.

Valeria and Jose spoke before Aaron talked to us. Valeria and Jose are young people who are both DACA recipients, and they have justifiable fears about what might happen in six months when DACA is no more. These two came here to the United States from Mexico as very small children, and they do not know any other country besides the U.S. Because they are undocumented, they could possibly be deported back to Mexico, a land that is foreign to them. Their lives could be destroyed because of a draconian American immigration policy. This is scary stuff.

So, would I be willing to die for Valeria and Jose? That question ran through my head as Aaron spoke. I really don’t know. I’m not going to promise people something that I may not be able to deliver.

Being raised as a Catholic, I am familiar with the stories of the Christian martyrs. The stories all show the martyrs as being bold and fearless defenders of the faith. In stain glass windows, they always look noble and brave. I wonder if they were all like that. We only have the stories of the martyrs who had good PR. Were they all courageous to the end? Or did some go to their deaths in fear and trembling? Or did some of them look into the eyes of their killers, smirk, and say, “Fuck you, Asshole.” I don’t know what I would do, but I can imagine myself as being one of the smirkers.

There is no shortage of martyrs in our time. I don’t think that any of them sought out that particular career path. I don’t think that Martin Luther King or Malcolm X looked forward to stopping a bullet. I don’t think that Bishop Oscar Romero hoped for a martyr’s crown. I don’t think that Franz Jagerstatter or Dietrich Bonhoeffer ever dreamed of dying in a Nazi prison. They got caught up in events. They may have expected to die, but I don’t believe that they desired it.

Martyrs are by nature gamblers, risk takers. Even though the odds are against them, they still roll the dice and hope that they can live and work another day. They do it because the struggle is worth the risk. I think of Sophie Scholl and the Weisse Rose in Germany in 1942. They knew that they probably would die for fighting against the Nazis, but they also knew that they could do better work if they stayed alive. They didn’t want to get caught, but they pushed their luck as far as they could. Nobody wants to end up in a konzentrationslager or a gulag.

How does a person get to the point where they are willing to risk their lives for another person? I’m not sure. Maybe for some people it is intuitive, and it happens in a flash. I suspect that it might also be a slow, incremental process. A person may gradually become used to the idea of taking certain risks. Maybe, at some point the possibility of dying even becomes acceptable.

I look back on my own history of being an activist. I went to my first demonstration probably in 2001, when people were protesting against the execution of Timothy McVeigh. After that, I became more involved with protests. I wrote articles and letters.  I gradually got deeper and deeper into it. I went on peace walks that lasted two weeks. I tentatively stepped out of my comfort zone.

For many years I avoided getting arrested. I didn’t want to cross that line, not until this year. In April I took the plunge and I got busted for civil disobedience in Nevada. It was an in-the-moment decision. No prior planning there. It stung a little, but the experience didn’t actually cost me much. I saw and heard quite a bit. Did I learn my lesson? The cops would probably say “no”, because now I am more willing to be arrested for a cause. I crossed a threshold, and there really isn’t any turning back. I’m not a virgin any more.

Before I left home yesterday to go to the demonstration in Racine, I told my wife, Karin, that I was going. I told her about Voces and the DACA protest.

Karin nodded slowly. She was watching Netflix and knitting, and she didn’t even look up when I told her.

I put on my sandals and walked to the front door.

I yelled to her, “I’m going now!”

She replied from the bedroom, “Don’t get arrested!”

The new normal.




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