December 11, 2014KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReading

Martyr Stories, Past and Present

Some of the most popular stories in medieval Europe were tales of saints and martyrs. Many of the hagiographies were essentially martyr stories as well, seeing as most early Christians were sainted for dying at the hands of pagans, like St. Sebastian with all the arrows in him, St. Anthony of Antioch, and so on. To put it in context, a Europe where the prevailing religion was Christianity loved hearing stories of a time and place in which Christians were a minority in a society hostile to their beliefs. By this point in history, Christianity had triumphed, but they actively wanted to hear about a time when Christians were victimized and Christianity wasn’t the dominant European worldview.

Does that phenomenon sound familiar? Probably not. But maybe these General Plot Scenarios sound familiar: Freethinking or sexually liberated feminist heroine versus the social norms that try to restrict her. Or how about: Minority hero or heroine versus slavery/slave-owners (or racism, institutionalized or insidious). Or: Citizen longing for personal and political freedom versus an authoritarian or theocratic state. All three of these are really a single pattern, which is storytelling at its purest: Desire (for equality or freedom or both) versus Obstacle-To-Desire (society).

Many of our best historical novels and historical movies follow some variant of this pattern. No one wants to hear (or, for that reason, tell) a story about a subservient woman in the early 20th century, always deferring to her husband, just as no one wants to hear a story about a decently treated house slave who got along with his owner (impossible though it seems to us today, historically, such a situation wasn’t unheard of). This pattern is the factor that unexpectedly unites Gone With the Wind and Beloved. The more you look for the pattern, the more you find it, not just in historical novels but in science-fiction visions of the future—like 1984 or many another dystopian fantasy, or a few novels that combine more than one variant of the pattern, like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Collins’s The Hunger Games. Toni Morrison’s Beloved incorporates all three variants of the pattern in one: The struggle of a black American female slave was a struggle against racial, political, and gender inequality.

These ideals of equality and freedom are the beating heart of our political discourse today. The beliefs that women and minorities should be treated fairly, and that all people deserve political freedom, constitute the prevailing outlook of our society. There is nothing to challenge it. Depending on your place on the political spectrum, you may think that Republicans or Tea Party members are out to curtail the rights of minorities; I will withhold judgement on that, but I will point out that few Republicans, if any, engage in overtly racist rhetoric because they all know that would be political suicide. Set aside, for a moment, how they act or legislate; focus on how they speak when they’re in front of a camera.

Because that—the public face—is the key indicator of what the society “believes.” There is always a gulf between what people say, or are allowed to say, in public, and what they privately believe. So the divinity of Christ and the sanctity of the Church enjoyed more or less universal public agreement in medieval Europe; to deny the Church in Europe during that era would have been suicide, and not just “political” suicide. Yet kings and soldiers were no less worldly then, for all their public protestations of piety. The religious scholars probably took all their metaphysical assertions seriously, but to the sly king and scheming prelate, making their appearances at Mass, these grand ideas were mere tools, matters of public display and ceremonial, to be accepted in public and betrayed in private.

In our day, analogously, professors and activists genuinely believe in social equality; the politician is concerned with appearing to believe the Right Thing. It’s a matter of the right sound bites. The proof of this is how the chosen appearance changes with the Right Thing: Consider the swing of many a politician, both Democrat and Republican, about the civil rights of homosexuals, all in the past decade alone.

So why the love of the Martyr Story? (Apropos of the above, consider the biopic Milk, starring Sean Penn.) Why do we listen to stories of victimization even after our ideology has triumphed? There is more than one reason for this. People love to be told what they already believe. This is why people go to hear sermons from preachers in their own religion—they tire rather quickly of hearing how someone else’s God is great. Hearing our own, cherished idea articulated out loud or on the page gives it an existence outside of our own heads. Seeing it threatened (and, hopefully, triumphant) onscreen helps reinforce the belief, helps make it more like a certainty.

Cultivating a sense of victimization, even if it’s based in the past, keeps us vigilant. We come to realize that, for all the ideology’s universal public acceptance, this wasn’t always the case. Medieval Europeans, with their focus on saints and martyrs, constantly reminded themselves of an age when Europe wasn’t Christian. We, too, remind ourselves that our equality-focused society is an historical anomaly. You can’t find a society that insists that all people, regardless of their religion or gender or ethnicity, are equal. Even America, until very recently, didn’t publicly believe that.

Publicly being the operative word. Because underlying the universal public agreement is the suspicion of disunity. This feeling is strongest in those who monitor and enforce restrictions on the way people speak in public. So the medieval Church was always hunting heretics the way the modern thought police seize on and retweet the on-camera gaffes and secretly recorded comments of public figures who claim to believe the Right Thing but are secretly racists or misogynists. The suspicion of disunity is based on an ugly truth about human beings, which is that human beings never agree about anything, even when they say they do, even when public discourse is strictly regulated.

The Church didn’t misjudge medieval European society; it knew there were heretics, skeptics, and atheists out there, and indeed, the historical record shows us that there was rampant dissent throughout medieval Christendom, of more kinds and varieties than I, at least, can keep track of. The Jews were targeted so often because they were absolutely public about their dissent. To the medieval Christians, the Messiah-denying Jews were doing the medieval equivalent of, well, Holocaust denial: Christ’s Passion was the massive act of Suffering that haunted and organized their morality, and in many ways, the Holocaust serves that function for us. Every society has a different Undeniable Truth; over in Iran, you can deny the Holocaust all you like, but there are instant consequences for denying that Mohammed was the Prophet of God. Here in America, you can publicly deny the Prophet Mohammed with impunity; a stump speech categorically denying the equality of minorities and women would seriously hinder your fledgeling career in national politics.

Today, we know that racism and gender inequality still exist, in spite of all the public protestations from politicians and police commissioners about how important equal rights are. We see these authority figures saying the proper platitudes, insisting on the Right Thing, but the reality—whether it’s the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, or persistent, demonstrable income inequality between the sexes—proves that there is still dissent out there. The word “dissent” often has a good connotation on university campuses, but this is manifestly not the good kind of dissent. If someone denies, in action or mindset, the dignity and equality of all Americans, it’s not dissent borne of the spirit of diversity, like those rival ideas about the universe that pushed back against the medieval Church. This kind of dissent is borne of a hatred or suspicion of diversity, and it becomes dangerous—lethal—when it’s found among our policemen.

As far as martyr stories go, historical novels and movies aren’t the only places where we find this storytelling pattern. We have witnessed the pattern play out in the news; we have witnessed, in our own historical moment, the kind of injustice many people told themselves was mostly in the past. In a very real sense, we have witnessed martyr stories.