Absolute Martyrdom

“If you want to imagine an audience on your side, History won’t do; you’ve got to look all the way up to God and His angels.”

Bonald, “Die Hard: A Model of the Enemy’s Motivation,” Throne and Altar Blog (March 11, 2016)

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Matthew 27: 46

I was just re-reading Handle’s excellent discussion of Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, which I recommended to you last fall, and once again recommend to those of you who ignored my recommendation.  Handle and Dreher both warn that a totalitarian empire is upon us—Handle rather more urgently than Dreher—but their great service is to explain that the totalitarianism of this empire is soft rather than hard.

There is a pretense of liberty under soft totalitarianism, but the state has an official ideology and is by no means neutral in its treatment of loyal and dissenting subjects.  It does not send dissenters to the gulag, but it none too gently “nudges” them towards compliance with petty persecution and wall-to-wall propaganda.  Dissenters are sent to punitive sensitivity training (which is actually sensibility training), thwarted by “glass ceilings,” hen-pecked by officious “microaggressions,” and routinely humiliated with reminders of their social, intellectual and moral inferiority.

You will notice that the soft totalitarian state uses the methods it claims to combat.  Anyone subjected to “sensitivity training” learns that sensitivity trainers are remarkably insensitive to the sensibilities of those they “train.”  “Glass ceilings” bar dissenters from top jobs and honors.  “Microaggressions” grate the sensibility of dissenters every time they read a self-righteous missive from the party hacks in senior management.  There are striking exceptions to the rules against use of denigrating language.

The soft totalitarian state has also solved what I have called the “martyr problem.”  It understands that brutal repression makes rebellion romantic.  A song will be written about a rebel it hangs on a gibbet, starves in a prison, or immolates on stack of flaming faggots.  A dissenter who complains that he is trapped under a glass ceiling sounds, on the other hand, like a whiny loser.  No song will ever be written about a man who patiently endures years of hen-pecking by self-righteous office memoranda.  As I said in my first post on Handle.

“A solution to the martyr problem is one of the great evolutionary adaptions of soft totalitarianism.  A dissident becomes a martyr when his punishment entails what we nowadays call the “bad optics” of apparent brutality.  Tank columns, prison camps, helicopter rides, show trials.  These instruments of hard totalitarianism crush dissidents, but they also create martyrs, and by creating martyrs they sow the dragon’s teeth that sprout into more dissidents.”

* * * * *

I daresay we all enjoy playing a martyr.  This is to say that we all enjoy suffering mildly unpleasant persecution in the knowledge that it will not end in death or permanent disgrace, but in an extremely gratifying reunion, at an elevated status, with people from our gang.  I daresay the actual pain of a flogging is greatly reduced by the anticipated pleasure of showing the welts to sympathetic comrads.  I doubt I am alone in being inwardly delighted by a microaggression, so long as I can soon thereafter regale a sympathetic audience with a tale of the outrage and my suffering.

I strongly suspect that I would be much more delighted if my martyrdom was so playful that I could regale a sympathetic audience in an editorial published by the New York Times!

Being a martyr is not nearly so enjoyable as playing a martyr, since a real martyr doesn’t get to go home to the croons and caresses of friends and family.  Real martyrs have no love-bombs to look forward to.  Faced with this bleak prospect, some real martyr find solace in an imagined vindication by History.  I do not wish to deny these real martyrs their solace, but this betrays a very poor grasp of history.  The power that can make a martyr can almost make that martyr a villain.  The martyrs of the early Church were not typical martyrs because they died for an ascendant institution.  Most martyrs suffer for lost causes, and are remembered, if they are remembered, as kooks, cranks, lunatics or fiends.

As my first epigraph from Bonald states, this leaves a real martyr with the consolation that he has a sympathetic audience in heaven, and that God, at least, will one day croon and caress him for.  As my second epigraph from Matthew states, the martyred Christ was denied even this consolation.  It appears from Matthew’s account that Christ died in a state of absolute pain, absolute social rejection, and absolute spiritual despair.  I know that Luke suggests otherwise, but Luke has always seemed a little too Sunday-school to me.  And the absolute annihilation of a hopeless death strikes me as necessary to the perfect sacrifice of absolute martyrdom.

20 thoughts on “Absolute Martyrdom

  1. Agreed with Stephen Keeler. Anyone who thinks that any upcoming soft totalitarism will be killing dissenters with feather-filled pillows just needs to see what christians in China are going through.

    Fr. Michel Schooyens talks about this in his book “le terrorisme à visage humain”. I think it may be available in english.

    • Soft totalitarianism raises the cost of dissent and thereby peels away marginal dissenters. The crackdown comes when all that remains is the die-hards, assuming there are enough die-hards to require a crack-down. Even China is shifting from hard repression to a soft “social-credit” system of social control. Many people can be made to change their minds by making it just a little bit costly not to change their minds.

  2. @JMS – Well, okay; but I don’t like the ‘soft totalitarian’ term. It implies that we have a partial, moderate, less effective totalitarianism.

    But what we actually have now is quite simply a much More Effective totalitarianism than those that relied upon violence and coercion to make people do what the state wanted.

    (Instead of gangs of thugs rounding people up and forcibly jabbing them with a black-box of various nasty chemicals; we have a population clamouring to be first in line for the ‘treatment’; believing multiple lifelong black-box jabs are needed to save civilization from a (made-up) threat – and will; and resenting those who get jabbed before they do.)

    Now we have a system based upon a genuine totality that dominates All major institutions all over the world. We have a mass (and social) media a thousand times bigger and more persuasive (and addictive) than existed in the middle 20th century.

    And we had a long (fifty-plus year) period of preparation and training of the masses (by means of this totality of institutions – state, churches, media, law, education etc all being leftist bureaucracies) to make the masses want exactly what the Establishment wants them to want.

    We have, in particular, the first solidly atheist society in world history – a populace incapable of consecutive thought and so deeply demotivated (by their this-worldly materialism) as to have plumbed new depths of cowardice – and who terrorize themselves by believing the obvious lies of habitual liars about what might happen if they don’t. Personal observation and common sense, learning and reason, have zero traction – truth is whatever The System is saying today.

    Modern totalitarianism, in other words, works better than mid 20th century, because it has learned from the first round of mistakes. It has better methods, more power, a deeply-degraded population; and the enormous advantage that it is trying to Destroy civilization, rather than to build-up a utopian brave new world or at least a new empire.

    In essence, the old totalitarian regimes had some good in them, some good aims – for example the National Socialists praised and practiced courage, loyalty and hard work. This new regime has very little good indeed; and asserts a substantially inverted morality, aesthetic and its entire rational is based on multiple Big Lies. It is a System of lies – top to bottom and linked sideways. And these lies are in service to a very advanced development of demonic evil operating by deliberate inculcation of fear, resentment and despair.

    Totalitarian destruction is so easy – there are just So Many possibilities, as we are finding.

    • You are quite right that “soft” should not be taken to mean indulgent, easy-going or ineffective. That it might be taken to mean these things is a good reason to eschew the term, but I know of no better alternative. Total totalitarianism would be accurate, but it would not register with ordinary people who don’t brood on these questions all the time. I like the name evolved totalitarianism since this indicates both the improved methods of totalitarianism and its adaptation to our outdated idea of what totalitarianism looks like. They say that most generals prepare to fight the last war. I suspect most people prepare to resist the last totalitarianism, so they are on the lookout for cartoon Nazis and quite oblivious to the minutely meddling busybodies who are everywhere.

      When I was growing up in the 1970s there was a lot of dark talk about “the system,” but there were in those days truly many loosely connected systems. Ironically, the generation that spoke so darkly about “the system” went on to make a truly seamless “system.” The academic world that you and I know used to consist of many colleges and universities that had their own souls. Now all colleges and universities are just branch campuses of global academia, no different than units in a restaurant chain. And the system of global academia is seamlessly connected to the media system, the government system and the religious system (such as it is). This total integration into a single system makes it next to impossible to “drop out” or escape to an alternate system. It was dangerous to climb over the Berlin Wall, but there was in those days at least a wall over which one could try to climb.

      I do think that “nudging” is a very important part of the new, soft social control. I first encountered the term about five years ago and now see “nudging” everywhere. We are not required to get the covid vaccine, for instance, but those who don’t must expect certain inconveniences and difficulties. To dredge up some slang from the seventies, life becomes a hassle for people who don’t get with the program. And most of us really can’t take a whole lot more hassle. So we are “nudged.”

      • The totalitarianism is subjectively soft, but objectively hard. The bulldozer blade is cushioned, but pushes just as hard.

      • Taking a cue from your original post, maybe we could call it ‘absolute totalitarianism’.

        I agree though, the reason there will be no martyrs is not because it is ‘soft’, but because of the unprecedented power and consensus behind modern totalitarianism: it has no need of making martyrs.

  3. There is a (unintentional I’m sure) gaslighting effect I’ve notice among many fellow Christians to compare what we are currently facing to those Christians in the world currently facing “hard” martyrdom situations. “You think you’ve got it bad? Try being a Christian in Iraq first, then try and complain about having it bad here.” I guess they intend the hearer to acquire a stiff upper lip from their admonitions. Doesn’t work with me, and I’m not sure of the wisdom in comparing respective plights of very different peoples anyways.

    • I’ve noticed the same thing, and not only with reference to religious persecution. If one man complains that his boss treats him poorly, another man is sure to pipe in and say that he should be happy he’s not working in a Soviet salt mine, Ottoman galley, Aztec slaughterhouse or some other place equally odious. I don’t like complainers, but do see that a valid complaint is not invalidated by the existence of larger complaints. If you smash all the windows in my house, you can’t answer my objection by saying that I am lucky you didn’t burn my house down. A jerk doesn’t cease to be a jerk because there are bigger jerks in the world!

    • I would say to anyone that it is prudent to begin as soon as possible certain religious practices that will make ALL the difference at the time of our death. I talk about:
      1. the devotion of the nine consecutive first fridays of each month (devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Jesus)
      2. the devotion of the five consecutive first saturdays of each month (devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary)

      I did them after I listened to Fr. Chad Ripperger’s series on “Our Lady’s view of Our Times” (these devotions are described in part 3 of the series).

      I would also encourage all readers to do the Total Consecration to Mary from St. Louis Marie Montfort, and the Consecration to St. Joseph from Fr. Donald Calloway. If you are the head of your family, it would be wise that you consecrated yourself, all your belongings, and your families to them.

      All this should be complemented by the daily recitation of the Rosary and frequent confession as long as we have it available.

      If there is a storm coming, it will be so big that we are going to need a level of supernatural help unprecedented in the history of mankind.

      • And remain within the Barque of St. Peter, even if it means tying yourself to the boat like Ulysses.

        I’ve heard E. Michael Jones remark recently to the effect that if you find yourself in the boat being tossed about in the storm, wondering what to do, the one thing you should not do is toss yourself out of the boat.

  4. Real martyrs don’t have people being impressed by their faith and courage. But contempt and being recorded in history as deserving every bit of it.

    Or just disappeared. So that there would be no spectacle whatsoever.

    • Yes, that’s what I’m calling an absolute martyr. I don’t think martyrdom has to be absolute to be martyrdom, though.

      • True. I mean one can point to mass murder of Christians by Huang Chao along with all foreign merchants.

        If the Nestorian sect can be considered Christian.

        And the boxer rebellion massacres of Christians with their entire families and relatives in proximity who were also killed.

        Which I believe is more likely with the coming Great Persecution in the End Times where all Christians will be hunted down this way.

  5. When Christ cried out on the cross my God my God why have you forsaken me it was the opening line to Psalm 22 and the people that heard him say that would have known the entire Psalm which describes the crucifixion,

    Psalms 22:17-18
    [17](21-18) They have numbered all my bones. And they have looked and stared upon me.
    [18](21-19) They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.

    and ends Triumph.

    Psalms 22:,27-28
    [27](21-28) All the ends of the earth shall remember, and shall be converted to the Lord: And all the kindreds of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight.
    [28](21-29) For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and he shall have dominion over the nations.

    He wasn’t spiritually desolate he knew that his Triumph with it hand.

    But what I’ve really been thinking about is Christ saying when I come back will there be any faith on Earth. I’ve come to think that there can’t be, or very little because our merciful Lord, who exists outside of time, and knows all who are going to be saved in all times, cannot return before all that can be, are. We still have a ways to go.

    Also, martyrdom does not require an audience. One of my favorite Saints is Saint Thorfinn. He lived and died without any recognition. 50 years after his death they opened his tomb because of some renovations at the monastery and the smell of roses came out. An elderly monk still there knew him as a young man and actually written a poem to commemorate him when he died which is still hung over his tomb none the worse for wear and he remembered him as a man of gentle goodness and strength. He didn’t die a martyr but he died unrecognized. What matters is what God sees

    • You may be right, but the words Christ reportedly called out strike me as a very cryptic allusion to Psalm 22. Apart from lots being cast for their vestments, there are no direct parallels between the position of the Jew in the Psalm and Christ on the cross. The words “why have you forsaken me” are pretty unambiguous. The Jew in Psalm 22 says “please don’t forsake me,” not “why have you forsaken me.”

      I didn’t say that martyrdom requires an audience. I at least meant to say that an audience takes the edge off of martyrdom, and that “martyrdom” for which one expects later to be praised may not be martyrdom at all.

      • Aren’t there other parallels? Most notably: “they pierced my hands and my feet.”

        Also, a bit more general perhaps, but: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.”

      • May there be an issue with your translation, Mr. Smith. Online version of Douay-Reims Psalm gives: O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? (Deus, Deus meus, respice in me : quare me dereliquisti?). Online version of King James likewise: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Latin “quare” is a very explicit “why”.

  6. I’m paraphrasing from the context of the Psalm. I think the parallel is forced and that it seriously detracts from the meaning of the crucifixion. I’m not omniscient but am personally cold to this sort of reading.


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