I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which my Fundamentalist upbringing groomed me for martyrdom, both literally and figuratively, and also for warfare in general.
From an early age, I was exposed to graphic images of Christian martyrs from around the globe. There is one set of pictures in particular that has stayed with me, seared into my memory. It came from China, which interestingly enough opened the door to conversation about Communism and all of its inherent evils, most especially its rejection of Christianity. My church was extremely politically motivated and involved. We were often told from the pulpit which way to cast our vote. It was also made clear that part of our Christian duty was to ensure that the laws of our land reflected the Laws of God. We were told that God’s Law trumped man’s, so it became tacitly okay to disobey any law of the land that did not align with scripture, which may explain part of our present issue with Constitutional interpretation. Equally important, we were urged to always support the nation of Israel, as not doing so biblically ensured our nation’s destruction for rejecting God’s Chosen People. This is why we have so many Religious Freedom bills in circulation, as well as anti-LGBTQI and anti-abortion legislation making the rounds, and it is also the reasoning behind an unquestioning support, by some, of the policies of the nation of Israel. All of these measures are simply a means of publicly demonstrating a belief in and service to God, with a real fear that failing to do so might cost a person their soul for eternity.
The first picture of this particular series was of a Chinese Christian man who was to be killed for his abberant belief by being cooked alive in a stove, in a public square in front of a group of people gathered solely to watch it happen. Whether this congregation was voluntary is unknown. The man was standing, bound and subdued beside the oven as they were heating it up. His face was very stoic, revealing no emotion about his situation, and this was attributed by my mentors to his strong and unfailing faith, even as he faced a cruel death. This is how a young child begins to revere martyrdom, and internalizes an ‘us versus them’ mentality. This is also how the seeds of terror get planted in the belly of a child’s imagination and grow into unquestioning fealty to something they perceive as able to keep them safe.
I believe there was also a picture of him being loaded into the oven, horizontally, but the one that truly stuck in my head was of his lifeless body after they brought him back out. He was not exposed to flame, so there were no burns on him. He was literally baked like a pastry and died due to the cooking of his insides. His bloated yet fully intact body had a line of punctures from the top of his chest all the way down his abdomen, like you might do to the top crust of a pie, to allow for the release of heat without causing the insides to burst forth during the baking. His face was grotesquely swollen and became a nightmare that lived on the backs of my eyelids for years afterwards.
I was told that the world was violently opposed to our beliefs, and that I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I too may one day have to die for my faith; I was told to think about that situation, and to imagine how I would react. Would I stand firm and submit to death, thereby warranting eternity with our glorious God, or would I fall prey to my weak human nature and deny my faith and my God to save my pitiful life? I wonder how many hours I spent fantasizing about the possibility? I say ‘fantasizing’ purposely, as it took on an almost pleasurable aspect, after enough time spent there. I was somewhere between the ages of five and seven when I began this practice. This, I believe, is the mechanism that allows someone to put on a suicide vest and set out on a holy mission. Christians aren’t so much on board with that, however, Christians are in full support of our military forces dispensing an infinite amount of death and destruction against the horror of Daesh or anything else that appears to be at odds with the Judeo-Christian worldview. We did not sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ facetiously.
Sunday School classes in childhood were full of Old Testament stories about acts of contrition and blood sacrifice performed for the purpose of forgiveness of sins, which people inevitably committed, and also acts of genocide carried out against non-believers by God’s Chosen People with not only His full blessing, but His specific instruction as to how to go about it victoriously. Going to war was sometimes necessary, and could become a holy act. At the time, I found great comfort in these stories, as I believed myself to be in an extremely hostile and threatening world, and these events showed me how to stay on the good side of my All Powerful God, who would wipe out entire nations on my behalf, if need be.
The New Testament was where I met Jesus, the Son of God, who was Himself a martyred God granted a place at the right hand of the Father in Heaven as a reward for willfully laying down His life for the greater good. Jesus was a revolutionary with a message of Love as salvation and an end to blood sacrifice, but that story got heavily obscured under the weight of His crucified form. Fundamentalist tellings of Jesus’ death often play out like some kind of sadomasochistic word porn for ascetics. All of his wounds, and there were many, are described in exacting detail, which serves to solidify the sainthood of the martyr, while simultaneously making it clear how utterly wretched the rest of us fall short. Shame is too often the takeaway of fundamentalist Jesus, and it serves as the tinder for many a righteous conflagration.
Terrorism and fundamentalism go hand in hand because to be Fundamentalist is to live in a constant, sublimated state of absolute terror. Humans are not meant to live in terror, and the natural response to this brutal exposure is a deep and powerful rage paired with a side of nihilism. It is an extremely short trip from rage and nihilism to ‘give me a vest and seventy virgins’ or ‘send me to war, Sarge, and make me a hero.’