How many fires, how many swords?

Your cruelty is our glory. Only see you to it, that in having such things as these to endure, we do not feel ourselves constrained to rush forth to the combat, if only to prove that we have no dread of them, but on the contrary, even invite their infliction. When Arrius Antoninus was driving things hard in Asia, the whole Christians of the province, in one united band, presented themselves before his judgment-seat; on which, ordering a few to be led forth to execution, he said to the rest, “You wretches, if you want to die, you have cliffs to leap from and ropes to hang by.” If we should take it into our heads to do the same thing here, what will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every sex and every age and every rank, when they present themselves before you? How many fires, how many swords will be required?

Ad scapulam 5., by Tertullian

There’s a BBC World News channel in a TV in the gym of a hotel here in Lapad that I go to for working out, and a couple of days ago they aired a short remark by the US special envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, where he was addressing the recent wave of attacks in Kabul that coincided with the swearing in of the new cabinet of Hamid Karzai. Apparently, Holbrooke was referring to a bunch of suicide bombings and ensuing street battles in Kabul—with the final gunman standing blowing himself up once cornered—saying that “The people who are doing this will certainly not survive the attack”, and then after a moment of pause, “nor will they succeed”.

With this simple yet resolute comment, Mr. Holbrooke managed to state the obvious and make little to no sense whatsoever, all at the same time. It could probably be excused, at least to some extent, by the obvious ad hoc and improvised nature of the statement, as I am sure that if given a moment to contemplate it would surely have occurred to Mr. Special Envoy that “survival” cannot possibly rank very high in the agenda of people who strap enough explosives to their bodies to take down half a building, and that the standard of “success” that the perpetrators of such attacks employ might be somewhat different from that of, say, the US ground forces in Kabul.

Despite the resolute tone, Mr. Holbrooke’s confused statement belies the very same kind of fundamental anxiety and inability to come into terms with the concept of martyrdom that caused so much exasperation in the quote above to the proconsul Arrius Antonius in 180 AD. It was not only the suicidal drive of those strange people in his Asian province that bewildered the Roman proconsul, rather than the complete and utter pointlessness of the act itself. Could those people really think that by choosing to die rather than sacrifice to the good health of Commodus would constitute a meaningful challenge to the power of the Emperor? That their deaths had a significance or impact? And after all, what exactly were they rebelling against? Had the Roman rule not brought them peace and prosperity? Were not the laws of the Emperor just and fair for all his subjects? They could even practice their own strange religion, as long as they simply did their part and recognized the divinity of Commodus, not instead or over their own vengeful God, but simply beside Him. All this must have seemed completely reasonable to the proconsul, just as the current American presence in the Middle-East must seem to Mr. Holbrooke — as not only reasonable and justified but actually beneficial. It is okay for people have their principles and religious beliefs, but let us just behave? Let us have elections and secular government, and then everyone is free to worship anyone and anything they happen to like — what’s wrong with that?

But therein lies the catch. The early Christian martyrs were not interested in living a life at odds with their most deeply held beliefs of what constitutes a meaningful existence. For them, it was not a question of trade or reasonable compromise. In fact, being persecuted and killed for their beliefs was a reward in itself, not something that they would have to endure for some greater good. And as Arrius Antonius had found out over his distinguished career — you cannot talk business with people like that. You cannot plead or cajole them into an agreement, nor can you threaten or force them — it is all self-defeating. You could just hang them or feed them to wild beasts at the rate they came in, and hope that one day they will simply run out of steam and eventually become reasonable, as we Romans are.

But what do you know. It took exactly 200 more years from that scene in Asia Minor for the Emperor Theodosius I to proclaim Christianity as the sole religion of the Roman Empire, and suddenly the martyrs’ motivations were not only understood but officially venerated, as an ultimate testimony to the perseverance of the human spirit. And incidentally, this may also be true for the martyrs of our century, even if proconsul Holbrooke won’t live long enough to see that day when much of what is going on today in Afghanistan, Palestine or Iraq would be seen as not simply the acts of madness, desperation, senseless violence and blind hate, but as those of determination, courage and ultimate defiance at the face of the overwhelming force.

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