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Rick Warren and the martyr mythology of the religious right

April 23 2010 at 11:26 AM

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Response to Martyred: 176,000 Christians in 1 year

 
Rick Warren and the martyr mythology of the religious right
by: Paul Rosenberg
Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 10:00

A couple of weeks ago, in "Uganda 'kill the gays' story underscores--bearing false witness lies at 'Religious Right's' core", I quoted the following from Rick Warren's belated public rejection of the Ugandan bill that would put gays to death:

5. What did you do when you heard about the proposed Ugandan law?

I wrote to the most influential leader I knew in that country, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda, and shared my opposition and concern. He wrote me back, saying that he, too, was opposed to the death penalty for homosexuals. There are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world that kill people (For instance, last year, 146,000 Christians around the world were killed because of their faith.). In this case, I knew the Archbishop in Uganda, so I did what I could, but my influence in that nation has been greatly exaggerated by the media.

And I went on to write:

So, is Warren saying that 146,000 Christians were killed because of their faith in accord with "evil laws"? What laws, exactly would those be?

I called his PR organization, hoping to get some clarification. When they called me back, it was just sort of a "what is it exactly that you want to know?" kind of call. I talked to them a little about what I discovered myself below, just to push them a bit, and maybe they'll get back to me on Monday with something substantive. But on the face of it, this is simply a bald-faced lie, and there's really no way out.

While there certainly still is widespread religious persecution in the world (a reminder of why America's separation of church and state is a good thing), there is relatively little religious killing as a matter of course.

Open Doors is a decades-old organization identified as "Serving persecuted Christians worldwide." It produces an annual World Watch List of the 50 worst countries in terms of persecuting Christians world-wide, but its literature is remarkably free of any sorts of mass murders on the scale one would need to get anywhere near 146,000 martyrs--as I explained to Warren's PR flack, who at first seemed pleased that I was referring to this site.

Later the next week I received an email reply, not from Warren directly, and after puzzling over it a bit, I've decided to return to the matter, because it's not just Warren. Apparently, the mythology of mass martyrdom is one of the religious rights' big lies that somehow never gets discussed in polite company. I kind of think it's time for that to stop.
Paul Rosenberg :: Rick Warren and the martyr mythology of the religious right
Here is the email response I received from Karen May, Assistant to A. Larry Ross of A. Larry Ross Communications, Warren's PR person whom I did not identify by name in my original diary:

Larry Ross just heard from Rick Warren's assistant with the answer to your question. Larry is running to catch a plane and asked me to forward the information to you, hoping that it is in time to meet your deadline.

This is what we can confirm, according to the Open Doors ministry research: The number of persecuted believers is around 100 million worldwide, and Christians are being persecuted in at least 60 countries worldwide.

Another source (International Bulletin of Missionary Research) puts the number at 176,000 from mid-2008 to mid-2009. This, according to the authors, compares to 160,000 martyrs in mid-2000 and 34,400 at the beginning of the 20th century. If current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2025, an average of 210,000 Christians will be martyred annually. It has been estimated that more Christians were martyred in the 20th Century than in the previous 1,900 years combined.

We are not able to get the exact source where Pastor Warren got his number -- he's traveling in Africa right now - but it appears his number quoted is less than other sources we can find.


These figures are patently bogus--as I will shortly demonstrate. But they are also, apparently widely believed in the evangelic community. It helps to notice first of all that there is simply no comparison to executing people for being gay. Murdering people because of their religious beliefs is utterly heinous, but it is not state action, and not the least bit comparable to the sort of law beingcontemplated by Warren's purpose-driven fans. (Depsite his attempts at distancing, Uganda is only the second African state to declare itself a "purpose-driven" nation. Their purpose, apparently, is state-sanctioned murder. Aimlessness and slackitude never looked so good.)

The total number of state murders worldwide in 2008 was around 2400, according the NY Times article on Amnesty International's report in March of this year:

Amnesty International said at least 2,390 people were executed worldwide in 2008, compared with its 2007 figure of at least 1,252.

With at least 1,718, China was responsible for 72 percent of all executions in 2008, the report stated. After China were Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), the United States (37) and Pakistan (36), according to the group.

"Together they carried out 93 percent of all executions worldwide," the report said.

Nice company we keep, no? And it's even possible that some of those state murders have a religious component to them. But martyrdom is something a bit more specific--it's death that results from refusing to renounce one's beliefs. While it's equally heinous that one should be put to death, say, for publicly observing a forbidden religious practice, that's not quite the same thing--unless, of course, one is told that the death penalty would be dropped, if only one would renounce one's faith. Because of such subtleties, it's certainly possible that cases of true martyrdom can be found in these numbers. But there is nothing here comparable to the mass executions of martyrs in olden days.

But--setting aside the whole "bad "laws" question--what about those claims of mass martyrdom more generally? Well, to begin with, 176,000 murders worldwide is an awful lot of murders. How many? Well, according to the UN-derived numbers here, which are about a decade old--the average murder rate is about 1 in 10,000, or approaching almost 700,000 per year. That means that according to Warren's source, one out of four murders worldwide is a Christian dying for their faith. And it's not on all the networks 24/7?

Heck, not only is not on all the networks, it's not even on the websites that track the persecution of Christians worldwide. Open Doors, for example, has a "Christian Martyrs" page which announces:

Hundreds of Christians Martyrs around the globe are dying for their faith.

Not "hundreds of thousands a year", but "hundreds" without any given time-frame. That's at least three orders of magnitude less than what Warren and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research wildly claim. But it's probably far less than even that. After all, if there actually were hundreds of martyrs dying around the world every years, couldn't Open Doors easily find five examples from last year? But the "Christian Martyrs" page has links to five cases, of which only three happened last year, while one happened in 2007 and another in 2005. What's more, one case from 2009, from Colombia, contains no indication whatsoever marking it as a case of martyrdom.

In short, the best evidence appears to show that martyrdom is, fortunately, a rare, though disturbing event in the world today. If there really were evidence to the contrary, it should be very easy to produce. So where is it?

False Martyrs?

There's something even worse than a lack of evidence of widespread martyrdom: evidence of false marytrdom. Such apparently may have been the case with one of the victims at Columbine, as recounted in a 2008 article in Christian Century, by Jason Byassee, "How martyrs are made: stories of the faithful". The article begins:

ONE OF THE TEENAGERS killed in Colorado's Columbine High School shootings in 1999 was Cassie Bernall. Soon after her murder, reports emerged about how one of the shooters had found Bernall under a table, pointed a gun at her head and asked, "Do you believe in God?" She said yes and was promptly shot.

Within weeks of that event I heard a sermon at an Episcopal church praising Bernall's witness and urging Christians to imitate her faithfulness. Prognosticators predicted another Great Awakening in American life sparked by Bernall's martyrdom. Billboards appeared that announced, "She Said Yes." Her mother penned a memoir using the phrase as its title, and a Web site started selling "She Said Yes" T-shirts and other merchandise.

There was one problem: the reported exchange between Bernall and her killer may never have happened. Students who were within earshot of the event disputed the account. One survivor claimed that she, not Bernall, had been the one questioned by the shooter. Those who made grand claims for Bernall started backpedaling. Some suggested that the story was important whatever the facts behind it. Elizabeth Castelli, who recounts this history in Martyrdom and Memory, points out that this latter rationalization was an odd one to come from Christians who also adhere to biblical literalism; they would never say the truth behind a biblical story is what counts, whether or not the event happened. Stories like Bernall's suggest some of the reasons to hesitate when confronted with claims to martyrdom.

It's not Byassee's intent to deny Bernall's martyrdom, or to dismiss martyrdom in general, but to unsettle people from their preconceptions. Indeed, his article is a very serious consideration of martyrdom, drawing largely on the non-violent Anabaptist tradition (particularly Mennonites.) But it is permeated with questioning, and challenges to certainty. For example:

In To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church (Brazos), Craig Hovey, a Mennonite theologian trained at Fuller and Cambridge, argues that Christianity is a training for martyrdom. Martyrdom is not a tragic mistake, nor is it a historical relic from a bygone age. It is "a gift of God to the church." Christians cannot and should not hope for martyrdom, but they must be prepared for it.

Hovey argues against any utilitarian reading of the martyrs. Martyrdom makes no argument. Martyrs should not be used to argue that someone else's religion is bad or that some other country deserves retribution. In the New Testament "martyrs do not die because they fight for what is right, but precisely because they refuse to fight for what is true."

Of course, the evangelical practice of using martyrs is what got me writing this diary in the first place. And it's the deeper meaning of the phrase "False Martyrs" that heads this section. The Anabaptists cited in this article point in a very different direction:

Chris Huebner, another Mennonite theologian (he teaches at Canadian Mennonite University), argues in A Precarious Peace (Herald) that the ambiguity that surrounds claims to martyrdom is all to the good. The truth about martyrs is always something a community must pursue, without claiming to capture or possess it. In fact, arguing about martyrdom is part of the church's growth in holiness. Martyrdom is a "work of memory"--no one can declare herself a martyr, only the community can. "The very designation of martyrdom is a fragile and tenuous one, existing ... between the twin extremes of suicide and victimhood." Huebner grants to Elizabeth Castelli the point that remembrances of martyrs are always constructs, never able securely to capture truth.

The attitude here is strikingly different from the smug self-certainty of the evangelicals, which Byassee does not comment on directly. Early on in the article, however, Byassee does offer the following restrained commentary on claims of mass martyrdom:

An emphasis on mission to a godless world keeps martyrdom, or the possibility of martyrdom, a major theme for evangelicals. Touchstone magazine has a regular section devoted to the topic. Organizations like The Voice of the Martyrs send out magazines, e-mail blasts, and a steady stream of speakers to local churches and radio stations to raise awareness of the number of contemporary Christian martyrs. They often cite data from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which forecasts that 175,000 Christians will be martyred worldwide in 2008. That's 480 per day.

Another oft-cited source is the World Christian Encyclopedia, produced by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston. It declares there have been some 70 million Christian martyrs in history, and more than 45 million in the 20th century. In evangelical circles one often hears the claim that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined.

These numbers deserve more scrutiny than can be offered here, but it should be noted that the Encyclopedia treats every victim of Stalin as a Christian martyr and says there were 1 million "Jewish Christian" martyrs in the Holocaust. It also gives some problematic data in listing causes of death: between 1,000 and 10,000 martyrs may have been "quartered," we are told; a similar number were "eaten by piranhas" and as many again "eaten alive." Between 10,000 and 100,000 (notice the broad range) have been "frightened to death," from 1 to 2 million "liquidated" and 4 to 10 million "lowered into sewage." Even more nonspecific: between 500,000 and 1 million were "wiped out."

That the data on martyrdom can be exaggerated does not mean that there are no real martyrs. In recent years, a number of Christian martyrs have made the news. Newspapers covered the story of Gracia and Martin Burnham, Bible translators with an organization called New Tribes in the Philippines, who were kidnapped in May 2001 by Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group aligned with al-Qaeda (see Eliza Griswold's brilliant profile of the Burnhams in the New Republic, June 4, 2007). While being held, the couple apparently treated their captors with sacrificial love. During a rescue effort, Filipino soldiers inadvertently killed Martin. After his death, applications to New Tribes soared. As Tertullian famously said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church--or, nowadays, of the mission agency.

My point in all this is rather simple: Religion is serious business. Martyrdom makes it all the moreso. In contrast, folks like Rick Warren are shameless charlatans who make a mockery of everything genuine about religion. Allowing them to become the public face of Christianity is in itself a blasphemous act... or more precisely, a blasphemous failure to act. The rightwing fanatasy of mass martyrdom is just one more way that the idolatrous religious right seeks to build its moral capital on lies, the better to justify bossing others around... and ultimately, making martyrs of them.

At least when the religious right sets out to crucify the gays, it makes perfectly clear which side it is on. They cannot speak the truth, any more than they can hide it.

 
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