Martyr Complex: Activist Edition

My church has just started a series of sermons/lectures (because it’s really more of a teachy than preachy kind of place) on 1 Peter, subtitled “Being Christian in a hostile world”. The first sermon included a reference to the need to recognize that this is, in fact, a world hostile to Christianity and Christ – not in the “war on Christmas” sense, but in the sense that generosity, meekness and quiet self-sacrifice are often mocked in an economic structure that glorifies constant growth, self-aggrandizement and greed. Which is a fair point, but I realized that as soon as I heard the theme announced, I got my back up and started asking myself “Do I really think this world is hostile to Christianity?” and realized that I was thinking “Well, yes, but I probably don’t mean that the way most of these other people do” (what with that whole feminist thing I tend to do on the side).

Note, of course, that neither the preacher nor I meant that the world is hostile to nominal Christianity (because, in my opinion, that belief would be insane), but rather to what we perceive to be the truth in Christ’s statements and the practices that are at the heart of the message. Part of the preacher’s point, in the end, was that it is beneficial to recognize the ways that the world is hostile, in order to remain vigilant, challenge ourselves, hold ourselves at a distance from the non-Christ-like elements of this world. I came home later that afternoon and ended up listening to a Zen Buddhist podcast that I love, which included a very brief allusion to the need to recognize that, in fact, we are not living in such a hostile world, but rather in a world where everyone around us is searching and seeking just as much as we ourselves are. The point there was that we can find spiritual wholeness and possibly affect real change around us by adapting from the adversarial way of thinking to a cooperative one.

Exceptionally simple? Of course, but a lightbulb moment of contrast for me nonetheless. I was thinking of entitling this post “Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said”, but I remain more than a little conscious that people from my church can and do stumble across this blog, and are probably already trying to schedule my exorcism. The wish in question, however, would refer to the lines about how those who follow Him will be persecuted in His name, that they will therefore be tempted to renounce Him (denying knowledge of Him, as Peter did) and that the things of this world are not always of Him. Of anything He’s ever said, I think those words have been the most frequently appropriated, both by followers and non-followers alike.

Because, see, what I was thinking as that sermon started is what I suspect everyone thinks, at least at some point, if they bother to think at all: the world is hostile to the truth, and if they are hostile to me, it is because I speak truth. Others may claim that the world is hostile to them, but it can’t really be, because they are not speaking truth. I remain the One True Voice in the Wilderness (or one of few like-minded people). Whether people invoke the language of the Bible, the quotes of other activists that came before them or other sources offering the comforting assurance that the truth is never popular, people on all sides use the idea to suggest that they are right, and the fact that you don’t agree with them only proves that they are righter.

I was thinking of this again when reading the NY Times virginity article linked in my last post, in which the young woman makes reference to channeling Gandhi or Nelson Mandela when she feels her struggle becoming difficult. This is, to some extent, the “war is a force that gives us meaning” concept in microcosm. It’s not enough to just be a person with personal internal struggles, the battle must be for something larger. It’s not possible to see ourselves as making these choices just because they are best for us, it must be because we are part of a larger cause bringing about truth and justice and glory.

This happens all the time in activist communities. Some things really are battles, and I’m certainly not in any kind of denial that racism, sexism and plenty of other kinds of injustice, both specific and general, are rampant in the world today, but it is tempting and oh-so-easy to quickly become so entrenched in that battle, in the righteousness and the rightness of it that we completely lose our ability to self-reflect, our ability to change and our ability to make change. I’ve already written several times about the martyr complex in individuals and why it’s so damn destructive (most notably here), both to the individual who assumes that role and to the people she purports to be trying to help and for whom she claims to be living.

Coming to see the world as a place with which you may actually be able to cooperate rather than one that is constantly hostile to you and yours is really about coming to see yourself as part of it and re-humanizing the whole situation. Personally, I think there’s significant spiritual growth in it, in addition to increased possibilities for actual change in things that are genuinely unacceptable.

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4 thoughts on “Martyr Complex: Activist Edition

  1. belledame222 says:

    “what I suspect everyone thinks, at least at some point, if they bother to think at all: the world is hostile to the truth, and if they are hostile to me, it is because I speak truth. Others may claim that the world is hostile to them, but it can’t really be, because they are not speaking truth. I remain the One True Voice in the Wilderness (or one of few like-minded people).”

    mhm.

  2. purtek says:

    I hate when I realize I’m thinking that.

  3. BetaCandy says:

    *claps*

    It’s especially hard when you get “proven” right. The malicious undertone you detected in a situation ends up becoming overt; someone comes over to your side. You’re assured you really are the one voice of truth.

    I’ve come to realize in the past few years (a) that when I really do know the truth, it’s only because I’ve been shown it and (b) there’s always another truth I haven’t been shown, like that pesky intersection of race and gender inequity that women of color deal with, which I had the privilege of waiting until I had time to really start learning what they’re dealing with and how I can be an ally.

    Human beings are very, very flawed. Even when they’re speaking the truth. 😉

  4. purtek says:

    Human beings are very, very flawed. Even when they’re speaking the truth.

    Well said.

    I keep realizing that as soon as I think I’ve learned something deep and true and real and powerful, as soon as I want to lock it down as being deep and true and real and powerful, I lose it, pretty much by definition. Which is such a simple concept, but which trips me out every so often when I start thinking about it.

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