On martyrdom (Part 5)

(This is a continuation of the last week's post.)

That is why we must occasionally speak of martyrdom: we need to know what we're spending our lives on. We need to know what we're living for. And that must necessarily be something we're also willing to die for. For to live for something is a greater task than to die for something; the former necessarily encompasses the latter, just as death is merely one part - the last part - of life.

This necessity flows out of nothing less than the Gospel itself. We are crucified and raised with Christ, and now it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Our salvation depends on our participation in his death and resurrection. In this way, living (and dying) for God is nothing more than a natural extension of our salvation, whereby we die to ourselves and live for Christ.

But one may ask, "Isn't salvation free? Isn't it unearned? When did it become so expensive all of a sudden? Now you're saying that it'll cost me my life?" Yes, in both senses: of living for and possibly dying for Christ. But how could this be?

When people ask "Isn't salvation free?", I sometimes wonder if they mean "Isn't salvation cheap? And there's nothing cheaper than something free!" But this is utterly wrong. Yes, salvation is free. It is not cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (A German pastor who was martyred by the Nazis) understood this. He said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die", and "cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace", and "it is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life".

How does that work? Say that your body is completely overrun with cancer. You have no medical skills to save yourself, no funds or equipment necessary for any treatment, and no will to live on. But now, a great physician comes to you, and gives you the hope and motivation for continued life. He then performs a radical new procedure: he transplants your brain into another body, effectively giving you a whole-body transplant. And this new body is healthy, athletic, beautiful, and glorious. It is beyond anything you could have ever hoped to achieve with your old body. And he does not charge you anything: all you had to do is place yourself in the great physician's hands.

The great physician's services are completely free. Your lack of medical skills, funds, equipment, drugs, or even willingness to live on were no barriers to his work. You were healed of your disease and receive your new, amazing body: this is something you could have never achieved yourself despite your utmost effort - in fact, you did not exert any effort at all to obtain these gifts. None of these things could be earned through your works; they are completely free.

However, this treatment did cost you something: namely, your old body, in its entirety. Perhaps you had been working on hair growth on your old, bald head for years, and thought you had finally seen some signs of progress. Perhaps you had grown fond of a particular lump of cancer because it was a part of your body. Perhaps you miss the scars across your wrists from when you lost the will to live. All of that - your old body and your fondness of its flaws - has died. That is the cost of your salvation.

That is how the treatment is both free and costly. It is by no means cheap; it required tremendous expenditure of resources by the great physician, and it costs you your entire body, the one that you had spent your life in.

Our salvation in Christ is like that. It is the process of going from a sin-identity to a Christ-identity. It is crucifying the former and being resurrected with the latter. Life and death are intrinsically tied into the whole process, and that process of dying and being raised may play itself out in real life, in martyrdom.

Of course, it is possible to overemphasize martyrdom, and we must take care not to do so. For the foreseeable future, the probability of martyrdom is small for a typical American Christian. And even if the unforeseeable happens, we are not to seek martyrdom as if we were seeking death. It is only given to us as an option when there are no righteous means of escape. This has been the standard practice of the Church going back to New Testament times: Christ tells us to flee from a city under persecution. Apostle Peter properly runs away when released from jail by angels. And Apostle Paul gives an earnest defense when put on trial for his faith. All that needs to be keep in mind.

But, as long as we keep the Gospel at the center, all of the rest will fall into place - in both living and dying.


You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
The universe is an MMO, and God is the game designer.
Another post, from the table of contents

On martyrdom (Part 4)

The American church seems squeamish about discussing martyrdom. I'm not quite sure why that is, but if I had to guess, I might say that it's a combination of the following reasons:
1. The American church is very comfortable - being that it's in a Christian-majority country with a great deal of wealth and power.
2. This means that as a practical concern, martyrdom for a typical Christian is unlikely for the foreseeable future, and therefore it necessarily needs less discussion.
3. So discussing martyrdom can come off as seemingly extremist or alarmist, where it seems that we're blowing something out of proportion.
But I do believe that we do need to discuss it on occasion. The Bible itself references the topic quite directly. Christ himself says that "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me", and Apostle Paul affirms that "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted". But, because of that American squeamishness mentioned earlier, I've had to make a series of scattered posts before I finally got around to this post. So finally, here are the points I wanted to make about martyrdom:

First, we should note that there is a lot of emotions tied up with martyrdom. This is, in many ways, only appropriate. What could be more noble than giving up your life - paying the ultimate price - for a good cause? And what could be a better cause than the call of Christ and his kingdom? But, if we want to flip this around and look at the "squeamish" angle mentioned earlier - what an extreme view! To want to die for something? What might such a person not do for their pet cause? Aren't people under such strong emotions susceptible to irrationality? Are they not dangerous? Isn't the word "martyrs" used by both terrorists and Christians?

All this is true; the sainted martyrs are worthy of our veneration, and we are right to feel a strong emotional response to their sacrifice. But it is equally true that such strong emotions can be misdirected and misused. What we need, therefore, is a calm, cold, calculated, and rational justification for martyrdom, to serve alongside the emotions that it naturally and rightly evokes.

Jesus himself seems to endorse  this approach. Consider his parables in Luke 14, where he urges the listeners to consider the cost of becoming his disciple. The examples in his stories are telling: he speaks of estimating the cost, in terms of money, for building a tower. He tells of a king going to war against another king, and considering the sizes of their respective armies. He wants us to make our calculations in such a calm, collected, and cold way.

And what is the verdict upon considering martyrdom in such a way? It's simple. Human biological life is of finite worth. That may sound like a emotion-based statement, but it's not; its a simple statement of fact. What we gain in martyrdom, however, is of infinite value. It is the expression of a human soul, which truly is priceless. And the exchange of the finite for the infinite is a simple calculation. It is as Jim Elliot (a Christian missionary and martyr) said: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

The evaluation of the exchange doesn't simply stop there. There is a deeper reason that goes beyond "human biological life = finite value" and "expressing our soul for God in martyrdom = infinite value". Life was always meant to be lived in service of something greater. The very reason that that human life has value at all, is that it can be spent on a cause greater than itself. This is also the reason that human life could never be more valuable than the greatest of these causes: God himself. This is no less than what great men throughout the world have said about the value of life. Martin Luther King Jr. (a Christian reverend and martyr) said that "If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live". Christ himself said that "whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it". This idea is even echoed by Admiral Yi Sun Shin (from a pre-Christian Korea, who died in battle), who said, "Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die". Life itself is valuable because of what you're willing to live and die for. If there is no such thing - if your only goal in life is to stay alive - then you'll have wasted your life, and ultimately, you will fail in your task: you will surely die. In not realizing what gives life value, you will be like a man who runs into his burning home to rescue his family portrait, while his family dies in the fire.

(The next week's post will be a continuation of this post.)


You may next want to read:
On martyrdom (Part 5) (Next post of this series)
On martyrdom - the value of a human life (part 3) (Previous post of this series)
The universe is an MMO, and God is the game designer.
Another post, from the table of contents

On martyrdom - the value of a human life (part 3)

A human life is worth about 10 million dollars. That is the market rate for an American life. In other parts of the world - say, sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is widespread, the value of a human life is less - only about $3000. I know this, because I could save such a life for that sum, yet I have not yet done so.

You may object, and say that "human beings are priceless!" A distinction needs to be made here: a human SOUL is priceless. The soul is the image of the invisible God - the divine spark which God breathed into us, the essence of our being which makes us who we are - that is indeed priceless. And we cannot buy it or sell it, nor create it or destroy it, nor does it really even belong to us. No physical thing - not even the entire physical universe - can ever exchange for it. But a human BIOLOGICAL life? That property of our bodies that depends on flesh and blood and oxygen and electrons? That physical trait has a finite physical value, one that we can put a number to.

We know this is true because we do it all the time. Human biological lives (or more often, some fractional portion of one life) go up on the market all the time and are constantly bought and sold. I already mentioned the case of spending money on saving a life. If you've ever withheld a donation from a life-saving charity, you've put an upper bound on the dollar value of that life. A human life came up for sale for some dollar value, and you decided, "meh, too expensive. Not worth it". In some cases, the life that people choose to not save is even their own - as when an expensive medical treatment could extend a patient's life for a little bit, but the patient chooses to do something else with the money instead.

Another example is when we sell time out of our biological lives for money. Some people only get the minimum wage for an hour of their life. Others may get $30, $60, or maybe much more for their hour. Regardless of the actual value, the fact is that you have exchanged an hour out of your lifespan for some amount of money, often doing work that's not particularly meaningful. Some people are workaholics who work themselves to death - exchanging their entire life for a sum of money.

Yet another example is people taking on dangerous but high-paying jobs, or receiving hazard pay for risky work. Such transactions are, at most basic level, some amount of money for some fraction of a life. This would not be possible if a human biological life was of infinite worth.

One more example: the Golden Gate Bridge is of some finite economic worth. It's a physical object, it collects some amount of money in tolls, and it contributes so many dollars to the San Francisco Bay Area's economy. That's why it was built in the first place. It's an iconic landmark: people, in general, like the bridge and are glad that it exists. Yet it was paid for, in part, with the lives of 11 workers who died while they worked on its construction. And it is maintained, in part, by accepting the deaths of more than 1600 people who have committed suicide by jumping off of it. In building and keeping this bridge, we have decided that the convenience it provides us - which can be measured as some number of dollars generated in the economy - outweighs its cost in human lives. We exchanged the lives of those people for those dollars.

You might ask, "Do you actually believe all that? So, if someone offered you 10 million dollars to die, would you actually go through with it?" Well, I don't know. That seems like it might only be a "fair trade", one that I might not be interested in right now - just as you might not be interested in selling your car for its fair market value right now. But if someone made an overwhelming offer - say, 10 billion dollars - what about then? What would you or I do in such circumstances? Surely we must be compelled to act if the offer is that good? To help answer this question, let's convert those 10 billion dollars to lives of sub-Saharan Africans threatened by malaria. At $3000 per life saved, $10 billion is equivalent to about 3 million lives saved. At these scales the calculation is probably highly inaccurate, but you get the idea: would you sacrifice your life to save millions of others?

We can go on with the examples. The point here is not to judge whether this is good or evil, or what the correct value of a human life should be. Certainly, these are very important questions that fully deserve their own discussion, but that is not the point of this specific blog post right now. For now, the point here is to simply acknowledge a simple fact, one that is true regardless of how we feel about it: human biological lives are of finite material worth.

We would be wise to take this into account in relevant future discussions.


You may next want to read:
On martyrdom (Part 4) (Next post of this series)
On martyrdom - a parable (Part 2) (Previous post of this series)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents

On martyrdom - a parable (Part 2)

There was once a man who loved his family very much. He had a lovely wife, two adorable children, and a big, friendly dog. He always brought a portrait of his family where ever he went: of course, there was an enlarged copy of it hanging in the living room of his home. There was also one on his desk at work, one in the vacation home they owned, and he always carried one in his suitcase when he went on his business trips. He was sad to be away from his family during those trips, but he would look at that picture and call them every night when he was away.

One day, on one of those business trips, there was a fire in the hotel where this man was staying. He was out on the hallway when the fire alarm went off, but he ran back to his room and retrieved his family portrait before running out of the hotel room, fighting through some of the fire in the process. In fact, it was the only thing he managed to save from his room. When he got outside, he met with the news crew who where there to cover the fire. They saw a man who had clear signs of having come out of the burning building, holding only a picture. So they interviewed him about it. He said, "This picture of my family is my most precious possession. When I realized there was a fire, I knew that I had to save it." Such was this man's love for his family.

The interview went somewhat viral, and many people were able to see and hear the story of this man and his love for his family. Many people held him up as a model of a good man. Many people commented on the importance of family. Many said that we need more men like that in the world today.

A number of years passed by. He was still in the prime of his life, but those years were perhaps soon coming to a close. His wife was lovelier than she had ever been in his eyes, and they talked about preparing to grow old together. His children where on the cusp of adulthood, and he was very proud of them. They had grown into promising teenagers, and they would be going off to college very soon. The dog was now very old. They knew that it did not have much more time left, but there had been many happy memories, and they were determined that its last days will be filled with comfort and more great memories.

One day, there was a fire in his home. Our man was away from the house at the time, but he soon heard of the disaster and instantly returned home - just in the nick of time. The fires were fierce; it was clear that the house itself was eventually going to be a total loss. Still, he ran into the house. He rescued his family portrait that hung in the living room, while his wife, children, and dog fell unconscious and died in their rooms. He had not realized that they were home.


You may next want to read:
On martyrdom - the value of a human life (part 3) (Next post of this series)
On martyrdom (Part 1) (Previous post of this series)
The dialogue between two aliens who found a book on Earth
Another post, from the table of contents