Martyrdom Makeover

New from me at Religion Dispatches:

The idea of martyrdom hasn’t been in very good shape lately. One common usage of it—“I’ll not be made a martyr!”—refers to the prospect of somewhat tragic but mostly useless suffering, perhaps in the service of a delusional cause, religious or otherwise. Another appears regularly in the news with reference to Islamist terrorists, especially suicide bombers. Still, despite these entrenched negative associations, the idea may be on the mend.

The reason I’ve got in mind is a recent French film that just arrived on US shores, Of Gods and Men. It tells the story of the seven French Trappist monks who were killed in the Algerian civil war in 1996. Not much of a title, but a great movie. I also happened to watch it in an especially fitting place.

As I write, I’m completing a two-week stay at Holy Cross Abbey, a Trappist monastery along the Shenandoah River in Virginia. We’re told that the film did well at Cannes and in European box offices, and that it’s now even drawing crowds in US cities. The excitement is palpable, if subtle.

A burned DVD copy is discreetly circulating and being watched on little screens with headphones, and reviews cut out from newspapers appear on the bulletin board, surrounded by exclamation points. Some of the monks here met Father Christian. One has a picture of him on his desk. Most of them remember praying for him and the others after their disappearance. I leafed through an overflowing file of news clippings and communiques between the order’s abbots from that time, full of updates, helplessness, reverence. There’s sorrow in martyrdom, but there’s also, actually, redemption.

Read the review if you like, but see the movie if at all you can.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.