Militants and the Definition of Martyrdom

Until this morning, I found the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge baffling and mildly disruptive, like a pot of poorly brewed green tea. But this morning,  when I heard the one of the young militants responding to LaVoy Finicum’s death, something clicked for me. The man said, in an eerily even voice, “They straight up–they straight up killed him. You think I’m gonna leave? No. They can kill me, too.” The reporter’s voice tried to explain his stance, describing the sense of martyrdom surrounding Finicum’s death. Martyrdom?

Once in college, a student asked a professor to explain the logic of Westboro Baptist Church. The professor, a theologian and devout Christian, said “I can’t do that. There is no logic. There’s no way to understand it,” unless you buy into the whole extremist worldview all at once. The same is true of the Wildlife Refuge’s occupiers, leaving the media in the unfortunate position of explaining crazy to the mainstream. No wonder we’re all still confused.

The actions of the militants make no sense, unless you suss out the Bundy’s distorted Mormon land claims, the profound perceived disenfranchisement of ranchers, and the presumed certainty that the future is apocalypse. It’s as if the militants expect to wake up every morning on the storyboard of Walking Dead, in which everything is morally ambivalent so it’s best to shoot first and moralize later. The best analysis describes the militants this way:

“a group of people searching for meaning and eager for attention from the media they profess to hate. Their ideology, a mash-up of radical Mormonism and militaristic fantasy, is a distillation of the frustration of people who’ve been marginalized by a world in which they do not fit.”

Only in this mentality can LaVoy Finicum’s death be understood as martyrdom. As images of 16th-century Anabaptists with their tongues cut out, burning at the stake, came into my imagination, I tried to square that with what I understood about Finicum’s death. I rolled over the word martyr in my head, but it didn’t ever fit. To be martyred means:

“a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion.”
“a person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause:”

A martyr is one who is willing to die for. The militant group has expanded that definition to mean one who is willing to kill for and in the course of threatening others is killed. The rhetoric against the Bureau of Land Management and the federal government is amped so far up that it demands uncompromising concessions for the economic livelihood and ideological claims of the militants. The rhetoric—if not the actions themselves—are built to justify murder of federal agents on ideological grounds. The problem is that when a group self-identifies as militants and carries loaded guns, it is very hard to claim martyrdom. When you look and function as an armed group that is not accountable to the law, you have moved from the realm of martyr to the realm of rebellion.

This does not justify Finicum’s murder. As a pacifist, I believe that no murder should be justified. All murder is against God’s will. But Finicum’s murder is a result of deliberate attempts to escalate and provoke the violence that the militant ideology requires in order to justify their existence. When your ideology hinges on a descent into an apocalyptic militia-based anarchy, when that ideology affirms the belief that violence is not only the best, but the only, response to the world–you’re no longer operating in the basic framework of martyrdom. When someone demands death or total capitulation, he sounds far more like a two-year-old than a martyr. The militants have created an ideology of perceived martyrdom, where a man with a loaded gun actively converting shared-use land into single-use land becomes a victim when he is injured.

The problem is that the militants’ ideology is so extreme that it doesn’t match the reality of what the government is doing. The reason that the standoff has gone on for so long is because the federal government was not prepared to engage in a shoot out, either at Malheur or at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch. That’s not really a tool the government keeps on hand, it’s something they seek to avoid. The government is in a bind because the ideology cannot compromise; the ideology seeks flames or fantasy.

It’s a pacifist’s catch-22. The zealot is not only willing to die for his cause, but cannot imagine a narrative beyond triumph or death, and triumph is all the more meaningful if it involves someone else’s death. What ethic can the federal government use? Are they willing to resort to a utilitarian “death of a few for the stability of the many”? Was that why LaVoy Finicum was murdered? If the root causes are economic and social disenfranchisement, is there any reintegration that can happen, or has the ideology superseded the root causes?

I don’t know where this leaves us. There are few viable, ethical responses to a group that is, functionally, amoral. The militant ideology—any militant ideology—is that morality applies to everyone else first, and if everyone else cannot meet the appropriate standard of morality, it justifies militant amorality in order to rectify the situation. It’s not a real logic.

We ought not to fall into the temptation that any of this is logical. We ought to be perpetually confused because our functioning rests in holding to a system of ethics. The Bundy group doesn’t traffic in ethics. They traffic in self-justification. Of course they won’t make sense to the rest of us.

One thought on “Militants and the Definition of Martyrdom

  1. I think, also, we need to go back and take another look at the word “martyr” and reclaim the original meaning… originally, “martyr” did not necessarily mean “dying for a cause”… it included an aspect that such a death (or actually, any persecution that may even be short of death) actually gives witness to the values and purposes of the cause. Peter and John were martyr’s when they were imprisoned in Acts 4 and flogged in Acts 5. The acts against their bodies gave witness to the truth of the gospel… To draw a parallel, this is reflected in the bodies presented of slain black teenagers over the past few years, giving witness to the truth that systemic racism is still present.

    What witness are the men in the Oregon standoff giving? Are they accurately giving witness to their values through their imprisonment and death? I would hazard that, yes, yes they are… and we need to take notes because what they are giving witness to is what most of the US believes concerning personal liberty and the use of force, that being that the individual liberty of people with regards to physical property is worth more than the lives of others… and that’s scary.


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