Faith and Martyrdom

by Diane Cameron

Like many, I was calling around to friends on Tuesday in the aftermath of the disaster and a friend who is a therapist told me that one of her clients had called to ask, "What should I be feeling?" I laughed and then I realized that hers was perhaps the most sensible question of the day. What should we be feeling?

For the past year I have been interviewing men, former Marines who survived attacks in the Pacific, who witnessed the Rape of Nanking, and the Panay bombings, and Japan invading China. I hear the stories of what they saw and what they felt and what they still feel today. After all these years, the feelings remain. It's fifty years later but war experiences don't leave. They change your life.

While we know that we will support the United States’ decision to respond, we have to also know and admit that this means that we will inflict this same, very personal, pain on thousands of other families. Whoever is responsible, and whatever we must do, we will retaliate, but we cannot make the same ideological error of pretending that we are not talking about human lives. It is just too easy to imagine that Afghanistan or Iraq as a people are somehow less grieved or less vulnerable to the loss of loved ones than we are. Losing ones family in war is the same regardless of language, skin color, or religion.

We do hear and begin to repeat for the sake of our own justification, that "their" religion-Islam—allows easier acceptance or glory for death, but remember that at its theological heart so does Christianity. Faith in a Christian God doesn't buy us any more peace than their belief in Islam. In these early days as we begin to grasp the realization that there are many mothers, husbands, sons, and daughters not coming home, we are not saved from grief by our religious beliefs. Faith certainly plays a part in coping but it doesn't make grief not hurt. Not for us. Not for them.

We hear people say, "Well, you know, for Muslims to die for the cause is martyrdom", as if to die in American service is something else? When we say that somehow these "other" people—Afghanis or Muslims—are more willing to die for their cause, we are ignoring the military martyrdom in our own history. The men I talk to who survived Japan and the Philippines each has a story that includes Americans who willingly died to enable the group's survival or the flag to be raised. My friend Frenchy tells about his comrade who ran back and front of the Japanese on Palawan Island becoming a living, then dying target for gunfire allowing a crucial few minutes for the rest to escape. That was martyrdom. We sing God Bless America as if God would prefer us and hate Afghanistan or Iraq without considering what kind of God that suggests we believe in.

Wednesday night we went to church in our neighborhood and prayed with people from different faiths. At the end of the service we stood together and sang America the Beautiful. There were verses I didn't remember and I was surprised to find myself singing, in the third verse, "Till all success be nobleness and every gain divine."

I thought of the World Trade Towers which now so many people say were a symbol of New York City, and also a symbol of commerce and profit and success. When we sang, "till all success be nobleness" I realized that is exactly what happened in New York this week.

The twin towers, symbols of success, are now ennobled by the sacrifices of those killed, and of those who work in public safety and healthcare, and of those who are volunteering. Like the Biblical swords beaten into plough shares, the World Trade Center symbol of profit and success has been beaten and now blessed into a symbol of nobility and true American pride.

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