Overview:

The way we talk about people who died while resisting (or just living in) unjust systems needs a re-think. Martyrdom is a lousy paradigm, but "justice" for the dead is, too.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On my 25th birthday, half a world away, a man not much older than me died after three weeks in a coma. Ninety percent of his body had been severely burned after he had lit the match that set himself on fire. His death, along with the circumstances that brought him to self-immolate on a rural street, set his whole country aflame with outrage. And then the region. Mohamed Bouazizi, brother to six sisters, survivor of a late father, breadwinner for a struggling family with his fruit cart, would spark the Arab Spring.

Although the Arab Spring significantly changed his country, “Basbousa,” as he was known to friends, is still dead. His last conscious hours were an agony of helplessness in the face of municipal corruption. His act of resisting, the only act he saw available to him in the throes of cruel predation, was self-destruction. He spent weeks comatose, hopefully in little pain.

Many religions have a storied way of treating those who die while resisting. They become “martyrs.” It’s a path to sainthood, for some. A guarantee of heavenly rewards, for others.

To me, Bouazizi is simply dead. And there is no justice for the dead. There is only our level of commitment to ensuring that resisting never has to look like it did for Bouazizi again.

Deeper histories of resisting

Hans Scholl was 24 when he and his sister, Sophie, 21, and their friend Christoph Probst, 23, a father of three, were guillotined by Nazi Germany for spreading anti-war pamphlets at university. One of Christoph’s last acts was to receive baptism from the Roman Catholic Church. Hans and Sophie had asked as well, but were advised not to, due to their mother’s Lutheranism.

Christoph’s “deathbed conversion” is something secular folks often see treated as a scorecard victory, as if every heinous act in the world becomes permissible if it drives a person to faith. I personally hope that his visit with a priest, when no family was able to see him in his final hours, gave him comfort. Either way, being received by the Roman Catholic Church on death’s door doesn’t make any more or less courageous what he did to end up executed. And it didn’t make his wife and children any less widowed and fatherless, respectively, when he was dead.

When we prop up the dead and claim that “justice” might be done on their behalf, we misrepresent the world and its possibilities. We predicate our struggle on a comforting lie.

Messier histories of resisting

Last December, an Israeli in an illegal Jewish outpost, Yehuda Dimentman, was killed by Palestinians, one named Muhammad Jaradat. Other settlers retaliated the next day by breaking into homes and beating people in West Bank villages. Israel uses demolition as a “deterrent,” so it arrived in February to destroy Jaradat’s home. A 17-year-old, Mohammed Akram Abu Salah, died soon after, shot by Israeli military in protests against the action.

This form of resistance is the more common, the more mercurial. A dizzying back-and-forth of actions all seen at the time as responses to trauma first imposed by someone else. A cascade failure of peace and justice and fellow-feeling between mere human beings.

Dimentman was 25, a father of one. He was in a car with two others, ambushed by gunmen. The land that Dimentman and Abu Salah died over will continue to be fought over, bled over, wept for. And Dimentman and Abu Salah will still be dead, their families in great mourning.

Impoverished stories for the world’s many dead

For far too long in human history, we’ve glorified those who die in the struggle. Some religious practice compounds the problem by giving us grand promises of eternal reward, but even in commentary around early religious texts, such as 4 Maccabees (canon only in the Orthodox Church), you can see how the reward for martyrdom was also shaped by Hellenistic culture around more worldly outcomes. A triumph of reason over passion. The attainment of greater reputation beyond the grave. Your name, immortalized among the living. Those were the goals.

Or perhaps you need only recall the many ways in which we’ve talked about people who died in famous and much-honored wars. Brave heroes, all, but especially the children among them, the men barely men at all who were sent to be artillery fodder overseas. And any looting and pillaging, any raping and torturing and unsanctioned killing they did in far-off theaters? All to be glossed over as much as possible. War is hell. How can we expect people not to be hellish in it?

Conversely, you might have heard calls for justice around recent police shootings and other outright deaths of Black people in the U.S. “Justice” for Trayvon Martin, aged 17. “Justice” for Tamir Rice, aged 12. This year, in late February, three men were found guilty of having acted with racialized motives in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, aged 25 and simply out for a jog. But is that “justice” for Arbery?

Arbery, Rice, and Martin are still dead.

Justice is for the living, so let’s act like it

There are many dangers in glorifying resistance, which is why we need to avoid making a forever home in the act of resisting. And why it’s key to remember that we resist to achieve an end.

But treating each other in a more humanistic way also requires that we take seriously how we represent those who will never live in that better day. Never get to see that better end.

They’re not here, of course, to have their feelings hurt. We can speak whatever ill we might wish about the dead, and they will not be further wounded for it.

But how we treat the dead says a lot about our commitment to each other. When we prop up the dead and claim that “justice” might be done on their behalf, we misrepresent the world and its possibilities. We predicate our struggle on a comforting lie.

Similarly, when we call them martyrs and heroes for a cause, we glorify death in an indifferent cosmos. Life is fleeting as is. Every violent end is a sign that we still have so much work to do.

The alternative is simple. Never allow a death in struggle to be seen as glorious. Meet it with sorrow, and fury, and a firmer resolve to do your part to ensure that such things happen less and less, as we go forward as a more humanistic species.

Never allow anyone to tell you that a life cut short by oppression “served a greater end.”

Just keep asking yourself, and those around you:

What more do we need to do—we the living!—to bring us all nearer now to that better end?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.