Dying for God

The author of "The Martyrs of Columbine" on the strange and sometimes violent collision of religion and politics.

Published October 23, 2002 7:11PM (EDT)

Remember Columbine? A year after the terror attacks of last Sept. 11, as the country gears up for a war with Iraq that will likely claim a heavy toll in American lives, it's easy to forget Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and the 13 victims they murdered in 1999. But for many in the evangelical Christian community, Columbine has yet to fade from view. Two of the teenage victims -- Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott -- reportedly professed their faith in God before being shot, and preachers all over the country still invoke their names to win converts and argue for prayer in schools.

"The Martyrs of Columbine: Faith and the Politics of Tragedy" (to be published Nov. 9) meticulously documents this enduring use of martrydom for political purposes. Author Justin Watson, a religious professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., explains how the two girls have become contemporary Daniels in the lion's den: how their stories have been exploited for political purposes by both the left, which saw Columbine in terms of weak gun laws, and the right, which argued that Harris and Klebold were the direct result of secularization.

The attacks of Sept. 11 and the violence in the Middle East remind us that politics aren't just local but also, in many cases, religious. Watson is something of an expert in the area of political religion. His previous book, "The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition," was praised for its balanced but critical take on the paradox of a movement that's looking for recognition within the system of American religious pluralism while it also tries to destroy the very tradition of tolerance that lets it mobilize in the first place. In "The Martyrs of Columbine," he once again approaches the evangelical movement with a fair but skeptical eye. Watson emphasizes that it's doubtful Cassie or Rachel actually replied yes when asked if they believed in God by one of the shooters -- and yet, he says, their families and defenders continue to traffic in their stories as if they'd never been discredited. The pull of martyrdom, the attraction to the story of someone dying for her faith, he argues, is too compelling to pass up.

But is there danger in glorifying death for a religious cause? Is there a relationship between the way the American right wing exalts Cassie and Rachel and the way many Palestinians exalt suicide bombers? What role, if any, should religion play in politics?

Salon chatted with Watson about God, martyrs and the way they mix with political and social conflict.

Your book is about how quickly a martyr story spreads and how it's able to overcome facts that discredit it. But it's been several years since Columbine. Why does this message matter?

As an example of how a martyr story develops and how it's used, even generations afterward. It's still something quite relevant. The formative power of martyr stories in Christianity and in other traditions is still very much with us. Think of this as a case study: The lessons from it can be applicable in other places.

What are some of the lessons you learned from the case of the Columbine martyrs?

The largest lesson I gained from it is about how the politics of the tragedy of martyrdom, of the loss of life, of sacrifice, is still politics. It becomes used not as something set apart, as a sacred thing; it instead becomes used for political purposes.

Is this a new trend or has it always been this way?

I see it as essential to the concept of martyrdom itself. The definition of martyrdom that I've used involves a notion of ideological conflict between communities. The martyr becomes the great representative, the crystallization of the values of a community in conflict with others. So there's an inherently political aspect to martyrdom.

Your definition argues that martyrdom is an attempt to use religion to break through ideological and sociological boundaries. Does this kind of religious weapon tend to work? Is it viewed as more powerful now than it was it the past?

The ability to break through boundaries has always been there and it continues to be. The essential martyr stories are things that really touched hearts and moved people. What's different today is how fast a story can become known and how widespread it can be. Another thing that's changed, say from early Christianity, is that we have more tools to interrogate that story and find out whether or not it's true. The work that Dave Cullen did in Salon in September 1999 [debunking the Cassie and Rachel myth] is an excellent example of that. The viability of these stories can be endangered by the same means that help them become so widely distributed.

And yet, in the case of Cassie and Rachel, these martyr stories tend to transcend the facts. Despite the debunking done by Cullen and your book, the martyrdom of these girls is still used in sermons, books and other media, as you point out. If facts can't weaken these legends, is there anything that can put these stories out of circulation?

The fact that this story can make meaning of what is potentially a meaningless event has tremendous power and appeal. Speaking for myself, I would rather that the martyr stories at Columbine be true rather than false. I would prefer that someone looked down the barrel of the gun and told the gunman what he didn't want to hear. To me, to tell the truth is a very admirable act. So the stories have a certain inherent power to help us imagine human possibilities.

However, to wade into the details to figure out where all the facts are, that's a tedious and difficult business. Most people don't want to do that about a story that means something in their heart, so they don't.

Is the urge to create and believe in martyrs human nature?

Certainly, the act of human beings laying down their lives for something, for a cause, a community, is one of the most remarkable things about us as a species. The religious system that it may be a part of, the political cause that it may done for, the communities are different; the means of committing it may be different. But the fact that someone loves a truth more than a life is something of tremendous power.

I would tend to think that it waxes and wanes according to our needs at a particular moment. In the immediate aftermath of Columbine, there was a personal need for something inspiring by many people. Anyone who, say, had a child in school found a particular need answered by the martyrs. Over time, a lot of folks were able to disengage from that and take a more critical look at those stories.

The same is true in the aftermath of 9/11. Trying to make sense of something so devastating, people need someone like Todd Beamer [who reportedly led the charge against the Flight 93 hijackers] to make sense of that time. And again, now we're seeing the process of people pulling back and taking a more critical look at those kinds of stories. The Flight 93 story really embodies the search for heroes -- people who band together and fight back. And if you look at the Beamer book ["Let's Roll"], his personal faith is very much a part of that.

At what point does the use of a martyr become exploitative -- just politics rather than harmless passion?

To those whose loss is immediate and direct -- Lisa Beamer, Darrell Scott [Rachel's father], Misty Bernall [Cassie's mother] -- I would never say to those individuals, "Don't exploit this," because this is their way of making meaning from that loss, making sure that it's not in vain.

However, it's different for others who stand farther from that pain, who go, "This is an excellent example of what we've been talking about all along," the ones who pick that up and use it for a political purpose. That's exploitative. Again, the politics of tragedy is still politics. By pointing that out, I'm not saying to be cynical of politicians or other people who tell these kinds of stories. All I'm saying is, understand how the game is played, understand what the meaning-making business is all about.

In each of these cases, with Columbine, with Todd Beamer, and also with the so-called martyrs of 9/11 and some of the Palestinian suicide bombers, religion is the root cause. Is martyrdom culture unique to those with extreme religious beliefs? Is it what unifies militant Islam with militant Christianity?

I'm hesitant to use those kinds of labels because at the very heart of all religions is the kind of assertion that life is not just about what we see before our eyes. There is something of higher or ultimate value. Martyrdom is a potential in all religions or in any community that asks individuals to sacrifice their lives for the community, for others. So I'm suspicious of the tendency to say something about certain kinds of religions, to in a sense call them extremists and say that's why martyrdom appeals to them.

But this kind of martyr worship isn't found as intensely in secular culture, say among atheists, right?

Well, you can look at atheistic systems that exalted those who laid down their lives for that community or cause. One thinks of Stalinist Russia with its heroes, or American patriots who have regretted that they only had one life to give to the cause. So I don't think by getting rid of religion you get rid of extremism. In fact, if you get rid of religion, you get rid of an important resource for questioning all forms of extremism -- a resource that helps society put in a larger, wider perspective.

Another example is the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Buddhism is not a religion you would associate with that. But given the political context that religious communities find themselves in, they may find it necessary to use political violence, self-directed or directed at others.

Do you think that religions need to reform their ideas of martyrdom, whether that means adhering to facts rather than legend, or simply ceasing to encourage and pay for the kind of martyrdom sought by Palestinian suicide bombers? To many of us, the idea of martyrdom seems to have gotten out of control.

Certainly, it's a very volatile thing that can get out of control. But many religions will reform that by turning toward a kind of martyrdom in inner life: asceticism or sainthood. But religions can't reform themselves in isolation. Religions will turn to either using political violence or using victims of violence as symbols when violence is part of the political reality, when they have no other outlet for changing the world. Then, the resort to sacred power to break through boundaries is the result.

That sounds like a justification for encouraging the practice of martyrdom. Aren't you assuming that religions and religious leaders always exhaust previous resources before resorting to either martyrdom or martyr exploitation?

It could be used as a justification for that, but if you really look at how religiously based violence plays out over time, it's clear that you end up with madness. You end up destroying what you're trying to preserve. With some wisdom, [religious figures] tend to see that they have to pull back from that. Figures like Gandhi, in his struggles against Britain, and even the use of nonviolent protest in the civil rights movement in the U.S., show an understanding that the result of violence would be madness -- and a situation far worse than one could imagine.

And you're confident that those who ultimately judge which tactic is best -- in most cases, religious leaders and/or political leaders -- will make the right decision?

If one is willing to base a new, just society on a pile of bodies, then I suppose you can make that judgment and use violence. Communities and individual political actors have to make that kind of choice, but there's always some reflection that the means you choose will affect the ends. If you're going to use political terror to create a society, an element of terror remains in the society that you're going to create.

Our ability to hear what's going on inside these religious communities is very limited. The communities we hear from are the ones who make a noise. They seem to be the ones we focus on. But go to any number of churches in America and ask them, does Jerry Falwell speak for Christianity? and they will give you a resounding no. But he has been a popular figure for years, so the media returns to him. There are very complex processes going on inside these religions. They're in dialogue with their political and cultural realities. So I'm a pessimistic optimist. In the short term, meaning my lifetime, my future children's lifetime, I'm fairly sure that human history as we've experienced it -- with all its tragedy and bloodletting -- will be pretty much the order of the day. But there's an intuition I have, some people might call it faith, that that's not all there is to our future existence. In an ultimate sense, I have a hunch I should be optimistic.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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