Filed under: Detainees, Iraq, Militarism, Nonviolence, Philippines, Politics of Empire
This is Gene Stoltzfus’s last essay, completed on Wednesday, March 10, 2010, just before he headed out on his beloved motor-assisted bicycle on the first spring day of the year. He picked up his U.S. mail in International Falls, MN. Then on his return journey, less than a kilometer from home in Ft. Frances, ON, his heart stopped. Please feel free to leave comments after this post on his blogsite: https://peaceprobe.wordpress.com. For more background on Gene’s life and updates on his memorial services, see: http://www.cpt.org.
Gene Stoltzfus, 1940-2010, Presente!
–Phil Stoltzfus, Gene’s nephew
–Dorothy Friesen, Gene’s wife
I have talked to survivors of military interrogation around the world who at some point thought they would not live for another day. I never write about it in the U.S. and Canada because it seems so unbelievable and out of place in a world of sanitized shopping malls and super highways. When I retell their stories I notice that people here fidget. But interrogation processes are one way in which martyrs are created. Martyrs in the original sense are “witnesses to the truth,” with a deep commitment of conscience that sustains them through moments of cruelty and abuse.
Some people are killed during interrogation. They never get to tell the story themselves. So I have learned to listen to those who narrowly avoid interrogation’s brush with death. This might be the time that you will prefer not to read on. But if you stop here you will skip over an important part of living and dying that stretches around the world and touches the entire human family.
I spent two hours in Iraq talking to a 22-year-old student who was arrested in a house raid along with two of his brothers. Until the time of his capture he was relatively uninvolved with anything political, not an unusual story in the Iraq of 2003. After his capture by American military personnel he was not allowed to sleep for two days. After 48 hours the American GIs told him that he would be killed unless he told them where Saddam Hussein was hiding. He was continuously blindfolded. He was told that his brother, taken into custody at the same time, was just now being shot. In the distance he could hear a gun being fired. If he didn’t want to die, he must tell all. Then nearby he heard a gun being cocked and felt a revolver touching his head. He expected to die. There was more shouting from the soldiers and then silence.
“I believed I would die,” he told me. “And then after a long wait I felt my hand to be sure I was still alive.” His blindfold was temporarily removed and then he was marched off to one of Iraq’s prison camps where he met others who experienced similar beatings and moments of terror. He was released three months later because of persistent outside intervention – an advantage that many disappeared people do not have.
My time with him left me exhausted and jolted me to wonder how I would respond to interrogation. Would I make up a story? Would I lie? Would something I say implicate others? Would I respond with anger or physical struggle? Would I go quietly to my death as some martyrs are reported to have done? Would anyone know how I died?
After my talk with the unlikely martyr, the connection of this Muslim student to my own ancestors in 16th-century Europe fluttered in my mind. Did the stories I read in my youth about the Anabaptist martyrs prepare me for this? Death by burning or drowning is now little practiced, but current authorities still believe that truth can be accessed by means of brutality. The pattern of torture used for their interrogation blended now with the people I was meeting. The Anabaptist stories recorded in the Martyrs Mirror (subtitled “The Bloody Theatre of the Anabaptists or Defenseless Christians who suffered and were slain from the time of Christ until the year AD 1660) are part of the continuous tapestry of state-sponsored cruelty reaching to our very own day.
In the late 1970s I worked in the Philippines. One day I was invited to meet a pastor and former political prisoner. The Marcos dictatorship had sent its military and paramilitary to his community and their tactics were designed to control popular discontent through cruelty, terror, domination, killing and confiscation of property. The pastor felt bound by his convictions to do what was possible to protect the people of his church. He was arrested and interrogated for weeks. His body was spent. Finally he was encased in a blindfold and told he would be killed. He felt the barrel of a revolver that touched the temple of his head and rested there for a time while his interrogator demanded that he give names of the people with whom he worked. “I was silent because I couldn’t think any more,” he told me.
“Were you afraid you would endanger others?” I asked. “Of course I was worried that what I said would implicate others but when the gun was put to my head I just expected to die. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I even thought about being a pastor but that didn’t seem very important in the moment. I was ready to die. I just told them to get it over with. During those days I thought about the martyrs. The interrogator didn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why.”
I felt my gut twitch after the pastor described the near-death moment. Was there anything I could say or do? Anything healing? Anything personal? The pastor, like the Iraqi student 25 years later, only requested that I tell the world what happened to him. That was enough.
Accounts like these stories of people living on borrowed time reach back centuries to pre-Roman times and show me that the impulse to domination is still alive in our as-yet-uncivilized reptilian brain stem. In our time the word “martyr” has morphed from its root meaning of “witness to the truth” to a description of someone who dies for his or her beliefs. The Greeks and early Christians who used the term understood death to be a possible outcome of the path towards truth and light. Eventually “martyr” referred exclusively to those who died for their belief. Those who began as witnesses to truth became martyrs at the time of death. For the Muslim, shahada (martyrdom) also springs from the internal struggle that results in the witness to truth. Both religious traditions have departed from the core understanding of martyrdom in times of political conflict and triumphalism.
From where did my childhood curiosity arise to steal into my father’s study to read about the martyrs? Those drawings of torture and burning bodies awakened wonder within me. In one of my early return journeys to North America from the lands of torture – before I understood that torture techniques had their home here – I was introduced to a new psychological disease called the martyr complex – seeking persecution to fulfill an inward need. Had I been the unwitting recipient of this disease? Or was the use of the term “martyr complex” the work of a psychologist who had never met a torture victim or known the honored path to witness practiced by martyrs?
Church buildings pay tribute to martyrs, including long-forgotten soldiers who died in distant lands to protect the nation or empire. Their deeds are celebrated and interwoven with patriotism. I have visited churches in the Netherlands, the birthplace of Anabaptist martyrs, where they place the Martyrs Mirror on their altars before the service of worship and return it to a locked closet after the service. I once inquired about the influence of the book of martyrs in the life of worshipers and was told that, “Most of us have no idea about the stories in that book. It’s from another time.”
Why are soldiers and interrogators still trained in the craft of torture? Can moral outrage and attempts to protect the prisoner change things? Why do Christian crusaders or Muslim suicide bombers slip into patterns of domination that kill and destroy in a manner that cannot possibly reveal truth? Can respect for and veneration of martyrs draw us closer to the truth when the patterns of our lives are so remote from the authentic truth-seeking represented in martyrs?
Genuine martyrs appear when people believe that their witness on earth is connected to the whole of the universe. Martyrs are not inclined to draw attention to themselves, but their path can draw people to the glory and faith of a vision. Martyrs have all the foibles of the rest of us. Some may not deserve the label. In our human family great movements that push us to transcend boundaries with visions of hope produce martyrs. But organizations and movements become emasculated and ineffectual when they protect themselves too much from the risk of bold witness. On the other hand, they also undercut themselves when they slide into violence against others in order to try to control the outcome of their vision. We have the challenge of incarnating a blend of vulnerability and boldness.
The test of martyrdom is whether that particular witness to the truth helps to support and sustain the community’s commitment to a full-bodied vision of peace and justice. The martyrs are present with us and may be more powerful for their witness in death than they ever could have been in life.
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