Dying To Make Men Free

Dying To Make Men Free October 12, 2010

I’m a Southern girl, born and bred. I’ve had family serve during almost every military conflict from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. I grew up on Gone With The Wind, trips to Fort Sumter and watching the laser show dance across the faces of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain. Despite this, I have no love for Southern romanticism regarding the Civil War. In fact, although I am a history buff, I tend to not dwell on it if I can help it. It carries deep emotion and infinite nuance and can sweep you away if you let it.

PBS’ second part of their God In America series touches on Lincoln and the Civil War. It stirred up all sorts of thoughts and emotions. One idea it brought to the forefront was that “Jesus died to make men holy. The men of the Civil War died to make men free.” That’s a powerful statement. Dying to make men free. It’s true that men on both sides interpreted freedom quite differently but both fervently believed that their cause was to free men from that which bound them.

I’m proud of our Pagans in the military and I’m proud of our Pagan pacifists. I do not doubt their commitment to, or the strength of, their convictions. I have faith that they are people of strong ethical standards. What I wonder though, is if confronted by moral imperative are modern Pagans willing to die to make men free?

Without qualifying the issue, without exploring nuances, if you were faced with a situation in which you knew without a doubt that your actions could free humans unjustly bound and your actions might imperil your life, would you act?

Think about it. Don’t think about what you ought to do or should do. Think about what you would do. I confess, I find the idea daunting.

My patron, Hephaistos, has an interesting relationship with the concept of freedom. He refuses to be bound by Olympus, by Zeus, by handicap or even by Aphrodite. The rituals of his Cabeiri were uninhibited frenzy and the fire Prometheus gave to man came from his forge. Hephaistos likes humans and prefers to live among them when he can. At times he’s portrayed wearing something very similar to a liberty cap.

I am devoted to Hephaistos. While my devotion to him is different from a Christians devotion to Christ, it is no less sincere and no less affectionate. If Hephaistos told me to fast for two days, I would do this. If Hephaistos told me to go into the healthcare field, I would argue fiercely but I would in all likelyhood do that as well. If Hephaistos told me to summon up my passion, conviction and courage in order to be prepared to lay down my life for another’s freedom, I would want to cling to that pure ideal, but I’m not certain I could do it.

We’ve become an apathetic people. We feel impotent in our politics, impotent in our churches and impotent in our ability to prevent environmental destruction. If confronted with a great ethical and moral question, such as slavery, do we even have faith that we could make a difference?

(For a great Pagan response to the first third of the God In America series check out the post from The Wild Hunt.)

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  • I’ve said a great deal about this in other places, but I’ll try to keep my response brief here.

    I’m not sure that “dying for ___,” no matter what the blank happens to be, is the best barometer for a measure of dedication; I think “living for ___” is far more useful to everyone concerned, and a great deal more difficult.

    The warrior ethic of many premodern religions wasn’t to go out and die, it was to go out and fight; and while death may be a possible outcome, it was not necessarily desirable or more heroic just to die than it was to be an excellent warrior who managed to stay alive while inflicting maximum damage (fairly) to others.

    The Christian ethic of martyrdom is one that grew up in a very specific cultural situation: persecution. When that persecution period ended, “martyrdom” could still be invoked on occasions when a missionary, for example, came to convert people and was killed. That’s a very different situation than someone just trying to practice their religion, often in secret, and being dragged before a tribunal, tortured, and executed for doing so. And yet the only thing that connects them–death–is the thing most desired for a martyr’s existence and a martyr’s status.

    The heroization of “dying for ___” is, in my opinion, not necessarily something we should applaud or encourage in paganism, because it is based on these (flawed, I think) ideas of death as somehow better and redemptive in Christian contexts. Yes, making peace with death is a good thing, and realizing it will get you in the end is important, and not fearing it is a useful goal. But, as pagans, life is a joy, and we’re not waiting for a better reward when we die (for the most part), so why the rush? A lot of the Christian thought on this matter ultimately boils down to wanting to leave this fallen and sinful world, and any chance to do so under an aura of grace is jumped at.

    It is easy to step in front of a bus, or run into a stream of bullets, and have everything be over in two seconds; it’s often much harder to learn how to dodge bullets, or to brave whatever it is life might throw at one. I don’t know about other people’s experiences, but how many pagan deities encourage people to just give up, or tell us that we should die for them, rather than striving our best in difficult situations in order to prosper, help others, be virtuous, and do work that is to the glory of the gods?

    So, needless to say, I don’t think it is necessary to die for anything to be passionate about it; it’s much more effective and difference-making to live for something.

  • Sara A.

    I agree with P-Dawg. “You don’t win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” (attributed to Patton, actually spoken by George C Scott in the movie about Patton)

    I personally think that human-driven climate change (and all that it implies) is a great ethical and moral question, but the challenge isn’t dying, it’s living differently. If I could save my descendants horror, war, starvation and possible extinction, I would indeed risk my life. But I also know *that won’t work.* The only thing that *will* work is living differently, and trying to change our culture so that it will make a difference.

  • So my question was without qualification or nuance, could you make that commitment?

    For instance, with all that happened in Seattle and Europe, I’m not certain how I would feel about joining WTO protests. They were effective at bringing globalization issues to the forefront of the media, even in a skewed way, but it’s risky to join them.

    I have to say, risky action DOES work. The Labor movement was most effective in it’s early risky days, the Stonewall Riots gave birth to the Gay Rights movement and though it took a huge toll on the nation, the Civil War did bring about Emancipation.

    I also think being prepared to fight is being prepared to die. Dying is never the preferred outcome, but our ancestors took their place in the shield-wall knowing they may not make it home.

    So the question is, knowing that dying is a real possibility, would you be willing to take risky action that other human beings might be free?

    Or how about this, if you truly believed that by taking a risky action you could free the Gaza Strip from it’s enforced isolation so that the men and women there would be as free as other surrounding regions, would you do it?

  • Peter Dybing

    Frankly, yes, without question.

  • P. Suf hit the nail on the head. I might get into Vahalla by dying in battle, but it is better to return to the Mead Hall to kith and kin.

    And it is impossible to answer your question of would I go out and fight to free people from being enslaved by a greater power without getting into the nuances. I’m a history lover too, and the Civil war was as much about State’s rights vs Federal Power as it was Legalized Slavery vs Legalized Freedom. In that case, which would I fight for? In both cases Men are made slaves, but which is more noble and honorable? To free man from Governmental power which would dictate how he should live his life, or fight to take away another man’s property, however distasteful we feel about him owning another human being? Both are fights for liberty, Both aid in the freeing of some men and women, but one strips power from bureaucracy and the other strips property and wealth from someone else? These are the nuances, beyond morality, that must be answered before I would fight. And I would do the same for any other situation in which I would fight and risk death, because I want to make sure I’m doing it for something I believe in.