I just finished watching the 1986 film "The Mission" again, for the first time in a long time. It was just as powerful and blood-roiling as ever. It made me revisit something I've been thinking about a lot recently--on the one hand just how jaded and flawed the world is, and on the other what our (my) relationship should be to noble, sometimes hopeless causes in this world.
I guess this line of thought started for me in April in the wake of the Mother of All Bombs attack in Afghanistan (remember that?). It got my wife and myself thinking about nuclear war, and how ignoble and pointless it would be to die in an instant, my beautiful boys and my wife and me and everyone we care about, all gone in a cataclysmic flash. No cause we died for, no choice or protagonism in the matter, no larger good we contributed to, just a few meaningless deaths among millions. This then started me thinking that even the righteous, celebrated deaths (Malcolm X as he challenged himself and others to think in new ways about race, Monsenor Romero as he consecrated the Eucharist in a Mass for peace) must have felt pointless at the time for those who suffered them. In posterity we've added the aura of honor and incorporated these deaths into a larger narrative, but the dead didn't get the benefit of these ennobling reframings. From their point of view, they were in the middle of a struggle and got ignobly shot down before they could finish. Dr. King at his death probably didn't feel like the hero we've since made him to be, but rather must have felt frustrated that, after a number of early legislative successes, he wasn't able to convince people that structural poverty and imperialist war were just as inherently, baldly immoral as legalized segregation had been. Malcolm X's death or Gandhi's death must have felt to them like the culmination of the collapse of everything they'd worked for. Only in retrospect do we see these deaths as noble sacrifices to a cause that ultimately won, or at least that was ultimately morally vindicated.
When I was in my teens and early twentites, I yearned to be part of one of these struggles between good and evil, and I revered the idea of a virtuous death in support of a lost cause. I wasn't a jihadist or a Dylann Roof type--rather I was thinking about the sacrifices of those on the side of justice and decency in moments like the Civil Rights movement, or under totalitarian dictatorships, or during the bloody civil wars that racked Latin America in the late 20th century. If you really believe in an afterlife for the pious and the just, then dying should be no problem. But seeing the case of the Jesuits in Paraguay as represented in The Mission (which admittedly condenses about 150 years of history into one coherent fictional narrative) reminded me that I no longer relish the idea of a worthy death.
In part it's probably because I'm more of a coward than I used to be, and certainly because I'm more attached now to the things of this world. I enjoy life so much, and enjoy being around the people I love, and I just don't want that to end yet. Beyond the baser instincts of self-preservation though, I think my reluctance toward martyrdom is because I so worry about those who would be left behind after I were to die. If there is indeed a pleasant afterlife for those who die defending what's right, then it doesn't represent for me the solace that it once did. Dying for the cause is the easy way out--living through the ugly times is much harder. It's understandable that as a callow youth, centered on my own beliefs and principles, even my own salvation, with few binding ties to this world, I would buy into the idea of a noble death in service of God and His people. Go out in a blaze of glory, and who cares what else happens?
From my perch now though in early middle age (does 35 count as early middle age?), such a martyrdom seems almost selfish. What of those left behind? The Guarani left to suffer torture and dispossession and enslavement after the priests are mowed down in pious dignity. The Salvadorans with twelve years of civil war ahead of them after Archbishop Romero is sent to his well-deserved place among the saints.
No, I see that in such a situation, my main thought at my last breath would be one not of glorious ascetic completion, of leaving behind my terrenal existence to enter into oneness with God, but rather a feeling of anguish and worry for those I could no longer defend or aid.
I don't know that this new attitude toward death changes anything about my day-to-day values and actions. What is clear to me is that we are still called to be willing to die for a cause. But I'd rather live for one, rather share in the struggle and stick around to move it forward as much as I can. This is of course selfish too--I want to see some success, not just die thinking the movement might not succeed.
Success is not guaranteed though, and such a desire to see it is unreasonable and unrealistic. Even the greatest among us, Malcolm, Gandhi, Dr. King, Romero, they all probably died with the premonition that their struggle was to fail, and I can't say that such a premonition would be unfounded. Blacks in the US have continued to be marginalized since the 1960s, whether they have insisted on justice by force or by appeal to the better angels of our nature. India has not evolved out of religious intolerance and persecution of minorities. The fight against poverty in the US never gained momentum; the structural racism was never too successfully attacked. And El Salvador is back to a morally turbid state of de facto civil war. So even if these historical figures hadn't died when they did, I imagine they would be disappointed, feel abandoned, as they must have when they did die.
Or maybe they did find solace, not in the thought of impending Paradise, but rather in knowing that they were part of something worthy and true, that whether or not this cause was to succeed in their lifetime or anyone else's, it was the correct thing to do. I think that the great fighters were certainly driven by this conviction in life, were indeed given no other choice by their conscience but to do what was right. Usually this drive must seem like more of a burden and a goad. It is a hassle to do what's right, it is difficult and cumbersome and often inglorious. This compounded by the fact that in the course of doing what's right, you frequently doubt the very rightness of it, the soundness of your own discernment and conviction (even Christ felt this in Gethsemane). My wife reminds me though that feeling you are a part of something, believing in something, is what makes death tolerable, even if it's for a lost cause.
So maybe, just maybe, this red-hot prod of conscience, which denies you solace or complacency in life, does allow you to enter death with some tranquility.