Martyrdom, Sainthood, Activism

Martyrdom and sainthood are religious terms, but they contain useful concepts for classifying levels of commitment to secular causes, too.

Martyrs die for the cause.

Potential martyrs are willing to die for the cause, and show that willingness by action, but through luck or skill, survive. Some observers see this subcategory as inferior to full martyrdom, since they never have to face the test. Others recognize the courage as being equally noble, regardless of the consequences fate deals.

Saints change their lifestyle completely and permanently for the cause, to the detriment of their health, safety, or comfort -- and that of their families, if they have families dependent on them. This raises the question of whether sainthood can be an unalloyed virtue in anyone with children are too young to make the choice, or, for that matter, any family members who don't want to take on such extreme privation. Sainthood is, for many people, harder than martyrdom.

Activists are wiling to endure some discomfort or inconvenience for the cause, or to change their lifestyle temporarily. Very few people can keep up the energy and constant self-sacrifice at the level of youth and the flowering of idealism for a full lifetime of activism. That's why old activist are often famous -- they're rare.

Thomas Jefferson was a potential martyr when he wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence -- all the signers faced execution if caught. But for most of his life he was an activist. That should be enough to judge him as admirable, but it seems that many people will accept nothing less than absolute sainthood from him.

see: Doing Enough

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