We live in a culture of overstatement in which the words “freedom,” “hero,” and “tragedy”–among other words–are overused to the point that they are almost meaningless, but I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the five Dallas police officers murdered last Thursday are freedom’s martyrs. Here’s why.
Martyr is a Greek word that means “witness.” The early Christians used the word martyr to refer to those believers who refused to compromise their faith in the face of the hostile Roman Empire. In their refusal to apostatize, they were witnesses to their belief that Jesus was Lord, and not Caesar, and they were witnesses to the power of sacrifice. Rather then killing the church when they killed the Christians, the Romans found that the church actually grew when it was persecuted. In fact, Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, famously said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
The Dallas police officers are martyrs–witnesses–because of the circumstance of their deaths, which, though I’ve had several days to think about it, still strikes me as extremely powerful. The police officers who were killed were killed because they were protecting the protesters who were there to criticize the police. When shots were fired, the officers ran toward danger, not away from it. I think it’s fair to assume that most of the police officers in downtown Dallas last Thursday disagreed with the claims and conclusions of the Black Lives Matter activists, and yet they were there to ensure those activists’ right to peaceful protest. The murdered police officers are freedom’s martyrs, because in their deaths they bear witness to the freedom so many of us take for granted, namely the freedoms specified in the First Amendment.
Tertullian thought that the deaths of the early Christian martyrs caused the church to grow stronger. It remains to be seen if the deaths of the Dallas police officers will cause our society to do the same. We could choose to use their deaths to further our own partisan purposes, in which case the murdered men will have become propaganda. Or, their deaths could wake us up and cause us to dedicate ourselves to working towards a society worthy of their sacrifice and of the freedoms they died protecting.
Which will it be?