30 January 2012

What would you die for?

What would you die for? It’s a question not many people seem to ask themselves, or at least not out loud. Most people are so concerned with the business of living that even the thought of contemplating their death seems blasphemous. But it is folly in my view; each and everyone one of us is going to die at some point or another and the manner of that death, its circumstances and its meanings should give one pause to ponder.

The Arab Spring has been an example of an entire region declaring that they would die for their countries. Men, woman and children in Egypt, refused to back down even as death stared at them in the form or tanks ranged round Tahrir square. Libyans poured into the streets even as gunshots hailed from the sky and tanks rumbled onto the horizon. Yemenites, Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians have all refused to bow down to oppression and faced even deadlier oppression with nothing but their staunch resilience. Countless people have died in the Arab Spring, dead bodies dragged off the streets into the arms of their wailing widows, mothers and children. Men, women and children who have left this coil with nothing but the assurance that their deaths had a meaning.

It seems nothing in this world came about without the determined sacrifice of ordinary humans who died for that cause. The United States of America honours Nathan Hale, the twenty one year old who is famously said to have uttered, as the British were about to execute him, that the only regret he had was that he had “but one life to give to this country”. But we know there are hundreds of thousands more who died on the fields of battle; some unknown soldiers whose names have been swept away by the sands of time but whose contributions so lifted the America that we see today to the vaulted heights it occupies.

Forty thousand people died in one year during the Reign of Terror that swept in on the coattails of the French Revolution. If you do the maths that amounts to almost a hundred and ten people per day being guillotined for their belief in the cause of freedom. Marianne, the national emblem of France is often pictured stepping over dead bodies as she leads the revolutionaries to liberty. She herself is dishevelled, her breasts exposed but nothing seems to quench the fire in her veins to free her people or die trying. Today the peoples of the French republic are symbols of liberty and equality in Western Europe even thought their ancestors were the Gauls the Romans traded as slaves.

And sometimes one does not have to die for a cause but put oneself so near death that all seems hopeless but yet refuse to budge because one believes. Belief is nothing in this world, it is has neither value, nor does it give any assurance in the face of all evidence that points to the contrary. But our history is littered with men and women who faced death rather than give up their beliefs.

A little island called the British Isles has a queen who is forever immortalized for this. Elizabeth I, after whom the current Elizabeth is named, ruled England at a time when it was a dwarf in the face of the European continental powers. Faced with imminent attack from Spain, then a naval super power, Elizabeth refused the advice of those around her to surrender and declared she would rather die than see her kingdom overtaken. She even rode to Essex to deliver what is now an immortal speech to her soldiers before they engaged in battle:
“My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people ... I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”
Britain survived the war with Spain and went on to create an empire as had never been seen since the times of the Romans.

Five hundred years ago, a German monk named Martin Luther was appalled by teachings that were emanating from the Holy See in Rome. He decided that to stay silent was a fate worse than death and nailed ninety five theses’ that accused the Pope, at that time the most powerful man in the world, of misleading Christendom (what Europe was formely known as under the rule of the Vatican). What began as a simple pointing out of errors turned into a showdown between a simple peasant and the entire machinery of the Catholic Church. Luther was excommunicated, and the Holy See issued a bull for his excommunication, assuring anyone who killed him that they would receive eternal reward in heaven. Luther was advised time and time again to take back his accusations, and at one point was dragged to a city called Worms to face the Emperor of Germany who was under pressure from the Pope to kill the pernicious little monk. He was given the choice to recant his accusations and be set free, or face the full punishment of the Catholic Church delivered through the German Empire. He replied to the Emperor:
“…my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

These men and women come up time and time again throughout history, men like Luther who almost single-handedly brought the temporal reign of the Catholic Church to an end, people like Nelson Mandela who vowed they would rather be imprisoned rather than sell their souls to the oppressor. The Gandhi’s of this world who are responsible for starting the liberation movements in two different countries on two different continents. Men and women who faced against the most terrible odds, en masse or in private, and declared that to die was a better option than to live another day deprived of freedom and dignity.

Which brings me to the cause of all this reflection. A decade ago, myself and my countrymen stood by as white farmers were beaten, tortured and murdered in an orgy of violence that made international headlines. I will remember to this day that I hardly ever heard anyone willing to stand up on their behalf, to declare that an injustice was being committed in the name of justice. The politicians decried the violence, deplored the murders in statements that appeared on televisions around the country but no one stood up and said they would die to protect their fellow human beings. Farms were invaded and even some of our relatives benefited from the reform programme even as their workers wiped the blood of the previous owners of the walls of the newly occupied farm houses. Did we fail them? I tend to think that we did, and our brothers on the northern side of the continent would be ashamed on our behalf.

So in this dead of night, I ask myself what would I die for, and I pray and hope that when the time comes, I shall stand up and face the gates of death with the pride of having given my life up for a cause.

"I am proud of my son, although I am in mourning, and I am sad, but thanks to God, Mohammed lives, he didn't die," she says resolutely. "He lives on, his name lives on. I am proud of what happened in Tunis, I am proud that he is known throughout the Arab world." – The mother of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian youth who burnt himself alive and sparked a revolution.


  1. hi thanx for the history lesson, its has amicable diction i am aghast.....well to answer your question i have three solid answere i would die for three who*s* not what*s* the first being God my creator the socond being my mother*mom* and the third is quite contrivercial others wouldnt understand, but i sure do know the author of this article knows who *wink*

    1. Interesting,,,is this who I think it is?

    2. But the most important thing I think is having something you believe in so much you are willing to put your life on the line,,,,,glad you have three.