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May 28, 2023

What’s Wrong With Martyrdom? – Lessons from Mohamed Bouazizi, Socrates, and Obi-Wan Kenobi

by Trevor Malkinson

A Spark Can Set a Field on Fire

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Bouazizi had been the main provider for his family since the age of 10, selling vegetables everyday in the market (1). For years he’d been bullied, harassed and humiliated by police; it was almost a daily occurrence. They would take away his scales or his produce, or fine him for not having a permit, which was basically a bribe because no permit was officially needed. The country of Tunisia had been under an authoritarian regime for twenty-five years, and corruption and nepotism were rampant. A vast majority of the country’s wealth was in the hands of a small elite group, most of whom were blood relatives of President Ben Ali. On December 17 Bouazzi was harassed again, this time physically. And this time he’d had enough. After his request to speak to a local official was denied (as usual), Bouazzi bought some paint fuel, sat down outside the government building of the same unavailable state official, doused himself in the flammable liquid, and lit a match heard round the world.

As we all know now, this act by Bouazzi sparked an immediate uprising in Tunisia, one that spread to many other countries in the region and, at the time of writing, continues to spread. The conditions for this revolutionary outpouring have been in place for some time. The people of Tunisia, and Egypt, have long been disgruntled, and opposition groups had been quietly forming on sites like Facebook and elsewhere for several years (2). But it was Bouazzi’s desperate act of self-immolation that broke the dam open into virtual release. It’s hard for us to fully grasp the severity and totality of this kind of deed; it seems so radical and so awful. In one single snap of the fingers, this action negates all the core fears of our self-interested separate self- fear of pain, fear of suffering, and ultimately, fear of death. This horrific display of burning oneself alive in protest throws into stark relief the total commitment of the person doing it, and the total rejection of the injustice he and others had endured. Something sonic radiated outward on the day of December 17, 2010; in this act of self-negation, in this horrendous self-sacrifice, Mohamed Bouazzi managed to ignite a brush fire throughout the wider whole.


Socrates and the Seeds of the Modern World

In this article, I’m attempting to inquire into the troubled notion of martyrdom, and asking what role it might still possibly play in our lives as evolutionaries today. I should make it clear in advance that I’m not championing sacrificial death as a recommended method of social transformation, and/or the final goal of the spiritual journey! However, since martyrdom has taken this particular form many times in the past, we need to explore what’s been at play and at stake in this history. As good integralists, we should be able to enter into that territory and strip out the intelligence and wisdom involved, while simultaneously rejecting any outmoded forms of its expression.

There are many definitions of martyrdom and most define bodily death as its essential characteristic, yet this hasn’t always historically been the case. Not all martyrdom has this final result. Here’s a working definition of martyrdom that I think is realistic in its generality: “In its purest form, martyrdom is a voluntary, conscious, and altruistic readiness to suffer and offer one’s life for a cause” (3).

Let’s consider a couple more famous examples of martyrdom to further inquire into what’s involved, and why it still might be an important concept for us today.

One of the most celebrated examples of self-sacrifice in history is that of Socrates. Socrates was the great “gadfly” to the people of ancient Athens; in his bare feet and robe, he relentlessly questioned all the assumptions of his day. He dared those around him to question their lives, to take nothing for granted, to accept no authority but that of their own minds (ie. he rejected the authority of the gods). “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It’s hard to truly capture how radical this statement was in 5th century Greece. For all his rabble rousing, for all his disruption of the status quo, Socrates was eventually put on trial for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth of Athens”.

When the court found Socrates guilty and asked him what he thought his own punishment should be, Socrates goaded the jury by saying he should given free meals for the rest of his life, in the manner of an Athenian hero. It’s likely that this unapologetic irreverence resulted in the jury’s final choice of death as the penalty. Later, while awaiting execution, Socrates’ friend Crito came to him with a plan to break him out of jail and help him flee into exile. Socrates refused. He believed in the values that he’d lived by and espoused- the examined life, justice, freedom of speech, civic virtue- and he was going to stand by them to the final moment, no matter what the consequence.

Why have these defiant actions by Socrates inspired so many writers, artists and philosophers down through the ages? The famous painting of ‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques-Louis David (1787) is only but one manifestation of this enduring inspiration. I know this story of Socrates stirred me when I first encountered it. There was so much courage and commitment, so much inner strength and integrity, such a total unwillingness to buckle in the face of adversity and hardship. It’s hard to be at the forefront of evolution, outside of the center, alone on the curve. Much of what Socrates fought and gave his life for we all now enjoy as our cultural backdrop today. It’s worth asking ourselves, what role did Socrates’ heroic example play in helping the values he espoused to overcome the dominance of the traditional mythic worldview? In what way did his sacrificial act help usher in the next emerging world? Could we do the same?




Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Strengthening of the Force

There’s another famous example of sacrifice that comes to us from the cinema. Late in the movie Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi is engaged in a light saber duel with Darth Vader in a critical scene aboard the Death Star. During this battle Obi-Wan chooses to sacrifice himself in front of a watching Luke Skywalker, his young Jedi pupil in training. Why does he do this?

The key to this question seems to me to be twofold. First, just before Obi-Wan Kenobi lets himself be killed, he says to Darth Vader, “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. Obi-Wan seems to sense that this act will somehow strengthen the power of the Force. And perhaps it’s in this very moment that Luke- seeing his mentor being slain- finally commits to do his training, finally makes the full inward choice to become a Jedi and defeat the Empire. Thus, Obi-Wan’s act was a self-sacrifice intended to give strength and hopefully victory to the Force in its struggle against darkness and evil. It’s interesting to note that Kenobi’s bodily form simply dissipates into thin air when struck by Vader’s light saber. This seems to symbolically indicate that through this act he’s returned to the Source.

This is, of course, only a scene from a movie and we needn’t spend too much time arguing the finer points of this fictional episode. However, our art can (at its best) be a voice for some of our deeper yearnings and potentials, and this famous scene might be worth a moment of contemplation. Just before Obi-Wan is struck down he smiles warmly, gathers himself inwardly, closes his eyes and awaits his destiny. We can ask ourselves, could we find such strength and such inner grace in a moment of our own self-sacrifice? And from what or where does such peace emanate?

Whole System Transition and A New Political Martyrdom

As many of us are becoming increasingly aware, the modern world-system has reached a crisis point (4). We’ve reached the limits of our ever expansive growth, and many of the natural systems on which we depend are in increasing danger of collapse. We’ve hit what systems theorists call a bifurcation point– a point of overwhelm where a system either starts to disintegrate into its previous forms, or emerges, through evolution, into a higher and more complex level of organization and control (5). Author Jean Houston describes the process we’re undergoing as whole system transition, and we can all feel the turbulence and uncertainty of this unique evolutionary passage.

One of the things that’s helping to destabilize the world-system is a current form of unrestricted free market capitalism, sometimes called neoliberalism (6). Under this economic policy, dominant for almost thirty years now, an extreme and unsustainable portion of the world’s wealth has become concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Just a few weeks ago, both The Atlantic and The Economist ran cover stories discussing a new global elite (7). The situation has become so stark and unavoidable that this sort of talk has officially moved outside of small groups of leftists, and has entered the mainstream. It’s into this overall context- threats of systemic collapse, great disparities of wealth, continuing war- that the political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have proposed to reclaim the notion of martyrdom as a viable political concept and course of political action. In their 2004 text called Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, they describe two forms of martyrdom:

The one form [of martyrdom], which is exemplified by the suicide bomber, poses martyrdom as a response of destruction, including self-destruction, to an act of injustice. The other form of martyrdom, however, is completely different. In this form the martyr does not seek destruction but is rather struck down by the violence of the powerful. Martyrdom in this form is really a kind of testimony– testimony not so much to the injustices of power but to the possibility of a new world, an alternative not only to that specific destructive power but to every such power…This martyrdom is really an act of love; a constituent act aimed at the future and against the sovereignty of the present. (8).

In Hardt and Negri’s call for a nonviolent testimony we can hear the echo of Percy Shelley’s famous political poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819), said to be one of the first modern statements of the principle of nonviolent resistance. Shelley writes:

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew,
What they like, that let them do

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away


‘Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek

Hardt and Negri are quick to point out that we shouldn’t go seeking out this kind of martyrdom. They write that “this martyrdom, when it arrives, [is] only a by-product of real action and the reactions of sovereignty against it”. We can again inquire within ourselves, at this critical moment in history, what are we willing to sacrifice to help enable a successful transition to a new phase in human history? In the face of likely reactions from the dominant status quo, what are we willing to risk in our lives to secure the future health of the global whole (9)? As evolutionaries, what practices must we undertake in order to ready ourselves for such martyrdom?

Evolutionary Spirituality and The Return to the Whole

“It’s the central urge in every atom, To return to its divine source and origin, however distant, Latent the same in subject and in object, without one exception”. Walt Whitman, A Persian Lesson

The demands of this world historical moment might seem daunting, but there’s reason to be hopeful as we continue to wake up and grow up within this context (10).  When it comes to growing up– or the process by which we evolve through waves of psychosocial development- the folks at Spiral Dynamics Integral have some interesting clues as to what might lie ahead. According SDi, the turquoise value-meme (or “the Globalist”) is characterized by what they call a  “Sacrifice-self”. Here’s some further data about the emerging worldview of the turquoise value-meme:

Sees self as part of a larger, conscious whole; feels responsible to the overall good; motivated by survival of life on the planet; political form is whole-Earth networks and interconnections; motivated towards the macro management of all life forms toward common good in response to macro problems; complex, multidimensional thinking; motivated to find unity and ideas and goals of whole-Earth impact (11).

This made me realize that under the prevailing planetary life conditions- the globalization of economy, culture, travel and media, and the globalization of crises- a corresponding worldview is arising within many people, one that I can feel arising within myself too. And what’s interesting about this new expanded sense of identity is that working for the health of the greater whole doesn’t feel like a ‘sacrifice’ at all.  Martyrdom only feels like a burden or a loss when we feel like we’re sacrificing for something outside of ourselves. And this is precisely the predicament of the hyper-individualized self that was born in the post/modern era. This historic differentiation out from Earth and culture is a beautiful thing; but the next move in the dialectical dance of history is to re-integrate that newly autonomous individual back within the larger wholes of which it’s always already a-part. The modern self cannot sacrifice for that which it is separate from.

However, when nothing is outside of ourselves- when we shift to an identity with the global whole- then making sacrifices in our life and actions becomes simply a natural extension of who we are. There’s no sense of loss, only of a love that radiates outwards. We naturally become willing martyr’s testifying for the new future wanting to emerge through us.

And we can take this expanded sense of identity even one step further. In our process of waking up, we can start to become identified with the cosmos as a whole. As a practitioner-student of both Andrew Cohen’s evolutionary enlightenment, and Revered Bruce Sanguin’s evolutionary Christianity, I’ve begun to contact within myself the core evolutionary current animating the cosmos (12). I learn to be a living vehicle for this Spirit as it lives through and as me; I learn to serve Thy will instead of my will. Grounded in Source, from which this creative impulse forever flows, I learn to become a conscious and willing agent of the evolutionary process. In this alignment with the ultimate whole, we forever break the chains of exile and separation, so typical and costly in our modern times. We come to complete what Ken Wilber once called ‘The Atman Project’.

When the good folks at iEvolve generously asked me to write an article for their site, I listened deep inside to what I was being called to communicate, and the notes for this article began to flow. I felt an urgency to speak of the critical time we live in, and how we’re all called to be martyrs in the birth of the next stage in human civilization. In this project we can be inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, by the Egyptians, by Socrates and the countless others who’ve sacrificed before us on the alter of evolution. And we can also inspire others ourselves. We can lead by example, through our effort and determination, through our courage to speak up for new higher values, and through our commitment to always live from what we most know to be true. We can do the practices necessary to widen our sense of identity, and to align with the deeper currents that run through it all. The journey ahead might demand great risks and great sacrifices, but through this sacrificial effort we’ll be willing and ready. Let us come together now, and usher in that future through the testimonies of our own lives. The time is at hand.

Trevor MalkinsonTrevor MalkinsonTrevor Malkinson grew up in Victoria, BC. He did a double undergraduate degree in philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, and then did a graduate degree in philosophy at Brock University. He will be entering the Vancouver School of Theology in fall 2011, wih the intention of going into ministry in the United Church of Canada. As a chef by trade, he has a passionate interest in food and in supporting the development of a post-industrial food culture. He also has a passionate interest in evolutionary spirituality, and how the Christian tradition can live anew within this emerging worldview. Trevor is a founding member of where he writes regularly.





(4) “The modern world-system in which we are now living, had its origins in the long sixteenth century in Europe in the Americas. The modern world-system is a capitalist world-economy…The modern world-system is a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, and represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules”. Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. US: Duke University Press, 2007. p. 95,17.

(5) Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. p.136-137.

(6) cf. Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.   Also:


(8) Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. p.346-47.

(9) In this article the author argues that protests in the West (particularly North America) are no longer effective because people are willing to risk much less (esp. jail time).

(10) This is a catchy phrase of Ken Wilber’s to describe the dual process of:  a) “Waking up”: The stages of consciousness that lead to non-dual realization; and b) “Growing up”: The essential structures of social, cognitive, and moral evolution. Wilber uses these terms in various places, but I most recently heard them while relistening to the first interview of The Future of Love Tele-series (Week 1).

(11) All the data on the turquoise value-meme comes from the course pack to the Spiral Dynamics Integral Level 1 Training program.

(12) The Reverend Bruce Sanguin’s writings and teachings on evolutionary Christianity can be found at:


  1. Meg Jordan says:

    I think this is very good work and I enjoyed the article very much. Since we are coming up to a rare coincidence between Earth Day 2011 and Good Friday 2011 I thought it was a little strange however that you did not mention one of the most well known martyrs on the planet–namely Jesus who is called by some, the Christ. I agree with you when you say ” I felt an urgency to speak of the critical time we live in, and how we’re all called to be martyrs in the birth of the next stage in human civilization.” I just feel very strongly that Jesus is one who has led the way and stood as a witness to a different way of being human on this planet. I would be very interested in your thoughts about this. Thanks.

  2. Hi Meg, thanks for the words and the important question about Jesus and the topic of this article.

    A couple of other people asked me the same question after reading the piece. Reflecting on this, I came to realize that my choice to omit the example of Jesus wasn’t really a conscious decision; it didn’t really occur to me in my process. However, I also discovered that I don’t think I’m really qualified to speak about Jesus on this topic (which is likely why I didn’t follow that particular avenue). Cynthia Bourgeault, in her books ‘The Wisdom Jesus’ and now ‘The Meaning of Mary Magdalene’, argues that we’ve yet to really fully understand the nature and true depths of Jesus’ wisdom teachings. I intuitively feel that she’s probably right, and I also intuitively feel that I don’t think I understand what she means. Which is to say, as a practicing Christian for a only a couple years now, I don’t think I’ve practiced these teachings to the degree that I know the full depths of which Bourgeault speaks. Thus I don’t entirely feel comfortable trying to invoke them in such a public context as this. I’m entering into seminary soon, and perhaps I’ll have much more to say on this topic in the future. In the meantime, although I do feel in my gut that Jesus of Nazareth might well be the single greatest historical example of what I’m speaking about in this article, I don’t yet feel qualified to make such a claim.

    How about you, do you want to share your thoughts about Jesus and martyrdom etc.?

    Thanks again for the reflections and the question.

  3. Matthew Cecil says:

    If martyrdom is so important go kill yourself already…

    Otherwise you should stop spreading hypocrisy and conclude death never brings about just changes in society, but only violent revolution.

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