The Myth of Persecution

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Myth of PersecutionI just finished reading The Myth of Persecution by theology professor Candida Moss (Harper One, New York, 2013). I picked it up because of my general interest in theology, but also my more specific interest in early church history. I didn’t realize when I started to read it that this book was at the centre of a huge kerfuffle in the Christian community over its message and its accuracy.

In short, Ms. Moss argues that while the early Christians in the first four centuries were often the victims of violence, and even some persecution, they were not the targets of systematic persecution by the Romans for the duration. In fact, the periods of legislated persecution were short and intermittent. She tries to distinguish between persecution and prosecution, and identifies situations where Christians were among the groups, but not singled out, targeted for oppression by various Roman emperors and their edicts.

Further, she argues that the majority of stories of martyrs from this time are fictional, not historic records, created to serve a political or social purpose. She deconstructs some of them, looking at historical records, literary records and internal logic.

And, she concludes, the modern cult of persecution – such as the faux ‘War on Christianity’ promoted by several right wing commentators recently – is based on both a flawed view of history and a dangerous perspective on world events that prevents dialogue and compromise between people. That perspective, Moss writes, is based on the defensive and dangerous notion of persecution and martyrdom. In a film review posted on The Daily Beast, Moss called modern Christian belief in its own persecution a “paranoid fantasy.”

With which I pretty much agree. While not by any means a scholar, what I have read over the years about the creation of the early church, the battles between sects and cults to frame orthodoxy, the arbitrary way the canon was cobbled together, the exclusion of the Gnostics, and the whole business of pseudepigrapha and fake documents supports her contention that the early stories of martyrs were part of this process.

Moss’s book sent numerous Christian commentators and reviewers – particularly Catholic ones, from what I’ve seen online – into a tizzy of righteous spittle against her and her book. Which isn’t unexpected. She also garnered positive reviews, but the religious objections were the loudest and – not surprisingly – the nastiest. What is it about fundamentalist religion that draws out the worst in some folks?

Books that address flaws and forgeries in the canon, books that expose the early church history as more a political (and sometimes violent one) struggle than a divine inspiration, have all been similarly criticized and scorned. Authors like Bart Ehrman and Barry Willson have suffered attacks and vehement criticism for daring to address historical and political issues within church history. Ironically, their opponents use some of the tactics and methods Moss argues create polarization that prevents reasoned and civil discussion about issues.

I think Catholics may be more offended because the martyr myths connect directly with the cult of saints and their associated myths. If one leg of that stool is shaky, the whole structure threatens to collapse.

As a non-believer, the whole saints thing – canonization is something I only minimally understand but perceive as a predominantly political process – is somewhat baffling and seems too supernatural/magical for my appreciation.

Martyrdom – seeking an honourable death for your beliefs, as well as both absolution and reward for your (sometimes murderous) activities in the afterlife – has been in the news a lot these past two decades, especially since 9/11. It’s another puzzler for me, since the whole concept of afterlife, heaven, hell, paradise, purgatory and so on just escapes me. Along with it is the bizarre notion you can commit heinous acts while alive and expect forgiveness in death.  I guess I’m more of a Stoic in that I think what matters is what you do here and now.

It’s a good read, albeit a bit dry in the historical coverage. But what I think for most readers, it’s most valuable for the last chapter: The Dangerous Legacy of a Martyrdom Complex. She speaks not only to the historical legacy, but to events and issues in today’s world, including the confrontational online environment.

The sense of persecution builds walls that don’t allow for discussion or dialogue because opponents – or anyone with a dissenting opinion – are perceived as enemies and threats. Which pretty much sums up the right wing mentality these days. Persecution helps build that sense of entitlement.

We saw it in Steven Harper’s style of government, we saw it in the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination. We even saw it locally during the last municipal election (as we see it now in our our town council): us-vs-them. The fortress mentality. The blinkered state that refuses dissent or differences of opinion. It’s a dangerous legacy that threatens our society.

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