The Martyr Complex of Early (and contemporary) Christianity

I saw a review on Salon of Candida Moss’s new book, “The Myth of Persecution.” I had one immediate reaction, “She’s got a great publicist.” I’d never heard of her before, which isn’t surprising since she received her PhD only in 2008 and her first book came out in 2011, after I left the ivied halls of academe.

What drew my attention is that this is a case of someone popularizing what has been basic historical consensus for decades, if not longer. When I was a grad student (now 30 years ago), the myth of widespread Roman persecution of early Christians had already been debunked. Christians were not thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, and there were in fact very few periods when there was a systematic attempt to suppress Christianity by the emperors.

So why all the attention to this book? Well, because Moss is making a connection with the persecution complex of contemporary Christianity. Miller’s review in Salon begins with another debunking, that of the story of Cassie Bernall, one of the Columbine victims, who quickly became famous as a Christian martyr. Moss is interested in the persistence of martyrdom and persecution as themes in Christianity. That’s an important topic, in part because the idea that one might have to suffer for one’s faith is so powerful, even attractive. In early Christianity, there were many examples of Christians who sought out martyrdom, and the same is true throughout history.

And she’s also right that the notion of martyrdom can raise conflict, whether among different Christian groups, or between Christians and an unsympathetic culture, to apocalyptic fervor. If you take an unpopular position and rouse the ire of opponents, that’s a certain sign that you are being faithful to Jesus Christ.

An interview with the author.

It’s true that those who were killed for the faith in the centuries before the toleration of Christianity were smaller in number than imagined by most contemporary Christians. Similar debunking has been done for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and “Bloody Mary” in sixteenth-century England and also for Anabaptists on the continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Martyrdom cut in different directions, too. If you were unable to make the ultimate sacrifice for your faith, if you recanted, there were potential problems. If you survived, your community wasn’t always quite sure what to do with you. Had you sinned, or did you simply lack the charism of martyrdom? At the same time, there’s probably some truth in Tertullian’s statement from the early second century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Even in the sixteenth century, rulers worried whether public execution of Anabaptist martyrs might draw spectators to that movement because of the inspirational witness of those who were willing to die for their faith.

In some respects, a worldview that sees inherent conflict between us and them, the forces of good and evil, of light and darkness, of Christ and Satan, is both comforting and safe. Much harder is to live in a world where there are shades of gray and disagreement is not a matter of life and death, and being faithful means negotiating among several possible options.

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