Monday, March 25, 2013

The Myth of Persecution

Te Martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus.~ from the Te Deum
When I wrote to Dr. Moss requesting her latest work The Myth of Persecution, I received a prompt and gracious reply assuring me of a copy. Dr. Moss hoped that I would not see the book as an attack upon the Church. I responded that I did not see the book as an attack on the Church and even if it was, the Church has been through worse. We have nothing to fear from the truth of history.

After reading the book my reply is not altered. It is a well-written book with clear explanations indicative of a skilled teacher. However, I recommend Myth to others with reservations, since in spite of the genuine scholarship which Dr. Moss shares with us, there is a contemporary political slant given to the narrative which clouds the objectivity of how the historical evidence is presented. For instance, my cognitive processes are strained to envision St. Justin Martyr (pp. 109-112) and Glenn Beck (p. 250) as confreres in a long battle of paranoid right-wing true believers to demonize the opposition. And the whys and wherefores of the legend of Saints Chrysthanus and Daria (pp. 83-88) are intriguing enough without dragging Ann Coulter into the mix. (p. 255)

The main premise of Myth of Persecution is that the early Christians, and those generations who followed immediately after them, exaggerated the Roman punishment of those who refused to comply with the laws of the Empire. (p. 16) Dr. Moss claims that the Christians made it appear that they suffered one long relentless persecution for over three hundred years, which made them see themselves as victims and everyone else as the enemy. (pp. 18-19) The book goes on to assert that Christians have continued to do this and are doing it now, especially the conservative branches of the various Christian offshoots who marginalize anyone who does not agree with them, especially anyone involved in the abortion industry. (p. 252) This view completely overlooks the vast number of Christians who are engaged in giving practical help to the unfortunate, including those with post-abortion trauma.

 I grew up around Christians, most of whom were either Catholic or Episcopalian; they certainly did not instill in me an idea of non-Christians being the enemy. Nor did I ever have the impression that the early Christian persecution by the Romans was non-stop. I was aware at an early age that some Emperors persecuted and some did not, Diocletian being one that did. While I understand the point the author is trying to make, I think it is an oversimplification of a complex process involving many types of Christians and different cultures over two thousand years.

What makes Myth of Persecution an interesting read is that it shows how the Roman authorities saw the Christians. They saw them as annoying, crazy, disrespectful, cowardly, vengeful, violent, devious and even incestuous. (pp. 170-187) I have the impression that much of this assessment is shared by the author as well. Such bias mitigates the effectiveness of the genuine lessons which are to be learned from the book. Certainly, there are elements among the diverse Christian communities who exhibit a harsh and paranoid reaction at every hostile hiccup on the horizon. I am not denying that sometimes in showing zeal for a cause Christians forget that the charity of Christ is what defines them. If Christians who read this book will take that lesson to heart then progress will have been made.

The book does indeed offer a great deal of wisdom which should not be taken lightly. In Chapter 6, "Myths about Martyrs", Dr. Moss makes an excellent point about how imitation of the martyrs does not mean the complacent acceptance of an abusive or oppressive situation. The martyrs were killed because they stood up to injustice, not because they were doormats. (pp.201-204)  To quote: "As much as we admire those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others, there are also circumstances in which this in inappropriate. Modern theologians have criticized the idea that imitating the suffering Christ means obedience and submission in circumstances of oppression." (p.202) I would interject that for persons of faith suffering can still be personally redemptive, even while working to correct the injustices which create the suffering.

Now the author does not deny that, in spite of the title of the book, the Christians were genuinely persecuted by the Roman authorities from time to time. This is, of course, a fact of history. Dr. Moss insists that the persecution undertaken by St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles was not a genuine persecution, saying:
 That Paul himself would admit that he had participated in this practice [i.e., “persecuting the church of God”] lends credibility to the narrative of Acts, but it does not prove that Jews persecuted Christians. The primary reason for this is that there were no Christians! Not only did the name ‘Christian’ not yet exist, but the idea of Christians as a group distinct from the rest of Judaism did not exist in the lifetime of the apostles. (p.133)
So according to Myth of Persecution, St. Stephen the first martyr was not a bona fide martyr. Whatever the people later to be known as Christians were called, Paul persecuted them, and later repented of it. The Acts of the Apostles affirms that the Followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26) a good hundred years before Dr. Moss claims they began to be called Christians. Furthermore, Dr. Moss claims that the Christians were not really persecuted by the Romans, but "prosecuted." (pp. 159-160) "Romans saw themselves not as persecutors but as prosecutors....Just because Christians were prosecuted or executed, even unjustly, does not mean that they were persecuted." (pp163-164). Unfortunately, this sort of sophistry is rampant in the book.

The highlights of Myth include the discussions of the executions of Christians under Decius and later under Diocletian. Decius, around 250 AD, did not single out the Christians for persecution. (pp.145-151) Rather he passed a law which required that all Roman citizens participate in the Emperor worship. The Christians did not want to do this, and had to either find a legal loophole around it, or else apostatize their faith. Some chose neither option, and when asked to sacrificed they refused, were tortured and killed. Many were able to escape prosecution but those who were executed became the martyrs whom we honor. As for the Great Persecution of Diocletian, Christians were singled out, beginning in 303, and for the next several years the persecution ebbed and flowed throughout the empire, depending upon local leadership and political circumstances. The persecution of Christians is definitely NOT a myth.

Speaking of Daria and Chrysthanus, the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating how the legend of their acts has many historical inconsistencies. (pp 83-88) This is the case with many of the old legends which grew up around the various martyrs of the early Church. When I was a child during the Second Vatican Council, I remember when many early martyrs and saints were removed from the Roman Calender because of lack of solid historical evidence of their ordeals or even of their existence, St. Catherine of Alexandria being one. The same saints, however, were retained by the Byzantine Catholic calender, since they and the accounts of their sufferings were seen as being hallowed by sacred tradition. I think Myth of Persecution would have been richer if it had taken into account the power of storytelling and the liturgy as a means of permitting the believers to participate in the sacred drama. Whether every detail of the story of Chrysthanus and Daria really happened is not what was important to our brothers and sisters in the faith. What mattered was the inner truths the story conveyed which the believers would enter into and participate in through prayers, veneration of relics and the sacred liturgy. We will never have the newspaper accounts of the death of Daria and Chrysthanus and of any number of other martyrs. The accounts do not exist. We do, however have a rich tradition about them, passed on through good times and bad. And we have the relics of Chrysthanus and Daria, which have recently been examined, according to the National Geographic, showing that they were young, highborn and possibly buried alive.*

There is a great deal in the book about how Christians see the world as the enemy. But Jesus warned us that it would be so. "In the world you will have distress, but have confidence, I have overcome the world." (John 16: 33) Christians must always guard against the things of the world which threaten the health of the soul. We must not forget the confidence which we are invited to have in Jesus Christ, and this confidence should preserve us from the very perils we wish to avoid, the tendency pass rash judgment, to despair, to become bitter, to hate, to be greedy. Martyrdom is overcoming those things of the world, and in that way supersedes political and cultural vicissitudes.

(This book was sent to me by the author's representative in exchange for my honest opinion.)

(*NOTE: Dr. Candida Moss was consulted by National Geographic in their examination of the relics of Saints Chrysthanus and Daria.) Share


Stephen Lowe said...

I think TS Elliot said once that there are two kinds of provincialism , special and temporal. Based on your review, the author seems to suffer from temporal provincialism, relating everything to this generation. I'll pass on this book.

Stephen Lowe said...

Should read spacial not special, darn spell check.

Elizabeth said...

I so admire your ability to fairly and charitably review this book and to even honestly offer agreement with the author in some areas. That being said, I'll not be wasting my time or money on it. Thank you for your witness!

Brantigny said...

I recall the day when the calendar of Saints changed and removed Saint Christopher. As A kid I thought that was unfair to Saint Christopher, imagine that. I wore a Saint Christopher medal on my first deployment in 1974. ..and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, St Joan listed her among her voices, and who would mary Gould White mistake for the Virgin in her mostly forgotten skreed against the Church, "The great Controversy"? I believe that the persecution exists yet at low key, to get under the radar and ambiguous enough to have plasible deniability.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for your reflections, Stephen, and for your kind words, Elizabeth. Richard, one of the most ancient monasteries in the world was founded in honor of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Her cult is very old. I have prayed to her and she has answered.

As far as modern martyrs, there are some places where the persecution of Christians is going strong.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

The main premise of Myth of Persecution is that the early Christians, and those generations who followed immediately after them, exaggerated the Roman punishment of those who refused to comply with the laws of the Empire. (p. 16)
I have heard this with the variant that such punishments would not have been in accordance with Roman law.
Things like "nulla poena sine crimine" and "nulla poena sine lege".
The irony of this is that the "Roman law" these critics refer to is the Codex Iuris Civilis of the Christian Emperor Justinian - well a century after the persecutions ended.
Moreover, some people were hard to kill (miraculously) and killing them anyway took some ingenuity and creativity.
And, even more so, how someone was killed once he could be crucified, was up to the creativity of executioners anyway, as can be seen from a Crucifixion involving mock regalia - that we praise higher than many regalia of purest gold.
Dr. Moss claims that the Christians made it appear that they suffered one long relentless persecution for over three hundred years, which made them see themselves as victims and everyone else as the enemy. (pp. 18-19)

That was not the early or later Christian attitude to "everyone else". Even persecutors were sometimes seen with understanding. As with Diocletian and Marcus Aurelius.

Early Christians did acknowledge that certain legions had opened their ranks to them or were entirely composed of them - witness Legio Fulminatrix the prayers of which saved the Roman day at the Danube.

They did acknowledge that St John, when Domitian could not kill hom in boiling oil, was sentenced to a very slight punishment, exile on Patmos, involving basically to get out of everyone's sight, except God's, and that he was free enough on Patmos to write to the seven Churches - and, more importantly, that Nerva (from a town called Narnia, where else!) was an honest man who let St John off of the exile.

They also acknowledged that many martyrs got into trouble despite goodwilled suggestions to use the incense or buy a certificate, simply by refusing to compromise.

And some martyrs came into trouble by being beautiful virgins and thus heating the passions of their executioners.

Her (his?) conclusion also overlooks real persecutions against Christians perpetrated through psychiatry (which also persecutes certain non-Christians and some for other reasons than being Christians), as can be seen from what Swedish shrinks did and do to my mother to these last few days, at least.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

My case nr 1 against Vatican II liturgic reform was removing saints from calendar.

One lady called Barbro - Swedish for Barbara - became Russian Orthodox due to the slur on her patron saint, and I resented the story of an ex-Satanist converted to God being pushed off as so much myth.

Not that St Christopher was my own patron saint, or that Sts John or St George had been removed, but still.