The Age of Martyrs Revisited

When I came across a CNN blog about the challenges facing the new pope, I expected the standard items: reforming the Curia and dealing with the sexual abuse scandal. I did not anticipate reading about a full scale persecution of the church.
I pride myself on being informed, especially about religious news, and I am familiar with the recent attacks on Christian churches in Egypt. The media has treated these persecutions of Christians as a sporadic and limited phenomenon, but John Allen’s blog  paints a different picture:
The most harrowing Christian storyline of the early 21st century is the rising tide of anti-Christian violence and persecution in various global hotspots. From the Middle East to Sub-Saharan Africa, from India to Eritrea, Christians today often find themselves in the firing line, and they’ll expect the new pope to have their backs.
The statistics are staggering. According to the International Society for Human Rights in Frankfurt, Germany, fully 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. According to the Pew Forum in Washington, Christians face some form of harassment in 137 nations, two-thirds of all countries on earth.
In the most bone-chilling assertion of all, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary claims that an average of 100,000 Christians have been killed for the faith each year for the past 10 years. That works out to 11 new Christian martyrs every hour of every day for the past decade.
A few points bare repeating: 80 percent of religious discrimination is directed at Christians, two-thirds of all countries harass Christians, and 11 Christians are martyred every hour!
In the United States, we are in the midst of a soft attack on our religion. Certain actions of our government from the HHS Mandate to the legalization of same-sex marriage are going to reduce or inhibit certain functions of the church. Yet, we can go to church without fear of punishment or death. In many countries, that is not the case.
With more than 2 billion Christians and with Christian nations constituting the majority of the most powerful nations in the world, Christians do not appear to be an embattled minority. Subsequently, many people assert that Christians have a martyr-complex, believing the world is out to get them even though they comprise the most powerful bloc in the world.
This view has gained prominence due to a new book by Candida Moss, a professor at the University of Notre Dame. In “The Myth of Persecution : How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom,” she maintains that early Christians were not persecuted during the first 300 years of their existence, and the church later exaggerated claims of martyrdom to enhance the image of the early church. Due to this inaccurate vision of the early church, Moss claims Christians view themselves as incessantly being targeted with persecution. She connects this paranoid view with today’s politicians and pundits on the right, who often denounce an imaginary war on religion.
A historical consensus exists that the Roman persecution was often local and sporadic, with the exception of Diocletian’s universal attack, and early Christians could escape harm in the large and decentralized state by taking a low profile. The martyrdoms, however, were real, and hardly a myth.
While this blog is not a full rebuttal of Moss’s argument, her books should be considered with a few critical limitations. First, most people are unaware of the thousands of Christians dying today even with the modern media and record keeping. Nearly 2000 years ago, the documents of a church on the fringe of society would have been far more incomplete, and we can assume that most martyrs and persecutions were not recorded. Second, the limited records that do exist show a church under duress. I wrote my dissertation on an early martyr, St. George, and though not an expert on the whole period, I am unfamiliar with any document pointing to a positive relationship between Romans and Christian in the first 300 years of the church. Lastly, to think that the classical world was a tolerant place where minorities were accepted is a little dishonest. It’s anachronistic to assert that a person holding a different religion from the state religion would suffer no consequences.
That said, Moss’s review of the early church is true in respect to the dearth of sources, but her giant leap to the present day is inexcusable. Since the Christianization of the Roman Empire, western states have been religiously homogenous. For centuries, many people never encountered a person of a different religion, with the exception of the Reformation era. The fact that an official persecution is a hallmark of Christianity ignores the vast majority of Christian history! It is only in the modern period due to migration and colonization that people are exposed to different faiths.
Most people miss the point when they think of persecution, limiting it to the actions of a hostile state, such as the Roman Empire. Rather, Christians believe the world is a struggle between good and evil. If you try to do good, people inspired to do evil will impede you. Jesus instructed us to be prepared for this rebuke, but also to love those who persecute us and reach out to them.
When St. Benedict was abbot of a monastery, the monks opposed to his methods tried to poison him several times. After St. Theresa of Avila attempted to reform the Carmelites in Spain, she gained many enemies, was put on trial, and was forced into seclusion. The point is that you do not need an official persecution to be harassed. Speaking the message of Jesus could result in rebuke even in the most Christian countries during the most Christian times.
I invite skeptics to post a Christian message on Facebook or go door to door with a Bible. Even if it is done in the most loving and gentle manner, I am certain that you’ll receive some nasty feedback.
As important as the martyrs are to the early church, Moss overestimates their role in the formation of a Christian identity. Martyrs were not important in themselves, but in the fact that they mirrored the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is the death of Jesus, not the martyrs, that forms the primary connection to being persecuted for your faith. Even without the Roman persecutions, Christians would still be called to pick up their cross and follow Jesus.
So, is the story of Christians being persecuted a myth? It’s unlikely that Moss’s book is a best-seller with Chaldean Catholics in Iraq.
What about us? If we hear the stories of the martyrs and react with hatred, anger, and paranoia, then there is a problem. The story of the martyrs is supposed to inspire us. If Catholics in Iraq can risk their life by going to church, perhaps, we can set our alarms a little earlier and make it to Mass, too. If people can face prison for wearing a crucifix in Libya, then maybe we can share our faith with those we encounter in our lives.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.