Persecution, Past and Present: Candida Moss’s Unintentional Gift to Christians

Candida Moss’s book on the history of Christian persecution is a case study in how scholarship gives way to politicized polemic—but it’s also an important reminder for contemporary Christians.

The recent passing of Cardinal Francis George brings to mind his warning about the consequences of an increasingly secular culture. He said: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

How does such a trajectory toward persecution begin? Though spring is here, readers might recall blogger Rachel Held Evans’s cheeky Christmastime flowchart published in response to the Christian backlash against the ubiquitous winter greeting, “Happy Holidays.” Evans was needling Christians who implied that our growing national aversion to “Merry Christmas” was a prelude to persecution. In an updated posting of the flowchart this past December, Evans told her readers to shut up, share the public square, and abandon their nostalgia for public manger scenes or Christmastime school programs mentioning Christmas. Persecution means suffering, and no one is suffering yet.

Indeed. How can one compare “Happy Holidays” to the fighting in Nigeria, the recent deliberate murder of Christians by Boko Haram, or the execution of Ethiopian Christians by the Islamic State?

While Evans’s flowchart may be a well-deserved and gentle barb, the ire surrounding the Indiana RFRA or the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision has been less charitable. One meme shows a victim being tortured, evidently by clerical figures, as background to the sarcastic text: “Government won’t legislate your religious beliefs? Must be so painful.” How snappy! In this new version of history, even availing oneself of the rule of law is equivalent to brutal persecution of others. Who has the martyr complex now?

Revisiting Christian Persecution

Clearly, persecution is part of the current rhetorical landscape, so it’s a good time to revisit its history. Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, raises important questions about persecution in her provocatively titled book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. Unfortunately, Moss uses her expertise in early martyrology to fashion a polemic against contemporary Christianity for its alleged psychological dysfunction. This dysfunction, Moss argues, stems from the belief that Christians are perpetual victims—a belief that extends back to the first centuries of the Church. It is these first centuries of Christianity on which Moss is qualified to comment; much of Myth is recycled from her much better 2012 title, Ancient Christian Martyrdom.

Whereas Ancient Christian Martyrdom and her dissertation-turned-book, The Other Christs, were bold-but-measured and well-received monographs, Myth is anything but measured.  Essentially, the book argues that Christians have enabled a pack of ancient lies to justify a strident, defensive, and violent martyr’s complex that poisons all contemporary social discourse. Moss goes so far as to assert that while the concept of martyrdom—a noble death establishing norms of behavior and belief—is not unique to Christianity, the claim of “persecution” is. She calls persecution as means to the high moral ground a “fundamentally Christian idea.”

This all depends on what you mean by persecution, of course. Moss even questions whether there were any real martyrs, as Christians have been wont to define them. She conflates all pre-modern stories of noble and sacrificial death (i.e., Jesus = Socrates), arguing implicitly that if there is nothing unique about Christian martyrdom stories, then there is nothing unique about Christian martyrdom. If there was any real persecution at all, Moss confines it only to those civil actions launched by imperial edict and selectively enforced. To dodge the conclusion that local or provincial action against Christians was inconsequential, Moss is forced to concede that “if a governor chose to persecute Christians in his province,” it probably felt “serious for the people concerned.” Serious, but not persecution. And just in case you thought of martyrs as helpless victims, Moss equivocates by turning the reader’s attention to violent Christians (e.g., Circumcellions) and voluntary or suicidal martyrs. But violent or suicidal martyrdom was controversial at the time, as she well knows.

From Scholarship to Ham-Handed Polemic

Moss’s inquisition into the veracity of historical accounts is repackaged from her previous books with remarkably imprudent ham-handedness. Publishing bold claims about early martyrdom with academic presses for an academic audience is one thing; the process of review, research, and rejoinder needs to start somewhere, and scholars are qualified to judge whether she has attempted a bridge too far. A general reader, by contrast, lacks these tools. The slow and thankless pace of scholarship can be frustrating, but that hardly justifies removing all hint of nuance, caution, prudence, or accountability so that you can make a point about Glenn Beck.

What accounts for all of this reckless recycling for a general audience? Moss’s Myth is a case study in how scholarship gives way to politicized polemic.

Step One: Mischaracterize your opponent and create a straw man. In this case, Moss’s whole book is predicated on the presumption that almost every Christian sees the Church as the target of unrelenting, merciless persecution and uses this belief to justify everything from uncharitable remarks to avenging violence. Really? We are offered little to support this assertion apart from tales about politicians, radio talk-show hosts, and Moss’s campus life at Notre Dame. Why can’t a respected scholar marshal even some minimal survey data to give some weight to her puerile anecdotes?

Step Two: Respond to your presumed crisis with an equally ridiculous alternative. Moss’s remedy for the mistaken belief that everything is persecution is to propose an equally hyperbolic and suspect claim: nothing is persecution. Such an immoderate and imprudent response turns a potentially valuable book into a wasted opportunity at best and an embarrassment at worst.

Step Three: Poison the well. If Christian martyrdom stories resemble pagan narratives, they are probably just efforts at mimicry. If they are distinctive and enable a lesson in orthodox faith or practice, however, they were probably invented to manipulate the hoi polloi. Moss calls these latter efforts “a deliberate and strategic attempt to improve the image of Christians, to bolster the position of the church hierarchy, and to provide security for orthodoxy.” In other words, martyrdom’s earthly value for the Church discounts its credibility. The same is true if martyrs expect heavenly rewards. Moss channels Dr. Johnson here. True martyrs are apparently defined by their disinterestedness.

Step Four: Move the goalposts. Moss emphasizes many times that hostility is not persecution. Neither is violence. What we must have to claim “persecution,” Moss argues, is a clearly articulated attempt—explicitly stated by the attackers, not presumed by their victims—to eliminate all Christians, as Christians, for their Christian beliefs and not on the basis of any standing legal or cultural norms that might also be directed at non-Christians as well.

As you might expect, Roman prosecution under mos maiorum, by this definition, was not persecution. Moss has knowingly and anachronistically stacked the deck. Roman civil action against Christians had a variety of motives, all of them more evidently social and political than theological. At the time, of course, the precise definition of a “Christian” to a Roman or a Jew was still very much in play, and the actual beliefs and practices of Christians were not well-understood. Did Romans even really distinguish the political from the religious such that we could tease out of our few ancient sources a purely religious reason for violence against Christians? Such distinction of Caesar from God sounds very . . . Christian, doesn’t it?

Moss’s desire to debunk the “myth” of persecution therefore forces the reader to endure a constant shifting of the definition of persecution to the point of undermining the argument entirely. Just when you think you’ve found a martyr, Moss moves the goalposts. Even modern mass murders of Christians while worshipping are not persecution unless we know the precise motivations of the attackers from their own mouths. It could simply be “injustice and violence” against Christians. Moss excels at such distinctions without a difference.

Finally: Distract. This book is really not about ancient martyrdom as much as it is about modern Christian attitudes and Moss’s attempt to discredit claims of persecution in both directions. Christians were not really persecuted then, so they aren’t really persecuted now. And if they really aren’t persecuted now, it is doubtful that they were persecuted then.

As you might expect, there is no comparable effort to acknowledge where martyrdom has inspired salutary self-sacrifice. Did Dietrich Bonhoeffer have martyrs as his inspiration? Was his participation in the Confessing Church driven by a “martyr complex?” Are we now forbidden to call Bonhoeffer a martyr? He was not executed just because of his Christian faith, after all. And what about those who have martyrs in mind each day as they strive to feed, educate, mend, and defend broken lives—those whose sacrifice will never be known by us in this life? Don’t such cases demonstrate the real value of martyrdom?

Moss’s Unintentional Gift

Not surprisingly, Moss’s Myth has some impressive endorsements; it also has been roundly criticized. Michael Bird rightly points to contemporary persecution and asks if this is indeed a myth. N. Clayton Croy pointedly challenges Moss’s scholarship. Robert Royal decries Moss’s “liberalism” and her characterization of American Christians. Westminster Seminary professor Carl Trueman greets Moss’s history with a yawn and replies that her straw man thesis “left me wondering whether her target audience was not, after all, benighted Bible-thumping Christians but rather the fan base of Jersey Shore.” In Culture Wars, E. Michael Jones had good fun with some of Moss’s arguments and then asserts that the book is really about Notre Dame.

In his review at First Things, Ephraim Radner dismisses Moss’s main thesis as a recycling of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Perceptively, he notes that the book’s primary purpose is to trivialize Christians who claim legal protection for their convictions. But, as Radner retorts,

Christian worries over court-mandated curricula on reframed patterns of sexual life, the targeting of churches with charges of ‘hate speech’ due to their moral convictions, the civil redefinitions of marriage, and the range of matters dealing with contraception and abortion are hardly stoked by ignorant pondering over fraudulent martyr stories. To argue this is to try to change the subject.

Moss is right to encourage reexamination of Church history. If Christians have disgraced their Lord’s name with unjust violence or uncharitable slander and claimed “persecution” as their defense, we have every reason to be ashamed and pray for correction.

But Moss’s unintentional gift is to remind us that persecution never announces itself as such. Politically motivated, persecution always aims not simply to destroy something offensive but to make room for something else. If and when Cardinal George’s successor dies in the public square, his killer will probably not be trying to stamp out Christianity. His persecutor will presume neither to know nor to care what the Cardinal believes or why he believes it. But he will know what the Cardinal does not believe, and that all such resistance must be eliminated to make way for something better.

By God’s grace, the witness of the faithful—even in death—must convince our neighbors that nothing could be better. And should we fail, we recall the ray of hope in Cardinal George’s warning: the successor to the martyred Cardinal “will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

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