Are Christians in America being persecuted for their faith? The answer to that question largely depends on what you mean by “persecution.”
When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, I helped to start a prayer group with some friends of mine during the lunch period. One of my teachers, who I knew was a Christian, offered his classroom during his lunch hour so that we could meet and pray together. It was only a handful of us, but we witnessed a number of remarkable things as a result of these prayer meetings.
Within a few months our meetings were shut down by the public high school principal. Now, the principal was not an atheist zealot. He was actually rather sympathetic to what we were trying to do. Rather, he was just loathe to engage in any controversy, fearing that some atheist parent might call him up or write an angry letter about “separation of church and state.” So off we were sent back to the noisy cafeteria for our Christian fellowship.
The whole thing seemed rather stupid to me.
Students during the lunch hour could get a pass to go to the library and read a book. In the days before the Commonwealth of Virginia lowered the age for restricting the purchase of tobacco products, kids could go outside to the smoking area and enjoy their nicotine habit. So you could go to a quiet place and read a book, or you could smoke your way to lung cancer and early death, but you were not allowed to meet in an unused classroom to engage in Christian prayer.
But was it persecution? Let me put it this way: The crackdown on our high school prayer sessions did not exactly exemplify the remarkable tradition of religious freedom that characterizes the best of the American experience. Our prayer meetings had been voluntary, student-led, and met in neutral space during the school day on a school-sanctioned break. But is it right to call its demise persecution? Well, it was inconvenient and annoying, but on the positive side having a prayer meeting shut down was sort of like a “badge of honor.” Merriam-Webster defines “persecute” as “to treat someone cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs,” so in some sense, interfering with a bunch of teenagers talking to God might qualify. But frankly, my lunchtime restriction was nothing compared to the life threatening treatment of Iraqi Christians fleeing for their lives for the past ten years.
You have to put things in perspective.
Nevertheless, a film released in the summer of 2014 plays on the theme of “persecution” in America. Is this something indicative of what is happening now, or is it a prophetic glimpse of what might eventually happen to Christians in America in the future? … Or is it just a bunch of nonsense?
Many cultural critics have dismissed the film as simply feeding into a Christian fantasy with an overtly political agenda. I was intrigued by one such negative film review by Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. As she puts it, Christian claims of persecution in America are so “middle school.”
Candida Moss and the “Myth of Christian Persecution?”
Laying aside some of the rather graphic language of her article in the Daily Beast, Dr. Moss does have an important argument to make, so please allow me to explain. She recently wrote a book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, that examines the story of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire before the arrival of Emperor Constantine. Dr. Moss is clearly right to correct the misinformation that I had about the early church, as she summarizes her argument here in the Chronicle for Higher Education, but does she press her case too far?
As a fairly new believer, I was told that the Christians in the first few centuries after the Resurrection suffered continuous and widespread persecution all across the Roman world. I had this picture in my mind of Roman emperor after Roman emperor getting up everyday for the first few centuries AD, pondering “how many Christians should I kill today?,” as they groomed their man-eating lions satisfied by the previous evening’s gorging on a Jesus-lover’s flesh. But as Dr. Moss points out, the history of persecution in those early years is popularly misunderstood. Yes, there was persecution, but not like I thought.
One of the identifying marks of these early Christians was the witness of those who died for their faith. The term martyr simply means “witness.” If one was willing to die for what they believed, it served as an encouragement for those who might feel timid in their own faith journey and remain firm in the truth of the Gospel. To be a martyr; that is, in terms of dying for one’s faith, has continued to bolster the vibrancy of the Christian movement throughout the centuries. But how frequent was martyrdom among the Christians before the era of Constantine?
There were primarily two, fairly brief, empire wide persecutions that targeted Christians, AD 257-58 under Valerian and 303-5 under Diocletian. We should not make light of the horrific nature of these persecutions that have been forever etched in the consciousness of believing Christians. But most of the other persecutions in those early years were sporadic and mostly local in character. Even though Christians faced opposition at times, the relative civility of an otherwise brutal Roman culture also allowed for the rapid expansion of the faith. In many cases, the events of persecution were not really aimed at Christians in particular, as with the infamous persecution in AD 250 under the Emperor Decius. Most of the conflict with the early church had to do with adherence to the Roman emperor cult, something that other groups, such as non-Christian Jews, also protested against.
Candida Moss also argues that popular stories like that of the famous martyrdom of Polycarp, a direct disciple of the Apostle John, were actually put together much later than when the events happened, being developed and expanded over time. According to Moss, the narrative of the Polycarp martyrdom of the 2nd century that we have today is probably traced back actually to the 3rd century. How much of the details of the martyrdom narratives like that of Polycarp are historically accurate? Did a dove actually fly out of Polycarp’s side as he died? The traditional account says yes, but should that part of the story be necessarily accepted? Was such a detail a later insertion? In fact, what we know about the deaths of these early Christians is built not on canonical Scripture, but rather on various traditions. We simply can not confirm every detail about the early church stories of martyrdoms.
But is Candida Moss then justified in dismissing the martyrdom of Polycarp as a “pious fraud?” This is where other scholars believe that she is overreaching. First Things editor Ephraim Radner is not buying Dr. Moss’ vacillation between her agnosticism alternated with punctuations of such radical skepticism. The problem with popular books like Dr. Moss’ that are designed to correct misconceptions is that they tend to go overboard in the opposite direction. I mean, even the subtitle to her book, How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, betrays this tendency towards sensationalism: “Invented” a story of martyrdom? Is that type of inflammatory language really warranted by the evidence? Even this more complimentary review by a more like-minded scholar, Butler University’s James McGrath, has noticed this problem to some degree.
Towards A More Sober View of Christian Persecution for Today
To her credit, Dr. Moss rightly makes the case that popular misconceptions about early Christian persecution has led to at least some embellishment of tradition. Christians are not immune from glamorizing the tales of martyrdom in some details. This is fair enough. In his perceptive review of Dr. Moss’ book, Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, despite some important caveats takes very little issue with Moss’ historical thesis but finds the application of her iconoclastic argument in contemporary terms as being deeply flawed.
As early church leader Tertullian remarked, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Just as Jesus Christ was persecuted, it should come as no surprise that persecution will be a mark of authentic Christian discipleship, whether such conflict be comparatively mild or indeed traumatic. The fact that so many have died for their faith in Jesus is an encouragement to persevere and lends credibility to the integrity of the Gospel message. After all, why would anyone knowingly die for a lie?
So on the one hand, the persecution of Christians in the early church was still very real and is surely nothing to scoff at, but we must be careful not to overdo the persecution theme in the early church more than what the historical record can reasonably support. The same can probably be said for certain Christians today in America who may claim persecution but who come across as sounding more like whiners.
Disturbingly on other side of the argument, Carl Trueman finds that Moss allows her historical analysis to improperly inform her implications for Christian testimony today. According to Trueman, “millions of Christians have died for their faith, or for the social outworking of their faith, throughout the centuries. To talk of the ‘myth’ of persecution is somewhat mischievous.” Martyrdom narratives to some extent have been reworked and enhanced, but this does not mean that we should dismiss the significance and basic substance of these traditions entirely out of hand.
Does Moss’ analysis of history tell us much about the contemporary American situation? According to Dr. Trueman in his essay, this is mostly where Moss’ contention falls rather flat. Nevertheless, in society where popular support for traditional Judeo-Christian values is changing, the discussion is worth having: Does the story of Christian persecution in the early years of the church distort the believer’s perception of conflict within a pluralistic society? Do American Christians suffer from a type of paranoia over a persecution complex that stifles public discourse as Dr. Moss argues?
One might see modern films like Persecuted as being a form of idealized propaganda that proves Dr. Moss’ point. On the other hand, does the alternative “myth” that Dr. Moss presents of American Christians simply playing the victim in order to promote an intolerant political agenda have any substance? Given the rather lackluster reception of Persecuted at the box office, Dr. Moss’ own terrible dream might produce no more than a yawn.
Then again, some might argue that persecution does not start full-blown right away. It starts incrementally, and becomes more pervasive over time unless checked. For example. while Decius might not have had Christians in mind during his crackdown on his Roman subjects, it was less than ten years before Valerian targeted Christians specifically.
The Debate over Christian Persecution in America
Undoubtedly, the debate over Christian persecution in America will continue to inflame the passions among believer and non-believer alike. As Dr. Trueman argues, the propagation of “myths” concerning Christian persecution cuts both ways.
Are Christians in America being persecuted today, or is the culture moving in such a direction indicating that such persecution remains a very real future threat, or are Christians in America acting spoiled?
What do you think?
While claims of persecution of Christians in America vary, this should not blind us to the reality of severe persecutions of Christians all across the world today as I write this blog post. There were clearly more Christian martyrdoms in the 20th century than in the entire history of the early church. Prospects for the 21st century look to be no more different. It is difficult to say what the future holds for societies such as the United States that appear to be becoming more and more secularized. Real persecution is always a possibility in any society, just as social ostracism, paranoia among school officials, lack of understanding of religious freedoms, and overheated reactions in the culture wars on all sides are already realities in today’s America.
American Christians need to remember that the essence of the martyr is that of being a witness, not of being a whiner. On the one hand, we should defend and encourage the freedom of religious belief whenever and wherever we can. But we would also do well as Christians not to pull out the “persecution” card without a sober understanding of what real persecution is all about, as it was in the early years of the Christian church. Otherwise, we risk trivializing the current and very real suffering being endured by our brothers and sisters being martyred and tortured for their faith daily across the globe.
Are you interested in learning more about the stories of martyrdom in the early church from a balanced perspective? The Christian History Institute published an issue of the Christian History magazine dedicated to telling the story of persecution in the early church, including the martyrdoms of Polycarp and Perpetua.
August 16th, 2014 at 12:02 am
Thanks Clarke for a well written and researched call to, as the Canadians say, “smarten up.” What most of us encounter as followers of Jesus Christ in this country is prejudice, not persecution. As John Asby (and you) said, we really don’t know how good we have it.