Friday, May 10, 2013
The Historical Irony of the Christian Persecution Complex
Of course, this is all fantasy -- both the modern assertion of persecution and the invocation of the ancient world. Christians are not being "persecuted" today for their beliefs, and the Romans actually didn't systematically persecute Christians very much -- least of all for their beliefs.
Yet this narrative, informed by right-wing talking points and postwar Hollywood movies, is repeated time and again every day. It informed the recent video making the rounds of a group of militant teens who blankly and falsely assert that all manner of religious freedoms are being denied them.
"Why can't I pray in school?" one of them asks. You can. You can pray all you want. What you can't do (or shouldn't do) is organize a school-sponsored prayer at, say, a school-sponsored event, where everyone is coerced into praying with you.
Yet this distinction seems beyond the religious right. Is it that they don't get the difference between individual and state-sponsored religious expression, or that they just don't care? It's been pointed out again and again, so one is tempted to believe the latter.
In my former home state of Arkansas, a school this week canceled a sixth-grade graduation rather than remove two prayers from it amid a complaint. Parent Kelly Adams is one of those who doesn't get it or, again, just doesn't care: "As Christians and a mainly Christian town I think, there were a lot of people hurt that our rights were taken away." Except that your rights weren't taken away: you and your kids can continue to assemble, worship, and pray as often as you want; the complaint (rightly) noted that prayers before a captive audience at a school-sponsored event are inappropriate.
Likewise, a fervor on the right continues to simmer about the increased scrutiny put on commanders and military chaplains who might use their positions of authority to proselytize their subordinates. Again, this is about the avoidance of coercion and control, not about "religious freedom," but the right-wing media is, not surprisingly, treating it like the latter.
So what some Christians perceive as "persecution" or "taking away our rights" really has to do with their inability to coerce everyone else into practicing their religion with them. They seem to be under the impression that in order for their full religious rights to be recognized, the state must express their religion for them.
What's so historically ironic about this?
Candida Moss, a New Testament professor at the University of Notre Dame, has recently published a book called The Myth of Persecution, which notes that Christian persecution was sporadic, not systematic, and happened only a handful of years between the advent of Christianity and Constantine (in some 300 years). Of course, this is common knowledge among those of us who study the ancient world: the narratives of persecution in popular consciousness owe more to Hollywood movies (something I've presented papers on) than to anything historical.
In reality, persecution was not very widespread nor prolonged. It did happen, but not because of Christians' belief in a single god, and indeed, not really because of their "beliefs" at all. Roman religion was largely ambivalent about belief -- people worshiped a variety of gods, and those cults usually coexisted just fine. Rather, Roman religion was ultimately concerned with the proper ways to go about performing the imperial cult, and here is where it often ran into conflict with Christians.
Your run-of-the-mill Isis or Mithras initiate didn't see any problem with participating in the state cult -- it was part of being Roman. But Christians did -- they either rejected the existence of the gods of the state or, worse yet, considered sacrifice to them to be nourishing the demons they really were. The Romans were upset by this: here was a group of individuals refusing to participate in a ceremonial, patriotic exercise, who met in their own private assemblies (another Roman anxiety) and worshiped or venerated a man crucified as an enemy of the state. The refusal to participate in this coercive, religious practice was seen with the same suspicions that those on the Right reserve for people today who might fail to cover their hearts during the national anthem or opt out of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. (Note how both prayer and patriotism are wed in the teens' video above: "in school, prayer and pledge to the flag was welcomed and appreciated.")
So the historical ironies of Christians equating religious coercion with religious freedom, and demonizing those whose consciences prompt them to opt out of ceremonial state exercises, abounds two- and threefold.
Christians are not being "persecuted," at least not in this country. It is true that a certain socio-religious ideology, claiming Christianity as its mantle, which condemns gay and lesbian people and relegates women to subordinates of their husbands, is indeed becoming increasingly rejected in our modern culture.
But that itself is of course laden with irony as well: many Christians, like the hyperventilating teens in the video above, openly fret about being condemned and ostracized -- all simply because they insist on condemning and ostracizing others.