The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, seeks to correct commonly-held beliefs about Christian persecution in the early Church. Through a compelling and thorough history, she shows that, contrary to the rhetoric of many today, persecution was often sporadic and irregular in the early days of Christianity.
Further, she argues that most early Christians were not “persecuted,” but “prosecuted.” She writes in her introduction to the book:
The traditional history of Christian martyrdom is mistaken… Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution. A persecutor targets representatives of a specific group for undeserved punishment merely because of their participation in that group. An individual is prosecuted because that person has broken a law… There is something different about being prosecuted under a law–however unjust–that is not designed to target or rout any particular group. It may be unfortunate, it may be unfair, but it is not persecution… The myth of persecution assumes that the other demonically inspired party is deliberately and continually trying to attack the church. But, as we will see, although prejudice against Christians was fairly widespread, the prosecution of Christians was rare, and the persecution of Christians was limited to no more than a handful of years. (14-15)
If this distinction between “persecution” and “prosecution” is true, then Christians today who claim that such legislation as the “HHS Mandate” are forms of persecution, must be sadly mistaken.
Still, Professor Moss notes, “There’s no doubt that [early] Christians thought they were persecuted; they ruminate on it, theologize about it, bewail, lament, protest, and complain” (160). Why might this be? Most legislation under which early Christians suffered was not targeted specifically at Christians, and some non-Christians were also executed under these laws. Why did early Christians claim that a general law, dictating that all should offer a sacrifice to the emperor, was an act of persecution against Christianity?
The distinction between “persecution” and “prosecution” also call into question the majority of stories concerning Christian martyrdom. As Professor Moss shows, “In general, when Christians were executed [in the early Church], it was for activities that were authentically politically and socially subversive” (186). The Christian way of life often clashed with the life of the Roman Empire, and the refusal to worship the gods or to submit to the ancient social order was considered subversive and treasonous in the ancient world. Thus, Professor Moss argues most Christians were executed for what we would today identify with treason, not simply for being Christian. She argues that they were “prosecuted,” not “persecuted.”
This distinction, however, meets difficulty in the Christian religion. Imagine a piece of legislation dictating that all members of a community should publicly pronounce that 2+2=5. If a member of this community fails to make such a proclamation, he will be sentenced to death. This imaginary legislation may seem absurd, but it shares an important characteristic with both ancient and modern legislation that Christians decry. Like ancient laws requiring sacrifices to pagan gods, the 2+2=5 law requires that men and women proclaim something that is untrue.
No doubt, many (probably most) men and women would comply with the 2+2=5 law. Suppose, however, that some Christian members of the community refuse to comply. Most likely, some non-Christians would make such a refusal as well, perhaps in the name of science or reason. The Christians stand with these non-Christians in proclaiming and defending the truth. This stand, however, has significant difference. The non-Christian chooses to die for the sake of reason, for the sake of an abstract truth which honest men hold.
The Christian chooses to die for this reason, and for another, higher, reason as well. The Christian knows that, should he proclaim that 2+2=5, he will not only lie against Nature, but he will lie against Him who is the Author of Nature. These Christians die for science, because they die for a God who is the Creator of science. Their commitment to God commits them to Nature, which commits them to 2+2=4. For these Christians, the choice to die is a fundamentally Christian act, and a legislation dictating that 2+2=5 is not only an act against Nature, but it is an act against God and against Christianity. The death of the Christians will be a death for Him who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” The Christian will not lie, because the Christian knows that lying is always opposed to the truth, and to Him who is the Truth. If a Christian is persecuted for the sake of the truth, he is persecuted for his faith. His faith resides fundamentally in the Truth. An attack against Nature will always be an attack against God.
This faith finds itself in a time of persecution again, with legislation such as the “HHS mandate,” a mandate which proclaims the lies that birth control will save marriage, that birth control is healthy for women, that it can help you determine ‘compatibility’ with a potential spouse, that it simply doesn’t cause abortion, that it is a cure-all for problems related to women’s health, that there are no alternatives to artificial birth control. Christians refuse to accept artificial birth control, because they refuse to accept a falsification against man and woman. Birth control encourages society to look at women as less than they are, but Christians will not tolerate this. Christians may suffer in their refusal, but they are willing to suffer for their commitment to the Truth, to God. As the scientist is willing to undergo persecution for the truth that 2+2=4, the Christian is willing to undergo persecution for the truths about human relations and sexuality.
Perhaps Christians believe that they are doomed to always be persecuted, because they stand firmly committed to every truth in its entirety. In a fallen world, every human society is doomed to have flaws, and, so, the true Christian, the Christian committed to perfection, will always be doomed to be at some variance with the State. This variance may be greater or lesser, but a variance will always be present. To attack any truth is to attack Christianity. To insist upon a lie is to commit an act of persecution.