Point-counterpoint: the current state of Christian persecution

In her recent book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, released March 5, Notre Dame theology professor Candida Moss discusses the nature and historical accuracy of persecution and martyrdom accounts in the life of the early Church, and how the legacy of martyrdom has impacted modern Christian perspectives on persecution. Here, Moss and professor Dan Philpott debate the reality and meaning of modern Christian persecution, both in the United States and abroad.

How We Speak About Persecution

In recent years the persecution of Christians in America and around the world has become a recurrent element in politics, social commentary and international news reporting. From the reporting of the horrifying and morally reprehensible treatment of Christians around the world (often in Muslim or communist countries) to the insistence of American politicians and media pundits that there is a “war on Christianity” in modern America, the treatment of Christians is very much at the forefront of Christian consciousness.

The language of persecution is grounded in reality. Journalists and activists—spearheaded by the early efforts of Michael Horowitz and the continuing work of John Allen—have rightly drawn attention to the violence, oppression and aggression experienced by Christians living in non-Christian countries. In North Korea, China, Vietnam, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Iran—to name but a few countries—Christians face real violence, danger and even death. Just in the past two weeks reports have emerged of new violence against Christians in Nigeria and Egypt, both situations I discussed in my most recent book. The situation in these places is dire and, studies have shown, only grows worse. These are flagrant human rights violations and their experiences demand our attention and action.

At the same time, we need to exercise good judgment and moderation in the identification of persecution. Not every Christian who dies tragically and violently in a foreign country is the victim of persecution. And it is not necessary to set every tragedy in the apocalyptic framework of the struggle between good and evil. Nor should we allow a particular interest in Christians to obscure the broader historical context of these events. The persecution of Christians in China is less one front in a “global war” than it is one facet of the Chinese government’s censorship of religion in general. Failing to adequately contextualize such incidents means that the plight of other groups, in this case the Falun Gong, is obscured by the claim that Christians have it the worst. If we want to help Christians in China, we should recognize that this situation is caused by the specifically Chinese mistreatment of religious organizations of any type, not by a global war on Christianity.

There is no question that there are Christians around the world who are persecuted for their beliefs. But Christians in general are not. With respect to the United States, much of this language appears overwrought. Bill O’Reilly’s recent claim that there is a “war on Easter” sounded almost like an elaborate joke. And no one could truly think, as some have claimed, that the Vatican is launching a “crusade” against nuns. Are there political movements and proposed legislation that—in some aspects—conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church? Yes, but there always were. These are issues that are debated in the public square. Lines of communication between the USCCB and the current administration are open and Catholics are not “under attack.” We can resolutely disagree without resorting to the shrill and inflammatory claim that we are “persecuted.”

Moreover, is it reasonable to imply that the situation facing Catholics in North America is anything like that facing Christians in China? Is it even sensible to define persecution today as being ridiculed, as the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò did in a speech in November 2012, when Christians in other parts of the world face real violence?

I would argue that it is not. Practically speaking, the use of the category of persecution to describe the experience of American Christians—be they “progressives” or “conservatives”—obscures and dilutes the experiences of those facing real violence. To give but one recent example: on January 26, 2012, the day that Newt Gingrich stated in a debate that he had entered the race for the Republican nomination in order to fight the “war on Christianity,” a report emerged of 35,000 Christians being forced to flee their homes in Nigeria. The Christians were forced to leave, it was reported, by the Islamic group Boko Haram.  In media reports the mass exodus of thousands of people in Nigeria received considerably less attention than Gingrich’s reference to the war on Christianity. This is in part the result of the American media’s (and people’s) lack of interest in national affairs, but at the same time it demonstrates the extent to which the rhetoric has trumped reality.

This example illustrates that the description of Christianity’s encounters with political views, secularism or competing ideas about governance and education as “persecution” does not draw attention to the struggles of those facing real violence. It cannibalizes them. When the political and ideological disagreements experienced by Christians in America are understood as part of a global war on Christianity, then the dramatic differences between these relatively benign challenges and the authentic human suffering of Christians in other parts of the world are too easily conflated. The suffering of Christians in Tehran is not the same as the “war on Christmas” here in America. This easy shift from foreign, to global, to domestic persecution effectively colonizes the experiences of people in other parts of the world. The heavy mantle of persecution hangs as lightly on the indignant shoulders of western Christians as the emperor’s new clothes. But we should worry that these are garments manufactured at high cost and out of sight by un-credited workers.

Candida Moss is professor of theology. She can be reached at cmoss@nd.edu.

Martyrs Are For Real

Had you by chance attended the daily 5:15 p.m. Mass at the Sacred Heart Basilica this past November 5, you would have been surprised by an unusual event: the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, blessed a replica of an icon depicting Christian martyrs.  The original icon is displayed in Rome’s Basilica of San Bartolomeo as a witness to Christian martyrs.  Soon, its replica will hang in our own basilica, likewise as a witness.

Were you were to read Notre Dame theology professor Candida Moss’ new book, The Myth of Persecution, however, your surprise might turn to skepticism. Moss casts a suspicious eye on the Christian practice of remembering martyrs.  More often than not, she claims, contemporary Christians invoke persecution not to inspire but to manipulate.  They portray themselves as victims in order to advance their political agendas and in so doing inflame bitter polarization and constrict constructive dialogue.  Frequently they invoke the martyrs of the ancient Roman Empire, who loom largest in today’s Christian imagination.  This comparison, though, is dubious, she argues.  Most of the early church’s martyrs turn out to be fictitious, while its few actual martyrs were killed for reasons more complicated than direct hatred of their faith.  Moss warns against a persecution complex and stresses the complexity of persecution.

Go take a look at the icon, though.  Your surprise will evolve further when you see that the martyrs depicted hail not from the first, second, and third centuries but rather from the twentieth century.  You will notice El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero, murdered by his government for speaking up for the poor and for victims of violence.  You will see Mexico’s Miguel Pro, a Jesuit priest killed by a brutally anti-clerical government in the 1920s.  Be sure not to overlook the Martyrs of Buta, Burundian seminarians who were slain for refusing to separate themselves into Hutus and Tutsis.  Over 100 figures are depicted in the icon.

More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined, estimate David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, two of the world’s leading religious demographers.  The trend has not slowed in the 21st century.  Though the numbers are uncertain, at least thousands and quite possibly tens of thousands of Christians are killed for their faith every year—in China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Mexico, Nigeria, Colombia, Iraq, Vietnam, India and many other countries.

Christians are not the only sufferers of religious persecution.  So are Baha’is in Iran, Muslims in Gujurat, India and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka.  Some 75 percent of the world’s population inhabits countries that deny religious freedom, the Pew Forum reported in 2010.  Still, Christians comprise the lion’s share of the lion’s den and are estimated to be 80 percent of the world’s victims of persecution.  Contrary to the title and thesis of Moss’ book, there is nothing mythical about Christian persecution.

What of America?  Moss points to our contemporary culture wars as a site of strained claims of persecution.  Persecution is indeed too strong a word for the predicament of today’s American Christians.  In recent years, however, courts and bureaucracies have begun to restrict religious freedom to a degree that is “unprecedented” in American history, as the US Catholic bishops put it. Emblematic is the Obama Administration’s “HHS mandate.”  In Canada, Western Europe and Australasia, Christians have faced even sharper restrictions, ones redolent of nineteenth century settings of religious repression like France’s Third Republic or Germany during Bismarck’s kulturkampf.  The United States has not reached this condition, but the rationale behind recent years’ restrictions points in this direction.  Religious organizations risk “becom[ing] mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements,” as Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, CSC, explained Notre Dame’s lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services.

Moss is right that persecution is complex.  In the past century, as in the early church, Christian were not always killed strictly in odium fidei, out of hatred for their faith.  Archbishop Romero was murdered for speaking out against the Salvadoran government, Father Maximilian Kolbe, after changing places with a condemned prisoner at Auschwitz, and Father Pino Puglisi for raising his voice against the Sicilian mafia.  Martyrs are no less martyrs, though, for such indirectness.  As the Catholic Church recognizes more and more, history’s martyrs may well include those killed for a witness to peace and justice arising from their faith.

True, sometimes martyrdom is manipulated.  But let us not identify a phenomenon with its abuses.  Crowning the martyr icon is a vision of the martyrs in heaven with Jesus, atop a banner that reads “through the great tribulation.”  When martyrdom mimics the martyrdom of the Lord himself, it culminates not in the manipulation of victimhood but rather in a resurrection that overcomes victimhood and creates new possibilities.  The martyrs of the past century manifest this constructive path.  Their deaths have served to build ties between Christian churches, forge friendships between world religions, draw attention to injustices and witness to the power of self-emptying love and even forgiveness in the face of violence.  Moss acknowledges such possibilities but only briefly, in the penultimate paragraph of the book.  Just as she has little to say about today’s many martyrs, she has little to say about what the Church most wants us to notice about them: the renewal that God achieves through their sacrifice.

Unconvinced? Go take a look at the icon.

Daniel Philpott is an associate professor of political science and peace studies. He can be reached at jphilpot@nd.edu.

Filed in: Point Counterpoint

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  • John Hinshaw

    What a surprise. The very people engaging in persecution will write books to tell us the persecution is a myth. Feminsts desire nothing more than destruction of the Church and bend their coercive power toward it. Nothing more to say.

  • Anonymous

    John, what on earth makes you think she’s a feminist? Dan Philpott’s “response” has nothing to do with her book. She never says martyrs aren’t real. She says Christians aren’t constantly persecuted.

  • Nancy D.

    True, persecution is complex, and remaining Faithful in the midst of persecution makes one a martyr for one’s Faith. It is crucial to recognize that in order to understand the nature of persecution, one needs to begin at its very roots; in order to understand any type of ideology, one should always begin at the beginning.

    No doubt, sometimes you can sense that persecution is in your midst and not grasp the scope of the danger that lies ahead:

    http://www.presenttruthmag.com/archive/XIII/13-3.htm

  • Nancy D.

    I am hoping that someone who knows Father Hesburgh can give him a message as I spoke with him once before on this issue but I do not believe he understood what I was trying to say.

    The Catholic Church has always taught as revealed by Christ that Salvational Love is personal and relational, for it is through, with, and in Christ, in the unity of God’s Holy Spirit, that The Body of Christ exists. One cannot be autonomous and in communion simultaneously, because accepting costly Grace requires both Faith and Good Works. Christ Has Revealed through His Life, His Passion, and His Death On The Cross that Love Is desiring Salvation for one’s beloved. The Sacrifice of The Cross Is The Sacrifice of The Most Holy, ” For God so Loved us, He sent His Only Son…”

    May all of us find eternal rest in The Peace of Christ.

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