The Martyr Complex: “The Myth of Persecution” [Review]

I’ve spent the last week reading Candida Moss’ excellent book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom. This is not an oppositional tome, one designed to malign and denigrate Christians. Moss is herself a Christian, a Catholic who speaks about going to Mass in the book. She is also a professor of New Testament and Early Christian History at the University of Notre Dame. She attended Oxford and Yale. She is, to put it mildly, a good authority on the subject.

This book is a critical look at the history of the very early church and the role that martyrdom played in its development. Those of us raised in Christian households well know the myth she is discussing here. Christians thrown to the lions, hunted down by Roman authorities, the emperor Nero presiding over their deaths, their miracles, their declarations of faith, their triumph rise over centuries of persecution and the eventual victory brought about by Constantine’s conversion. I know that I was raised believing that Christians faced almost continual persecution in the first few hundred years after Christ’s death. This book shows just how wrong that is.

But beyond the historical look at what really happened back then (here’s a hint, about 12 years of actual persecution over a 300 year span), this book looks at what the myth of martyrdom actually does for Christians, both then and today.

Take for instance the great church historian Eusebius. I’ve read his Church History multiple times since I was a kid because it’s just great fun and some of it is really powerful stuff. A guy dying because he won’t give up his faith? That’s kind of badass, especially if you’ve been raised to look at martyrs as heroes. But Eusebius made a lot of that stuff up and he did it to make a point to his fellow Christians: don’t listen to heretics. Moss takes a look at how Eusebius manufactured words for the martyrs out of thin air in order to condemn the heresies of his time. He used the martyrs’ authority to denounce his enemies. As strategies go, it’s pretty slick. As honesty and truth and history go, not a great thing.

Eusebius and other hagiographers created martyrs that never existed and used the ones that did exist to further their own agendas. That is one of the myths of the martyrs. But the more important myth is the martyr complex that Christians still have today and the power it gives them.

“Martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful as a way of casting themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others. When disagreement is viewed as persecution, then these innocent sufferers must fight – rhetorically and literally – to defend themselves. In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict – even entirely nonviolent conflict – is not just a difference of opinion; it is religious persecution.”

The fact is that Christians are not a minority group anymore. In fact, they are one of the most powerful groups in the world and one of the ways they keep their power is by casting themselves as victims of religious persecution. This persecution can take many forms: war on Christmas, war on Christians, Muslims in the White House, abortion, birth control, health care reform, media bias, atheists, secularism, Hollywood, government, the list is lengthy and ever growing. In fact, anyone and anything that disagrees with Christians or they don’t like is lumped into the classification of persecution.

And Christians turn it into power. In America, we see this with the religious right in particular. They turn people’s persecution complex into votes. Politicians make people feel like they are being persecuted and then say, “We have to defend ourselves” so that those people will vote for them. It is one of the biggest cons in history and it started way back, even before Eusebius.

Moss takes a good hard look at this persecution myth and dismantles it. History and truth do the job for her. As she goes through the fact, the conclusion becomes very clear: this is all a big power play. And nothing good comes out of it.I won’t spoil the ending, but this is what Moss says towards the end of the book:

“This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about disagreement and is not about dialogue. The response to being ‘under attack’ and ‘persecuted’ is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy way, the same thing happens: we have to fight those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground. This isn’t just because one’s persecutors act in the stead of evil. It is because persecution is, by definition, unjust. It is not about disagreement; it is about an irrational and unjustified hatred. Why would you even try to reason with those who are persecuting you?”

This martyr complex is not limited to Christianity, though that religion is the subject of this particular book. You can see this in politics and religion, between political partisans and among Christians, Muslims and Jews. What this book does, in my estimation, is blow the lid on a complex being used to give people power. Understand how it works and you will be less likely to fall for it.


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