A Coptic Christian Reads Candida Moss’ “Myth of Persecution”

Candida Moss (University of Notre Dame) created a bit of furor with her book The Myth of Persecution– see my earlier blog post here – where she claimed that many persecution stories, both ancient and modern, were entirely fictive. Moss’ concern is principally the martyr complex and martyr rhetoric of the political right in the USA. However, her book really cheesed off people who took her to mean that she was down playing or denying the real persecution of Christians around the world. In this sense, I think Moss (a professing Catholic) has been misunderstood, although I also think that some of her narrations were easy prey to misinterpretation and gave a potentially poor impression about the persecuted. In an interview with the Daily Mail about her book, Moss said:

‘I completely sympathize with [my critics’] concern that in writing a book like this maybe I will make people less interested in persecution that is happening around the world,” she said.

‘I do care. I think we should care about those who are oppressed. I don’t think misusing the category here in America draws attention to persecution around the world. I think it cannibalizes those experiences. It steals their thunder.’

A good summary of Moss’ views can also be found her in Irish Rover piece about How We Speak About Persecution, where she comments:

 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 [inter]national affairs, but at the same time it demonstrates the extent to which the rhetoric has trumped reality.

These remarks assuaged some of my earlier feelings about the book. That said, I thought it would be interesting to get a Coptic Christian to review the book, since Moss uses the persecution of Copts in the introduction as an example of the fictionalization and rhetoric surrounding persecution. Through a Ridley student (Dave Burt) I have received a review by a Coptic Christian woman named Jacqueline who offers below a response to Moss’ book.

Reading just the introduction to this books I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the author. I believe that the author has not accounted for the change in what we define as a martyr in today’s western society.

Let me start with why I agree with Moss. She brings in Christian Persecution in the political sphere of England and America. They use strong emotive words like ‘holy war’ and ‘crusades’ to identify their own political agendas to the long suffering years of Christians. To me these people aren’t fighting for their right to believe in something, therefore they cannot be truly persecuted or become modern martyrs. In fact they seem to me to be the ones doing part of the persecuting. Therefore I think the basis of Moss’ belief that we are not always as persecuted as we make ourselves to be is true in the literary and political spheres of our Western secular society. I, personally, have never found myself a victim of malicious talk or action in Australia just because I’m Christian.

This brings me to why I disagree with Moss. After I finished high school I went to live with my family in Cairo, Egypt for almost a year. I can tell you straight up that being a Christian there was much different than being a Christian back in Melbourne. In Egypt I really did feel like the minority. Although Muslims and Christians lived peacefully side-by-side on a daily basis, there were times when it could be difficult. Even buying a plain cabbage could cost my grandmother double the price to her than if it was sold to her Islamic counterpart. This difference shows the true persecution of Christians, not the rhetorical speech making of American politicians.

In everyday life, Coptic’s, find themselves put down because of their faith in Christ. I will never forget the day my Grandmother went to bible study at church. For some reason the study went overtime that night and a bomb went off, hidden under a car, right outside the church doors. If the women had come outside that night on time, my grandmother may not have lived past that day.

Moss argues that our responses to the church bombing in Alexandria doesn’t seem like we turned the other cheek, Copts protested and martyred the victims. Yet most Egyptian Coptic’s and I would not go so far as to say that we became militarized as Moss suggests and almost insults the pain of losing our brothers and sisters in Christ. Coptics did not pick up weapons or bomb a mosque or kill other Muslims, we did turn the other cheek, and Coptic’s did not retaliate in kind. Instead, I believe, they stood up for themselves, their beliefs and faith; they had to make themselves heard. If an Australian Church found themselves shut down by the government just for being Christian, do we not have a right to stand up and say no, that’s not ok?

The death of Jesus is what Moss says inspired many to become Martyrs. And Martyrs used as models for our society. This is unusual because, as I believe a history lecturer once told me, Jesus started a radical movement. A shift of ideals that didn’t mesh well with Roman society or what the Jews expected. Compounded in the ultimate unjust death. Perhaps like Moss says when Christ said to take up their crosses the early church took it as the unambiguous call to martyrdom, maybe. But to the early church the point was not to die as Jesus did but to spread his Gospel, which is the true unambiguous call that Jesus repeated many times. They died because they spread the gospel, not died so that they could spread the gospel. Even death can be used by God to further his kingdom.

Martyrdom is still a powerful tool God uses to encourage us to keep faith and other people to turn to God. It has been very important to Copts to hold onto and turn to the stories of the Martyrs, because it is from history, in which we learn and grow. The bible itself is a historical text from which we can come to know God and Christ. To Copts, remembering those that suffered and or died can bring determination and strength for their faith. It isn’t just about good vs. evil, and I don’t believe that its fiction, these are real people who died horrible deaths, experienced awful violence because they would not stand down, there was something much bigger at stake, and that is their faith in Christ.

I think it’s easy to say the Coptic’s have over exaggerated their history of persecution without understanding why we still hold on to our martyrs and feelings of persecution. At one point Egypt became a Christian country when St. Mark came to Egypt and spread the Gospel. They were first persecuted and killed by the Romans and then were conquered by the Arabs. We remember many of these stories because to us it is important to remember the past, where we come from and we use it to understand why the world is the way it is.

Coptic’s don’t like to forget what they have been through; even today we tattoo ourselves with small crosses to remind us always why people have needlessly died. What can be more important then having faith in Christ, in knowing that he has made us right with God and prepared a place for us in his kingdom? As a Christian is that not the ultimate goal, and yes in Egypt the struggle is physically violent when compared to Australia. Our history defines as a people and Martyrs remind us that nothing stands in the way of Christ.

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  • Max

    Ms Jacqueline recounted a story of her grandmother being exorbitantly charged when buying cabbage, and she wrote “This difference shows the true persecution of Christian”

    Could I reframe it as simple discrimination instead?

    A fire bomb was tossed into a church a while back (I live in Malaysia). The church leaders call it an act of vandalism. The press called it arson. The police came in to investigate, and the political leaders offer monetary compensation to the church, although they did not have to. The culprits were caught and prosecuted.

    Did the same due process happen when the bomb went off in her Grandmother’s church?

    • kraz

      At the risk of getting into semantics, if people discriminate against you because they don’t want you in their society, how is that different from persecution?

      • Max

        If someone accuses me of not employing women in senior management positions, would you consider my hiring practices discriminatory or persecutory?

        I would leave the use of the word “persecution” for cases where there could be systemic violence happening to the victim.

        All I want to know is whether Ms Jacqueline experience is anecdotal or whether it is pervasive.

        • Dave Burt

          Hi Max,

          From my understanding of the Coptic situation (which is only second hand, and via conversations with Jacqui) I wouldn’t expect that kind of due process. The cabbage example I understand to represent a fairly pervasive phenomenon, though she would admit that not all Muslims take part. Churches apparently can’t be built or repaired within a certain distance of existing mosques, for another example. But the cabbage story describes the kind of pervasive discrimination that you get in day to day life.

          You’re right the cabbage is probably “discriminatory” rather than “persecutory” (indeed this seems to be Moss’ main thrust).

          But I would say real persecution is in clear evidence in that country in a number of ways more sinister than thieving greengrocers. Muslim groups are regularly and seemingly easily incited to various kinds of violence (including bombings, shootings, riots) against Christians, and the new government seems more supportive of that kind of thing even than the previous regime. Indeed if you look at the news reports relating to the incident Moss brought up, you’ll see a clearer picture than the one Moss herself presents.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Hey, I think you got the title of Moss’ book wrong in your first sentence.

    Delete this comment, if you will.