Moss and the Myth of Persecution

Moss and the Myth of Persecution October 4, 2013

Over at RBL, N. Clayton Croy has a candid review of Candida Moss’ book The Myth of Persecution which is quite critical with some justification (see also Ephraim Radner’s review at First Things).

Moss is right in many regards. Yes, there was a Christian hagiography about martyrs. The Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Acts of Paul and Thecla are not Discovery Channel documentaries. Yes, many conservative have a martyr complex and beat their breasts in rage when their social privileges come under threat. However, her treatment of the modern phenomena of persecution against Christians in the developing world was, to be frank, lacking nuance. Concerning the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria last year, she acknowledges that a tragedy took place and that it was a brutal act, but she jumps very quickly to saying that the Copts venerated the martyrs as part of a justification for their own retributive violence. Now what is the message to the reader here? Yes, it was a terrorist attack, yes innocent people died, but the main thing here is how Copts use those deaths to perpetuate a continuing spiral of violence. I didn’t detect a lot of empathy for the Copts from Moss, more of an indictment against them.

My concern is that, deliberately or not, Moss’ book is feeding into a narrative I have spasmodically come across in recent years in the media in the US, UK, and Australia. It runs like this: when Christians claim that they are persecuted, don’t necessarily believe them, and even if they are persecuted, don’t worry too much, they probably deserved it, and they tend to give as good as they get in any case. In fact, if memory serves me right, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Bart Ehrman say something along these lines at an SBL panel.

Now I have a problem when Christian open air campaigners yell apocalyptic platitudes at bystanders going about their daily business, annoy local shop owners by their antics, and then cry “persecution” when police ask them to move a spot that is less cluttered like a park. I don’t think that really counts as “persecution” if you ask me. But I have an equally big problem when western academics either deny or denigrate the suffering of religious minorities so that they can score points with liberal elites who have their own myth that all Christians are just a bunch of hyper-conservative economically privileged whingers.

I’ve taught Christians from persecuted churches in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, China, and Egypt. Persecution is no myth. These Christians, average men and women like you and I, have either seen or experienced some of the most unspeakable and inhumane evils one could mention. There is no myth here, only a cold and brutal evil that is faced by innocents.

Moss is obviously a religious academic superstar in the making. She did a great job on the Bill O’Reilly show giving his “Republican Jesus” a good going over. The Yanks will love her pommy accent. However, I can’t help but think that a few weeks visiting churches in Juba, Karachi, Alexandria, or Lebanon might give her some life experience to better inform her own career for a life in academics and the media. It’s one thing to write about the myth of persecution from the safety of a professorial chair with minions chanting for more tweets to bash the religious right; but it might be a harder myth to perpetuate after listening to a mother in Juba telling you what a Muslim mob did to her eighteen month year old son.

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