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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  • Guest

    But fuck the Pakistani children killed in a drone stroke, because they were probably Muslims right, so only worth, what, one tenth of a good Christian life?

    • Gordon Hackman

      This is a red herring and a distortion of anything actually said in the article.

      • Guest

        Sure, because the article itself isn’t loaded with red herrings and selective takes on contemporary political affairs. What is subtext, and how do I learn to recognize it?

      • Guest

        This whole article is a red herring. Demonstrating that Christians frequently “Cry Wolf” does not equate to ignoring Christian’s who do actually suffer from legitimate persecution.

        Spending time with this hypothetical mother in Juba would not magically make the history of false claims of persecution by Christians all of a sudden valid.

  • Fyne

    “Moss is obviously a religious academic superstar in the making.”

    Most liberal academics become superstars for reasons that have almost nothing to do with knowledge or thinking skills. So no real surprise there.

    “She did a great job on the Bill O’Reilly show giving his “Republican Jesus” a good going over.”

    What? Did you watch that show? That girl royally embarrassed herself.

    • Abe Rosenzweig

      Pretty sure she’s a grown woman, hoss.

      • Fyne

        Sorry. That grown woman royally embarrassed herself.

  • Mark Nieweg

    I can resonate with both Moss’ claims and yours, Michael. However, until us Christians once again start walking that path Jesus took to the cross, I don’t think the world (or the church for that matter) will ever hear Peter where he uses the name “Christian” appropriately in relation to the world’s mockery:

    Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul, and maintain good conduct among the non-Christians, so that though they now malign you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears. (I Peter 2:11,12 NET Bible)

    Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. (I Peter 2:18-23 NET Bible)

    I will be the first to admit I do not follow that hard road described by Peter. I need all the help I could possible get. But I find myself hard pressed to find fellow Christians even hinting that I should be faithful this way. In fact, they give me every excuse in the book not to. Actually they end mocking me for even suggesting this as faithfulness!

    As long my “Faith” has a pedigree like this that maintains itself to the present day, especially in the West, we are never going to have the result Peter says will be our reward, regardless of how unfair someone like Moss portrays it.

  • Interestingly enough, I note a similar phenomenon in France concerning racism.

    While racism against blacks and Arabs is (rightly) combated, racism against white people is completely ignored or explained away with arguments very similar to those used by Moss:

  • Jeff

    Documentation of persecution of Christians is needed from a credible source; for a journalistic treatment, see

  • hmmm

    “Republican Jesus”? I read the book and I saw no sign in it of any republican Jesus. Have YOU read the book? I didn’t particularly like the book, but, having read it I feel obliged to correct your characterization. I don’t know what precipitated the discussion between O’Reilly and Moss about assessing Jesus in light of free-market capitalism, but I’d guess it was touched on in some off-camera banter between them prior to the interview: it’s certainly not to be found in the book. I think O’Reilly should have called her out on that, frankly. It ended up being a red herring in their discussion. Oh, and by the way, O’Reilly is a registered independent, not a republican. He doesn’t tell us which way he votes more often so no one but him can say toward which side his sympathies run more frequently. I’d guess republican, but it’s just a guess. So far as the program goes, though, he challenges both sides equally. So, don’t buy the academic party line about O’Reilly’s stances: watch the program, and decide for yourself.