When Persecution Isn't, and What To Do About It

(While Moss does not discuss this issue, the Gospel of Mark does set up the followers of Jesus as potentially in danger and apt to be persecuted. If the dating of the text to roughly 70 C.E. is correct, does that mean this was in reaction to the situation under Nero? Conventional wisdom might indicate such, but I find it difficult to even accept that possibility given the new evidence.)

While all of this information is excellent, some of Prof. Moss' points later in the book are even more important. The stories of the Christian tradition being built "on the blood of the martyrs" is a shaky notion at best from a historical viewpoint. Yet it has been used to assert the "Truth" of the Christian faith: no one would show the kind of courage it takes to die a martyr's death if the undeniable "Truth" of the Christian Gospel were not true. It is, therefore, a kind of axiom that if one is persecuted for one's Christian faith, then that demonstrates how "right" one is and how "true" one's faith happens to be. In light of Moss' historical investigation, this is a completely untenable position. Why, then, can't the truth of Islam be claimed by the fact that various Muslim terrorists decide to blow themselves up on behalf of it? Double standards do not work in this case, or in any case where martyrdom is used as proof of a religion's veracity.

While there is much more of value in this book to explore and contemplate, it is this point that I think is the most important—not just for us as Pagans (and queer people!) to know in our dealings with Christians, but to know in our dealings with the rest of the world as well. Let me explain.

We are well aware that in the modern world, Pagans come under persecution on a regular basis. Pagans do get killed in other countries for being Pagan, and we have been attacked (including recently) in our own country for being Pagan. We lose our children in custody battles; we lose our jobs; we lose public accommodations; we lose friends and family who cannot tolerate our religious identities. Persecution is a daily reality for modern Pagans; and, oftentimes, prosecution also results from it.

I'm just now starting to emerge from a situation I endured at my workplace recently, where an ostensibly well-informed college department head in a supervisory role over me dismissed my religion as not "real" out of ignorance, and then harassed me over it on another occasion. Human resources and mediation seem to have resolved the situation for the present, for which I am very grateful; though my thanks extends mostly to my gods, who were steadfast supporters of me through my difficulties, and to my many Pagan friends, colleagues, and co-religionists who acted as my support and sounding boards throughout this process. But I was lucky; many other people are not.

One mistake, however, that never entered into my mind during this ordeal was the one that Moss cautions everyone to avoid: using the fact of persecution as self-evidence of one's correctness. Yes, I have no doubts that the polytheistic forms of Paganism that I practice are the only right spiritual path and religious identity for me at present. Likewise, I had no doubts whatsoever that under U.S. law, college policy, and simple questions of everyday morality and courtesy, my religious identity and my personhood did not deserve the treatment I received from my supervisor. What often steadied my resolve during this process was my firm commitment to justice—and not merely "justice" as an abstract, but Justice as the goddesses Iustitia and Dike and Themis and Ma'at.

By both secular laws of this land, institutional policies and regulations, and the standards of the gods that I follow, I was justified in pointing out these behaviors as errors and in seeking an appropriate resolution. But it never occurred to me to think, "Well, this just demonstrates how True and Good my religion is, because this evil and imperfect world hates what is True and Good." Yes, it is an imperfect world; yes, there are people who are malicious and ignorant and who bear hatred for others; and yes, in my own situation, I was coming up against ignorance as well as the deeply flawed character of the individual perpetrating this harassment. But none of this was evidence of anything other than that the individual concerned was ignorant and flawed.

Pagan readers of this column might respond with "Yes? so what?" And Christian readers of this column might agree. But if it had been a Christian in my position, the department head might have been immediately classified as a demon-haunted wretch that was the tool of Satan himself, and the hypothetical Christian (no matter how lax in faith or practice) could have ascended to the blessed ranks of God's Chosen in Eternal Bliss.

Do you see the difference?

The mere fact that modern Pagans exist and present an alternative to Christianity (whether or not our own practice of Paganism can include Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and others as respected beings within them or not), automatically marks us for many Christians. We are perceived not as their neighbors whom they are commanded to love, nor as "just other humans" who are striving to do what they understand to be right in a difficult and unforgiving world, but as Devil-breast-fed abominations. The martyr and persecution complexes of Christianity on an institutional level make this the default setting more often than many of us would prefer. The results of it are potentially deadly in a situation where Christian political, intellectual, legal, and religious hegemony is likewise more the default than the exception.

5/16/2013 4:00:00 AM