The Christian Persecution Complex

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I've recently read, and commented on, a piece written by my Patheos Pagan Portal colleague K. C. Hulsman, "Christ is NOT the Reason for the Season." While I would dispute a few of her details, on the whole it's a good article, and apart from those details, it's entirely factual to state that late December (the old date of Winter Solstice, in fact) being chosen as an arbitrary date for the otherwise unknown and uncertain birth of Jesus, and the appropriation of many non-Christian associations of the way the holiday is celebrated by Christians over the centuries, is something which Christians who insist that there is a factual element to their observances don't realize, and can't seem to get through their heads.

Of course, there are exceptions to this statement amongst some Christians, but we don't hear about them very much, with the pseudo-news forces of Fox and the like both complaining about those who say "Happy Holidays" rather than expressing a greeting specific to their preferred holiday, while also saying that those businesses that do wish people their preferred holiday greeting are "just doing it for the money." But, I leave that set of problems aside for the moment.

In reading and responding to the comments on K.C.'s piece, I've realized something.The in-built "persecution complex" that Christians have, and still resort to, whenever anyone raises an alternative religious viewpoint to their own is something that our spiritual ancestors—the Greek, Roman, and other Pagans and polytheists of Europe and the ancient Mediterranean world—inadvertently created.But perhaps I'd better back up a bit first.

The early Christians were a minority within a minority—a radical, reforming Jewish sect that was a small part of the overall Jewish population. With people like Saul of Tarsus, they began spreading their teachings to a wider group of people, the Gentiles—which is to say, "the Nations," meaning anyone who wasn't Jewish. When the Gentiles started taking to these teachings, they ran into difficulty with the civil authorities of the time. Despite Jesus' teaching about "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," and the Imperial Cultus being a functioning reality during his lifetime, this teaching was interpreted in various other ways that did not include actually respecting Roman civil custom.

Of course, it is somewhat problematic to talk about "Roman civil custom" outside of "Roman religious practice," because there was little difference or distinction between them. In our post-"separation of church and state" era, we think of the Senate of a country as a law-making body, not as a religious authority, which is what it was in ancient Rome. Taxes were levied, roads were built, wars were declared, and many other functions of what we would consider civil society, were all carried out by the Senate in the name of various different deities who oversaw these functions. The Senate was, in essence, a kind of priestly body that took care of these matters of public welfare on behalf of the people and in the service of the gods.

So, when some Christians refused to do their civil duty to the Roman Emperor, and honor the Numen Augusti by a token sacrifice for the Emperor's health (which the Jewish authorities during Jesus' lifetime had agreed to do, while they still had a temple in Jerusalem!), the Romans had a serious problem with that, not because of what it meant about the Christian's belief, but because refusing to act "in good faith" in that manner suggested that the Christians were political revolutionaries dangerous to society. When Rome burned during the principate of Nero, Christians were blamed for the fire; and, while that blame-placing may not be true, it probably is true that many Christians stood by and did nothing, rather than helping out with the fire brigades that tried to fight the fire—why would they work to preserve anything of "this world" when their founding figure/deity promised that the world would be ending and they'd be in paradise soon enough? It probably didn't endear any Romans to the Christians to see them standing in otherworldly indifference to the destruction around them in favor of a concept of "salvation" that was not this-worldly, as that concept had been in the majority of Greek and Roman society.

To this day, Christians "believe" that their early spiritual ancestors were persecuted for their "beliefs," not for their actions and their lack of practice and participation in the things of the state. The Romans and Greeks didn't care what the Christians' beliefs were, they just wanted them to participate in a token fashion in their rituals of state. Even the Christian writings on the early martyrs have the Roman and Greek civil authorities pleading with the Christians to "just do this," and giving them repeated chances to mend their unpatriotic ways, but the Christians continually refused because of their beliefs. No incident from history more sharply draws the distinction between religions of creed like Christianity and religions of practice like most forms of polytheism than this. And, the Christians were willing to die in various ways for what, ultimately, amounts to the equivalent of not standing with one's hand over one's heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.(Ironic, isn't it, how many Christians in the U.S. are insistent that everyone do that now, even when some of their number, like Jehovah's Witnesses, do not believe in doing so?)

12/16/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    About P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender and a founding member of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist religious group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and other related gods and divine figures). E is a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a Celtic Reconstructionist pagan in the filidecht and gentlidecht traditions. Follow Lupus' work on the Aedicula Antinoi blog.