Martyrdom means giving one’s life for adherence to a cause, most especially for adherence to one’s religious faith. Historically it has not uncommonly been a consequence of religious persecution. Christians did indeed suffer periods of severe persecution in the first three centuries, and many gave their lives. But contrary to what Candida Moss terms “the martyrdom myth,” this persecution was neither constant nor everywhere during this period (pace Justin, Tertullian and Eusebius of Caesarea). In fact, in the latter part of the third century, Christians enjoyed over 40 years of peace. Remarking about their situation in this period, Moss writes:
They may have been disliked, but they were again able to climb the social ladder, accumulate wealth, build churches, and assemble in full view of everyone. Once again, Christians weren’t hiding in catacombs; they were out in the open.
But it also remains true, as she states, that “the dislike of Christians was fairly widespread, and some Christians were in fact put to death by Romans merely for being Christians.”
Moss addresses the underlying question, “Why did the Romans dislike Christians?” She points to the connection between persecution of Christians and the need of the empire for political and environmental stability. The society presumed “an intimate connection between the gods, the success of the Roman Empire, and the social order.” Christian refusal to participate in the imperial cult was seen as subversive. Moss notes: “Even though religion was everywhere, there was an understanding that what we would now call religious sensibilities should not interfere with political duties or social order.”
If in fact the first three centuries of this era did not constitute a period of unremitting persecution, it is necessary to consider the roots of this common portrayal of it. Not surprisingly, Moss turns to the works of Eusebius of Caesarea. She writes: “Eusebius uses the history of the martyrs as a means of drawing battle lines for the established church orthodoxy against heresy.” In so doing, Eusebius “lays the groundwork for a dangerous idea: that those who disagree with us are the same as those who persecute us and that even in periods of peace the church is always under attack.”
A problem with the Eusebius approach is that it paints an “us and them” picture: the party of God versus the party of Satan. Moss points out that as heirs to the early church, some Christians today “continue to use the claimed experience of persecution to justify our attacks on others and legitimize our opinions.” Those who are attacked need to defend themselves. This positions Christians as fighters. Our author identifies this stance as “the dangerous legacy of the martyrdom complex.” In an excellent summary paragraph she writes:
This, then, is the problem with defining oneself as part of a persecuted group. Persecution is not about dialogue. The response to being “under attack” and “persecuted” is to fight and resist. You cannot collaborate with someone who is persecuting you for any logical reason. You have to defend yourself. When modern political and religious debates morph into rhetorical holy war, the same thing happens: we have to fight those who disagree with us. There can be no compromise and no common ground. It is because persecution is, by definition, unjust. It is not about disagreement; it is about an irrational and unjustified hatred. Why would you even try to reason with those who are persecuting you?
What then is her suggestion? The Christian ought ask: “How would the church look different if we put aside the idea that we are, by definition, persecuted?” Moss points out that in the political and religious areas, doing so would enable us to move from polarized positions to common ground. Martyrs like Justin and Tertullian demonstrate how to seek such common ground with their attackers. Abandoning polemic may “force us to empathize with the economic, political, and social realities that engender real violence against Christians.” The point is to embrace the martyrs’ virtues and not the false history in which so many of their stories are couched.