Martyrdom Complex

Candida Moss says Christians need to get over their martyr complex. Her new book, "The Myth of Martyrdom," identifies two significant problems with how we imagine Christian martyrs. The first involves our ancient past: simply, Christians did not suffer persistent (or even frequent) persecution from the Roman authorities. Many of the ancient Christian martyrdom accounts amount to pure fiction, and all of them have been embellished to address concerns from periods much later than the lives of their heroes. Second, our martyrdom legacy has led Christians to see ourselves as the righteous "us" against the demonic "them," fueling everything from combat against heresy to outright combat in the Crusades to FoxNews and the "War on Christmas." Moss writes so elegantly that you'll find people reading her book everywhere from libraries to beaches; it is that informative and entertaining.

Moss, already full Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame just five years past her Ph.D. (Yale), has earned her rank with two earlier academic studies of martyrdom accounts. Because I am providing a more traditional review of "Myth of Martyrdom" in another venue, my focus here lies with her account of how martyrdom shapes contemporary imagination.

Moss' historical case is essential for her cultural reflections. Historians have long known that early Christians wrote -- and wrote and wrote -- about martyrs, but evidence from outside the movement simply does not confirm this picture. Moss goes beyond this stark problem by providing detailed analysis of the Christian martyr stories. While some believe Christian martyrs were somehow unique, Moss shows how ancient martyrdom accounts imitated noble deaths in Greco-Roman and Jewish tradition. Moreover, she demonstrates that even our most reliable Christian accounts reveal their own ulterior motives: fighting heresies that emerged after the careers of the martyrs, supporting the orthodox hierarchy, and even promoting tourism, as Christianity rapidly developed a tourism industry involving the relics of the martyrs. Christian martyrdom narratives indeed celebrated faithful heroism, but they always fostered other agendas as well.

Unfortunately, the martyrdom myth serves contemporary agendas just as easily. Cultural conservatives decry the "War on Religion," while liberals protest a Republican "War on Women." Moss recalls attending a university Mass in which a bishop compared the example of the martyrs to the struggles of pro-life activists. Where does it end?

Moss writes, "The problem with using persecution as the template for the modern world is that is becomes prescriptive" (p. 251). In other words, we humans tend to reenact our sacred narratives. If we valorize martyrs, we tend to see ourselves in their role -- and we tend to see those who disagree with us as unbelievers, enemies, murderers, or even allies of the devil. We cannot hear legitimate criticism because our imaginations transform dissent into attack. We close off our ability to learn, to change, or even to empathize. "We cannot," Moss asserts, "use the mere fact that we feel persecuted as evidence that our cause is just or as the grounds for rhetorical or actual war" (p. 256).

One strength of Moss' book involves the unraveling of ancient Christian martyr accounts. With relentless logic, Moss shows how the fourth century historian Eusebius used the martyrdom of Polycarp, who died in the mid-second century, to condemn Montanism, a movement that flourished a full century later. Eusebius handles other martyrdom accounts in the same way. Moss shows how the relatively obscure "Martyrdom of Theodotus of Ancyra" explained the construction of a shrine in a small town of Malos and even promoted that little city's famous wine. Pilgrims still visit the site and purchase the wine.

Learning from such examples, we might take a very close look at how our political and media industries manufacture fear and resentment in our society. Some may not like it when a town removes the local Christmas display, and some may resent legislation that poses obstacles for girls needing reproductive health services. In either case, we might be wary of those who invent a "war on Christmas" or a "war against women" for their own political gain and at the cost of our civil discourse.