Does Persecution “Work”?


Amidst all the recent flurry of news regarding ISIS, the Islamic militant group, I had occasion to read an essay by Candida Moss, an historian of early Christianity at Notre Dame, at The Daily Beast website, which argued that ISIS brutal campaign of terror will undermine its cause.  In effect, she argues, persecution of this kind doesn’t “work.”  As she puts it, “making martyrs of one’s opponents never wins the battle for hearts and minds. It only intensifies opposition, polarizes the undecided, and provokes righteous and justified anger. The North African Church father Tertullian proclaimed that “the blood of the martyrs is seed” for the Church. His prediction turned out to be correct. Martyrdom breeds not fear and obedience, but more martyrs. The only contest that ISIS have a chance of winning is the race to be the most ignominious regime in history.”

I am pondering this because I am teaching a Tudor-Stuart history course this semester, and I am preparing a lecture on ideas of conscience and martyrdom for my class, and this is a topic I would like to include in my lecture.  Persecution is much in the news these days, largely because of ISIS, and I have tried to emphasize religion in my lectures so far this semester.

One wants to agree with Moss’s sentiments; certainly, a terrorist state like ISIS might be said to have violated modern canons of judgment on persecution—and by that I mean Machiavelli’s, who said when you take over a state you should get all of your killing over with right away, because if you keep having to do it that will ruin your reputation, and make you hated.  But on the whole I think the answer to the question of whether persecution works has to be more ambivalent than Moss allows for.  In the first place, I think it depends on what you mean by persecution, and what you mean by it “working.”  Persecution just means inflicting suffering, but then suffering is largely a matter of subjective definition, isn’t it?  Of course, we could limit it to the imposition of death or excessive violence, which is what Moss was talking about, but I don’t think that necessarily covers all we mean by the term.  But more importantly, what does it mean for it to “work”? I suppose part of what Moss means by this is that one can’t establish or prove one’s religion is the true faith via such means.  I think we would be on safer grounds there:  the persecution of the Donatists never settled the issue in North Africa, for example; only the Islamic conquests of the 7th century did that.  Certainly, the Roman persecution did not bring back the old religion, and it was swamped under by Christianity following Constantine’s conversion

But if this is the case, that one cannot establish one’s religion via violent persecution, I think a good argument can be made that it “works” in another sense.  That is to say, violent persecution may not establish the “true” faith as you see it, but it can destroy, or at least permanently marginalize, false ones.  One obvious case is the Albigensian Crusade, which destroyed a Manichean religion which had its own institutions, set beliefs, and many loyal followers.  It disappeared, never to return.  (Though, alas, its Manicheanism seems never to die for some reason.) Or take the Christian persecution of paganism following the edicts of Theodosius:  one might claim that it lingered on in the countryside, but it was effectively finished as an independent force.  Better still, take the case of Catholicism in England.  Catholicism survived, barely, into the eighteenth century, and eventually would flourish again thanks to the Emancipation laws of the 1820s, with a big assist from Irish immigration.  But as an institution with a prominent place in public life, it was effectively finished.  Perhaps better still, one should take seriously the reaction of the Christians to the conversion of Constantine.  Modern historians tend to pooh pooh the Diocletian persecution (including Moss, who made her name by writing book which essentially claimed that the idea that early Christians suffered extreme persecution a myth), but Christians at the time did not agree, and praised Constantine, who was a pretty ruthless, bloodthirsty figure, to the heavens (he is a saint in many Orthodox traditions) for having saved Christianity.  I seemed to recall having read somewhere that during the ten years or so of the Diocletian persecution there only a handful of martyrs were recorded in Palestine, indicating most must have sacrificed to the gods.  I think they better understood the precariousness of their position, perhaps, than we sometimes do today.

One might add other examples to that list as well.  I am thinking of former communist countries where religion was wiped out.  I know there is something of a resurgence in places like Russia, but I’m not convinced those places are necessarily hotbeds of faith.  And for my own time period, it might well have been the case the Mary Tudor’s persecution of Protestants might well have worked to eradicate Protestantism, had she lived as long as Elizabeth.  In any case, it might just be a bit optimistic to think that persecution can never work in any sense at all, comforting though it may be.  My own study of history leads me to  a more depressing conclusion:  though it can never “establish” anything, persecution combined with other forms of power, given time, can indeed work, at least in a destructive sense.  Alas!

Alypius Minor


~ by Alypius on March 8, 2015.

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