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The Law in Its Majestic Equality…

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I’m quite willing to be skeptical of the construction of martyrdom in the early Christian Church, but this seems rather the wrong approach:

This is not to deny that some Christians were executed in horrible ways under conditions we’d consider grotesquely unjust. But it’s important, Moss explains, to distinguish between “persecution” and “prosecution.” The Romans had no desire to support a prison population, so capital punishment was common for many seemingly minor offenses; you could be sentenced to be beaten to death for writing a slanderous song. Moss distinguishes between those cases in which Christians were prosecuted simply for being Christians and those in which they were condemned for engaging in what the Romans considered subversive or treasonous activity. Given the “everyday ideals and social structures” the Romans regarded as essential to the empire, such transgressions might include publicly denying the divine status of the emperor, rejecting military service or refusing to accept the authority of a court. In one of her most fascinating chapters, Moss tries to explain how baffling and annoying the Romans (for whom “pacifism didn’t exist as a concept”) found the Christians — when the Romans thought about them at all.

Christians wound up in Roman courts for any number of reasons, but when they got there, they were prone to announcing, as a believer named Liberian once did, “that he cannot be respectful to the emperor, that he can be respectful only to Christ.” Moss compares this to “modern defendants who say that they will not recognize the authority of the court or of the government, but recognize only the authority of God. For modern Americans, as for ancient Romans, this sounds either sinister or vaguely insane.” It didn’t help that early Christians developed a passion for martyrdom. Suffering demonstrated both the piety of the martyr and the authenticity of the religion itself, and besides, it earned you an immediate, first-class seat in heaven.

Indeed; I can’t at all imagine why a religious minority would think itself persecuted when its members are beaten to death for refusing to consent to the rites of the state-sponsored faith, and rejecting conscription in service of that faith. The best point here seems to be that Christians were persecuted for reasons related to state power and social control rather than the specifics of their faith, although the tension between the pacifist commitment of the early church and the nature of the Roman state make even that questionable. In a state which fused religious and political authority, however, the distinction is nearly irrelevant. Finally, while it’s not unreasonable to note the inconsistency of Roman persecution, we should interpret this in context of the pre-modern state, which generally lacked the capacity to make and maintain long-term, long range bureaucratic commitments.

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