Beneath our feet, oft forgotten, rest the remains of millions of people. Their memories, thoughts, feelings, desires, and passions have been extinguished by the cruel equalizer we call death. Far crueler is the sobering reality that so many are there because of believing something, and standing for what they believe, even unto death. For those who chose to give up their life, rather than to give up their faith and conviction, especially while following the way of peace and nonviolence, I have my utmost in awe. For our generation, it’s hard to give up a few dollars to feed the poor, much less our life. We know little of sacrifice, infinitely less than those who paid the price in blood.
The story behind religious persecution
Within Christianity, this sense of awe for the martyrs is especially strong, and historically martyrs in the Christian faith were esteemed higher than any other individuals. In my own background and tradition, this “testing of faith” is often accepted as evidence to the veracity and authenticity of an individual. In some cases, the same way modern academics can say “I spent five years at Princeton Divinity School” as evidence of their authority, many former martyrs can say “I spent five years in prison for being a pastor.” In both cases the sacrifice is worthy of respect and admiration, though the trials of the gulag could never compare to the luxury of Princeton.
Persecution is not something new to this last century, but rather an issue throughout all of Christian history. (It is also predominant in the writings and experiences of most other religions as well).
Modern Christianity remembers it’s birth in antiquity as one that was formed out of blood and persecution. Tertullian, a 3rd century church father, famously wrote that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” (1) Though truly some Christian scholars are not convinced, and there is an ongoing debate with some scholars saying that many records of martyrs are mythological-like writings that venerate the saint and do not really coincide with accurate historic records. (2) Whatever the case may be, and it’s probably somewhere in between both polar opposite: there was some level of persecution, in some places, at some time in the early church. And in this persecution a very strange idea was born.
The “Confessors” and the “Lapsi”
During the 3rd century (250-251CE) a short and abrupt wave of persecution (initiated by a new emperor, and lasting only a year) spread over the Empire and specifically the region of Carthage. Some Christians were brought into the courts and commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods, once they had done this, they would receive a certificate affirming this and excusing them from any further inquiry. Christians who refused to sacrifice to the emperor were not killed (as most modern readers will assume), but rather imprisoned for a short time, beat, and then released back home.
These Christians responded to persecution in different ways. Some bore the penalty and were tortured, afterward being set free. These later were known as the “confessors” for they confessed their faith. Other Christians responded by trying to escape the persecution, and they were called the “Lapsi,” which is Latin for “lapsed.” Some of these actually sacrificed to the Emperor, while others bribed officials to obtain the certificate without committing the deed. Some gave up their scriptures and the names of fellow believers, others simply made up lies to save the lives without sacrificing.
We know this because Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage, defined different forms of church punishment for all of the above types of “Lapsi” offenses. (3) Cyprian wanted to refuse many Lapsi readmission into the church, however, some of the more liberal and forgiving “Confessors,” began writing out intercessory certificates to the Lapsi, that permitted their readmission into the Church. (4) Bishop Cyprian, opposed these letters, even while esteeming the Confessors who wrote them, and eventually declared that some of the Lapsi could be readmitted on their deathbed, or if they seek out persecution and prove themselves ‘worthy’ through their own suffering. For quite some time, Cyprian and the more liberal confessors were at odds.
History shows that within the Christian tradition being persecuted bestowed on a survivor a vast amount of veneration, honor, and authority. Even to the point where surviving a persecution in the 3rd century gave regular laypersons the “power” to install people into the church, that the leading Bishop of the area did not permit.
Is persecution a sign of truth?
Now comes the hard question, is staying firm in persecution ample cause for a Christian to have some kind of authority? Are the words and teachings of a “tested by fire” Christian more meaningful or worthy of respect than those from a nerdy scholar that has never been “baptized in blood”? Throughout Christian history, starting with the times of Cyprian, many have emphatically said “yes!”
I understand the sentiment, after all “these people have been tested in their convictions” while the young scholar, head buried in a book, has not. This is especially meaningful in my own background where certain people are considered “spiritual fathers” because of their suffering on account of their beliefs. I have often met with people who tell me all the Biblical scholarship in the world is irrelevant, and instead we ought to listen and obey those who were imprisoned or beaten for their faith.
While I deeply appreciate the emotional connection to martyrs of the past, I believe anyone interested in seeking the truth must reject martyrdom as the best or only litmus test of authority. Simply put, an immense plethora of people have chosen to be beaten or killed rather than giving up their religious ideas. If we give authority to the ideas of those who were faithful enough to die for what they believe, we will have a cesspool of wildly different ideas that we hold as authority. While Christians are often first to talk about persecution, they are not alone. Below are some examples:
1. Persecution of the Jews, in every age ever
- The first stories of Martyrdom for faith come from the era of Early Antiquity, during the Hellenization of the Near East. As the Greek culture swamped over the small tribes, cities, and kingdoms, including Jerusalem, the Jews refused to submit to this new influence. Some chose to be martyred primarily over the issue of…. not eating pork. (5) So should we avoid pork on the authority of these martyrs?
- Jews in every era of history. Quite frankly, the Jewish people are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. They have been victims of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Atheist regimes. Whether it was Hitler, or Stalin, or the Pope, history has always shown the majority rule leaders persecuting the Jews.
2. Persecution of Non-Christians in the Roman Empire
- By about 324 CE Constantine was the ruler of the Roman empire, and Christianity became the dominant religion. Since that time, it was the pagans, Jews, and other religions who were persecuted by the Catholic Roman Empire. Constantine permitted the looting of pagan temples, while emperors after him initiated “Anti-Pagan Laws” which included heavy fines and the confiscation of property and later the killing of pagan priests. (7) Those more interested can survey the wikipedia page, and examine close to 90 academic sources documenting this. (8)
- After more than two hundred years of Christian’s being persecuted, the tide turned, and it was the Christians who were doing the persecuting. There are many people who were executed by the Christian Roman Empire for having a different faith than Christianity. This includes a few very prominent figures such as Anatolius (9), Acindynus (10), and Hypatia (11).
3. Persecution of Buddhists
- In what’s called the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, which occurred in ancient China, the Emperor instigated a new set of laws that destroyed Buddhist property, robbed monks of their livelihood, and forcibly shut down the operation of most Buddhist places of worship. Some 260,000 monks were defrocked and many were exiled from China. (13, 14)
- Probably, in part, because Buddhism is pacifist proponents of this religion have been persecuted by almost every other group around them. For example the Sassanids, Sunga Pusyamitra, Hepthalites, Emperor Wuzong of Tang, King Langdarma of Tibet, Oirat Mongols, Imperial Japan, Myanmar, Republic of China under Kuomintang, Christians of South Korea, Christians of Sri Lanka, Christians of Vietnam, Hindus of India, Hindus of Nepal, Muslims of Afghanistan, Muslims of Bangladesh, Muslims of India, Muslims of Myanmar, Muslims of Thailand, Communists of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Communists of China, Communists of Tibet, Communists of Mongolia, Communists of North Korea, Communists of Soviet Union, Communists of Vietnam (15)
4. Persecution of Muslims throughout history
- Many today view Muslims as “violent terrorists” who, ironically enough to this discussion, choose death via suicide bombing (that certainly seems as though they has such powerful beliefs that they are willing to die for them, no?) Yet, the reality is that the Muslim world is as diverse as the Christian one and filled with more than those seen at violent street protests. Many of these moderate Muslims truly do see themselves as persecuted, both historically (16), and today as well (17, 18, 19). From a western perspective, there actually might be more to this than we are willing to admit, there are certainly large piles of bodies of Muslim men, women, and children that we have to account for. (20)
- Muslims killed during the Crusades: The Pope commanded the Christian forces to “destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends” and those that fought the Muslims stated this “Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.” (21) Certainly warriors killing each other is not persecution and hostilities were heavy on both sides, however, killing defenseless women and children, because the pope had called them “heathens” fits as persecution.
- Muslims persecuted in the USSR: The Soviet union started out with a hostile view towards religion and monarchy, as the two were connected in the subjugation of the commoner. Much has been said about the Soviet persecution of Christians, yet Muslim suffering in the same context is always ignored. Besides the usual imprisonments, gulags, and relocation, the Soviets also shut down most mosques. Their number “decreased from 25,000 in 1917 to 500 in the 1970s,” only 2% of the original number. (22) For an interesting documentary on this issue, see the documentary: The Soviets and Islam (23)
- Muslim minority groups: Further complicating this Muslim issue, there are a vast number of sects and varieties in Islam, and many or most of the smaller ones have experienced persecution from other Muslims, or from local non Islamic nations. These included massacres and discrimination of the Ahmadis, Ajlafs, Arzals, Alawites, Mutazilites, Shi’a, Sunni Madhabs, Takfiris, Wahhabis (24, 25)
5. Persecution of Sikhs
- I doubt most of my readers have even heard of the Sikhs, members of a small religion in India and Pakistan, yet this small group has suffered numerous massacres and persecutions. In 1746 about 7,000 were massacred for their faith (26), in 1762 about 30,000 Sikhs were massacred (27), in 1919 British forces killed 1,000 Sikhs (28), in 1984 rioters dragged about 8,000 Sikhs from their homes and burned, lynched, or stabbed them to death (29). These killings were followed by smaller, more recent persecutions of Sikhs (30, 31, 32, 33)
6. Persecution of Baha’i
- Another small religion that most people are in the West aren’t even aware of is often riddled with persecution. Since the revolution in Iran about 202 followers of the Baha’i faith have been killed. (34) While in Iraq, many Bahai “churches” are burnt and followers are killed (35) Other forms of persecution include forbidding the Bahai to have access to higher education, destruction of their holy sites, Soviet-like removal of freedom of speech, beatings and so forth.
7. Persecution of atheists in religious countries
- In the Christian West and in Islam, atheism has long been a derogatory word. However, besides simply emotional discrimination, atheism has been punished by death in many places, even within the last few hundred years. Consider Giulio Cesare Vanini, a priest who was imprisoned and executed by a Christian court for leaning towards atheism. (36) Or else Kazimierz Łyszczyńsk, a polish nobleman and philosopher who was sentenced to death by a Christian court for his atheistic views. (37) Even the French Poet Etienne Dolet was killed for being a “lapsed atheist” after scrutiny by local theologians. (38)
- There are currently seven countries (all Islamic) that have a death sentence for atheists and readily kill them for their religious views. (39) Fortunately the US is nicer, and only about six states have laws preventing atheists from holding public office or even testifying in court, but at least we don’t kill them.(40) Well, perhaps not true, but at least we only kill atheists on rare occasions (41, 42) and we are more humane than Australians who chop up atheists (43). Of course, most of the time when American “Christians” threaten to kill atheists, its okay, because it’s only on Facebook. (44)
- Surveys in Brazil show that 17% of the population repulsively hates atheists, 25% feels antipathy, and 29% are indifferent towards them. (45) Ironically Brazil is a country that is 91% Christian (46), so it appears as though almost half of these “Christians” who believe in “love your enemy” actually hate atheists? Yikes
These lists could go on forever, there are so many more depressing and sad historic facts, but quite frankly, I’m emotionally drained at looking how people treat each other. Researching this has made me more tired than anything in a long time. God, I sincerely wish we could just get along.
The goal of this historical exercise was not to discredit the very real suffering by countless earnest and genuine Christians, nor to “twist” everything upside down. Rather, it is to show that Christians are not alone in suffering religious oppression. The way to truth does not involve laying out the dead and conducting a body count; the answer is not “whoever has the most bodies is right.” Objective truth is not is not something based on experience, truth just is true, regardless of what the person speaking it has experienced.
Furthermore, because every religious group or idea, on some scale, has experienced persecution and its adherents have died for it, we should not treat martyrdom or persecution as evidence for authority, nor consider educated intellectual pursuit as an antithesis to “true knowledge from personal testing.” Everyone believes something and made have been willing to die, or even live, for that thing, and I respect their convictions for it, but I cannot take that as authoritative truth, for then I would be constantly switching religions.