Why Persecute?

Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it. If the religious authority opposes it, the law will be seen as illegitimate, and the ruler will face unrest or opposition in attempting to enforce it. If the religious authority legitimates the law, then compliance with the law will be greater and the law will be enforced at a much lower cost for the ruler. Rulers therefore have a good reason to want legitimacy. Because religious authorities were the most powerful source of legitimacy in the premodern period, it was natural for rulers to rely on religious legitimacy.

Rulers can bargain with religious authorities to obtain legitimacy. One way to do this is to enforce religious conformity. This provides a natural framework for studying religious persecutions.

One insight is that persecutions are necessarily political. The justification for persecution can vary. Secular authorities will persecution in terms of secular arguments. Religious authorities may persecute on religious or doctrinal grounds. But structurally these persecutions will resemble one another.

A second key argument is that some form of religious repression was the default in the premodern world but outright persecution was, in fact, quite rare. The default level of religious repression we characterize as a state of conditional toleration. Religious differences were usually tolerated, but only conditionally. Outright persecution was quite rare. But the threat of persecution played an important role in enforcing religious conformity, restricting dissent and providing states with legitimacy.

How general is our account? Is this story only applicable to Western Europe? Or to monotheistic societies? Can it explain the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome or the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan? And what distinguishes religious persecutions from other persecutions?


To address these concerns, consider the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Historians such as Candida Moss downplay these persecutions (here). Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age — reviewed positively in the New York Times —for example, writes:

“The idea, therefore, of a line of satanically inspired emperors, panting for the blood of the faithful is another Christian myth. As the modern historian Keith Hopkins wrote, ‘the traditional question: “Why were the Christians persecuted?” with all its implications of unjust repression and eventual triumph, should be re-phrased: “Why were the Christians persecuted so little and so late?”

Nixey correctly cautions the reader not to view Christian accounts of the death of martyrs as historical accounts. But her argument is a larger one. To her mind, the persecution of Christians was not a religious persecution. Commenting on the Roman governor Pliny’s decision to persecute some Christians, she writes:

“Pliny’s problem with all of this is not religious. He is not upset because Jupiter has been neglected, or Hera has been slighted: he is upset because the citizens of his province are becoming disgruntled by the Christians’ behaviour . . .”

“. . . Even the locals who were forcing Pliny’s hand might not have been complaining about Christians for religious reasons either: it has been speculated that what was really upsetting them was not theology but butchery. Local tradesmen were angry because this surge of Christian sentiment had led to a drop in the sales of sacrificial meat and their profits were suffering: anti-Christian sentiment caused less by Satan than by a slow trade in sausage-meat.”

Because Christians were punished as pests and social deviants, rather than for reasons conventionally identified as religious, Dixey suggests this was a simple matter of“law and order”. If anything her sympathies appear to be with the Roman governor responsible for prosecuting Christians:

“What should Pliny do with these odd people? Trajan’s reply is brief and to the point. He doesn’t get into theological or legal debates about the legal status of Christianity (to the disappointment of later scholars); nor does he (thus confounding the martyrdom tropes) fulminate against the Christians. He does agree with Pliny that those who are proved to be Christian ‘must be punished’ — though for precisely what charge is unclear. He also adds that ‘in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be’. Roman emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs. They had absolutely no wish to open windows into men’s souls or to control what went on there. That would be a Christian innovation.”

This hardly not exculpates the Romans or implies the persecution of Christians was a myth. Nixey is correct that the Roman authorities were unconcerned with what Christians believed. But she is wrong to suppose that this is the defining characteristic of religious persecution. And the urge to downplay the persecution of Christians suggests other anachronistic instincts are at work. After all, no-one denies that Christians were killed, often horrifically, in the Roman persecutions (for a critical review of Moss’s book, on which Nixey relies, see here).

Theologians were, of course, concerned with wrong beliefs. But the reason why religious dissent became a major concern to both secular and religious authorities in medieval Europe was precisely due to the threat heresy posed to the established social and political order.


Consider another example from medieval Europe. Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium explains the threat heretical movements posed to political order. Focusing on the most revolutionary millennium sects — movements that envisioned the last days as at hand, and took action to herald their coming — Cohn’s text vividly captures both the appeal as well as the radicalism and violence of these movements. Describing the manifesto of the “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”, Cohn writes:

“the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners . . . To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred.”

Such beliefs were a threat to all established authority. Church authorities were naturally concerned with monitoring belief and practice. But heresy also posed a potent threat to secular authority.

Of course, many people in medieval society had incorrect and unorthodox religious beliefs. What principally concerned the Church was not ignorance but heresy: obstinately holding beliefs that directly contradicted Church teachings.

Heresy was feared because it was a source of disorder. Religious dissent had the potential to unleash revolutionary violence and social chaos. This was one reason why Martin Luther recanted his earlier support for religious liberty during the Peasant Revolt.

Arguments for enforcing religious conformity went deeper than the fear of revolutionary violence. Such was the importance of the Church to the social and political order that all challenges to Church authority were perceived as threats to society.


Consider the doctrine of apostolic poverty — which emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as the Commercial Revolution was transforming the European economy increasing urbanization, trade, wealth, inequality and also poverty. Shocked by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, adherents to this doctrine aspired to the simple poverty of Christ’s followers. They lived without property or money and they were critical of the wealth accumulated by the Church.

The fact that the Church was wealthy did not, of course, imply that Churchmen were not devout or dedicated. The problem was, however, that the Church was also a political institution. Many bishoprics were the preserve of the nobility who would jostle to ensure that their younger sons became influential churchmen. These prelates were expected to be the equal of the secular nobles, to entertain lavishly, and to dress splendidly. Taken too far, therefore, apostolic poverty threatened the legitimacy of the Church and its relationship with secular authority.

Through mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Church could accommodate these demands and concerns. But groups who directly attacked the legitimacy of the Papacy itself, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans could not be tolerated. The leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, Angelo da Clareno denied that Pope John XXII was pope, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Church. Precisely because of the threat they posed to the church and state alliance — and not because of their theological beliefs, which were unremarkable — the Spiritual Franciscans had to be repressed.

Were the concerns of the Roman Emperors so different from those of medieval rulers and churchmen? Religion was not a private affair in antiquity. It had political consequences; it mattered for the fate of the Empire. The first Empire-wide persecution of Christians occurred under Decius (r. 249–251). Decius’s response to the political crisis facing the Empire — invasions from both Persia and the Goths — was a revival of the state religion and the imperial cult.

Claiming that Roman persecutions of Christianity were not religious but political, as Moss and Nixey do, is misleading; all persecutions are political. Because it began as a persecuted cult, Christianity as a religion contained many potent arguments against religious persecution. For these reasons, it was probably less predisposed to persecution than many other religions. Nevertheless, the fact that the medieval Church eventually came to persecute dissent points to deep, structural, political economy factors that made religious freedom impossible. It this these factors that are the subject matter of Persecution & Toleration.

Nightcap

  1. Free speech for me but not for thee Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  2. Religious freedom in the Islamic world Daniel Philpott, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. Religious and other freedoms James Robinson, Cato Unbound
  4. Why we need analytical Marxism Chris Dillow Stumbling & Mumbling

Nightcap

  1. How to pay for the Green New Deal Simon Wren-Lewis, mainlymacro
  2. Racism in an elevator Alison Bowles, Policy of Truth
  3. The fitful march of religious liberty Johnson & Koyama, Cato Unbound
  4. The why of religious freedom Ethan Blevins, NOL

Merry Liberty Christmas!

Christmas, as I hope everybody (at least in the West) still knows is Jesus’ birthday. I don’t want to spend too much time here talking about how it is very unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, and how this date was probably just chosen at some point in the late Ancient times/Early Medieval times to Christianize European pagans. The Bible never specifies when Jesus was born (although it does offer some hints), and so, some very devout Christians over history (Puritans, for example) thought that we should not even celebrate Christmas. The gospel according to John doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ birth. In it, Jesus simply appears as a grown man. The same thing happens in Mark’s gospel. Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus’ birth, with Luke being more detailed. So, ½ of our gospels don’t seem to be very interested in Jesus’ life before he was about 30 years old. Someone has said (and I think somewhat appropriately) that the gospels are accounts of Jesus passion (his death and resurrection) with long introductions.

But anyways! I don’t think that celebrating Christmas is bad, not at all! I believe it is a good occasion to remember Jesus, the founder of Western civilization. May we like it or not, the West is profoundly linked to Christianity. Christianism begin as little more than a small and persecuted Jewish sect, but eventually became the main religion in Europe (and northern Africa, and the Near East), and from there to the World. Some might say (and I think that sadly they might be right) that today Europe lives in a post-Christian era, but we should not forget that someday in the past to be European and to be Christian were basically synonyms. And I also believe that we, professing Christians or not, should be thankful to Christianity in a number of ways. I am very convinced that it was thanks to Christianity, especially after the Reformation, that we have many of the things that we, as liberty-lovers, are thankful for, such as science, capitalism and lots of individual liberty.

Of course, from the human perspective, the link between Christianism and West is merely accidental. I myself, as a Brazilian, am not sure if I classify as a Westerner. Maybe I am from the far West? It is very clear that for many decades now Christianism is moving to the global south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and I hope not to be forgetting anyone. And I think that is just beautiful! I don’t believe that there is one essential Christian culture. Instead, I believe that culture is an essential human phenomenon and that Christianism can give a new birth to cultures, just as it does to individuals, bringing forward what they have best and leaving behind the bad stuff.

Sadly, the very places where Christianism is growing the most today are usually also the places where Christians suffer more persecution. Although we tend to connect the first few centuries of Christianism with martyrdom, with people being crucified, thrown to the beasts and the like, the fact is that the 20th century had more martyrs than any other century before. It is also sad for me that most people, including Christians and liberty-lovers, tend to ignore this. In the last few weeks, I heard of at least two churches being closed in China, with all members being taken to jail. I wish that people who care about freedom paid more attention to this. I also wish that people who care about Human Rights did the same. Some people are worried about gay couples not getting wedding cakes from Christian bakers, but they don’t seem to have the same concern about Chinese Christians being thrown in jail just because they are Christians.

Speaking of which, I want to be very honest and say that Marxism (or post-Marxism, or cultural Marxism) can easily become a religion. Marx is a prophet, The Capital is a holy book, the proletariat (or any oppressed minority, for the modern left) is both Messiah and holy people, a future communist utopia is Heaven. I believe that it was a Catholic apologist who said that “the problem with not believing in God is that we start to believe in any dumb thing – including in ourselves”. The problem with Marxism as a religion is the same problem I see with every other religion apart from Biblical Christianity: it is performance driven. It is about what you do. And as so, it can create a slippery slope in your heart. You become self-righteous and judgmental (in a bad way) of people outside your faith-group or even people inside your faith-group who you consider not holy enough. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this either, but I believe we have the right medicine for this.

As much as I believe that the New Left is one of the greatest problems in the West today and that several forms of totalitarianism are one of the main problems elsewhere, I don’t believe that libertarianism or conservatism are in themselves the solution. I became a libertarian (or a conservative-libertarian) because I am first a Christian. My first question was “what the Bible has to say about politics and economics”? I believe that somewhere in the libertarian camp we have the best answer for that. I believe the Bible teaches that very small and simple governments and market freedom are the answer. However, I would say that this is just partly the answer.

The way that I see it, the conflict between the left and the right is very much a conflict between Rousseau and Locke, or a conflict between two kinds of freedom. For Rousseau, you are only free when you are your true inner self. If necessary, the community can make an intervention to force you to become who you truly are. For Locke, you are free when you can make your own choices, regardless if they look good for others. As libertarians like to say, a crime without a victim is not a crime.

I believe this is also a basic conflict between modern western culture and more tradition culture – the conflict between collectivism and individualism. My answer as a Christian (and a libertarian) is that we should not force people to be Christians. That would, at best, produce external conformity – which is actually really bad. My understanding is that, as long as they are not predictably and willfully hurting others, people should be let free to do whatever they want. And I do mean whatever. On the other hand, I don’t think that this is good – or as good as it can be. Ironically, I believe that Rousseau is onto something important: you are only truly free when you are who you are really supposed to be.

One great irony or paradox in Christianism is that you are only truly free when you are a slave to God. Understanding 1st-century slavery helps to get the analogy better. God bought us for a price. We belong to him. However, God is not satisfied with having us as slaves. Instead, he adopts us as sons. That is the (I believe) famous parable of the prodigal son: a son abandons his father and loses all his money. He comes back hoping to become a slave in his father’s house. His father takes him back as a son. So, Jesus gives us a new identity as sons of God. And I do mean sons, and not sons and daughters or children. In the 1st century daughters had no inheritance, but in Christ, we all share of it. So that is our true identity if we walk after Christ. And that is when we are truly free.

I don’t want to force anybody to be Christian. I believe that one of the greatest mistakes in Christian history was exactly that: to force people to become Christian. As I said, religion can easily create a slippery slope in the heart, and Christianism is not necessarily an exception. But while other religions are about what we do, Christianism in its essence has at least the potential to be what has been done for us. And that is truly humbling. And I believe this has important political implications: we pray for all. We hope for the best. We trust in God. We respect others.

So Merry Christmas to all! I hope that this is a time for remembering the birthday boy, and what he did, especially on the cross. And that we can all work for a world freer, where people can become Christians – if they choose so.

Islamophobia!

Thousands of Islamists have pressured the Pakistani government to keep in jail a woman who was just acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Two European countries have offered to take her in.

Her lawyer has fled the country in fear for his life.

She was acquitted of blasphemy. Yes, speaking ill of the Prophet… or something. In Pakistan, they kill you for this.

The woman is a frail mother of several in her fifties. She is a landless agricultural worker by trade. She is a Christian in a country that is 98% Muslim.

If she did anything resembling blasphemy, she should be released for reason of insanity anyway. How could such a person so provoke her bloodthirsty neighbors and not be mad?

The silence of “moderate Muslims” on this case is making me deaf.

Yes, much of Western public opinion is Islamophobic. Perhaps the spectacle of thousands of bearded adult males demanding that a slight woman who has been declared not guilty of this grotesque “crime” be hanged, perhaps, it does not help.

RCH: Religion in the USSR

That’s the topic of my weekend column at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

4. Buddhism was also outlawed and persecuted to the fullest extent of the Soviet law. Buddhism was practiced by a few different non-Russian ethnic groups in central Asia, and these small ethnic groups were given more leniency than most, but Buddhism came to be viewed by the Soviet intelligentsia as extremely dangerous, due to the fact that many left-leaning scholars abandoned socialism for Buddhist principles. The work of Andrei Znamenski, a historian of religion and ideology at the University of Memphis, is particularly useful for finding out why this happened.

Please, read the rest. Dr Znamenski, of course, blogs here on occasion, but I do wish he’d do so more often…

Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.