I've just finished reading a very interesting book that has made me take a fresh look at my personal philosophy as an individual Pagan, and one general trend in the Pagan community that isn't good for any of us.
Funny thing is, the book isn't about Pagans. It's about Christian martyrs.
In The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, author Candida Moss takes aim at the treasured stories of pitiful Christians being fed to the lions for Roman entertainment and (not surprisingly) finds more fiction than fact in the earliest martyrdom tales. Roman historical records show a few periods of persecution of Christians (none more than three decades back-to-back), but nothing like the portrait painted in Sunday School classes ... namely, that in those early times, anyone who dared worship Jesus was putting his or her neck in the noose.
The one thing that early Christians did do was coin the term "martyr." It has Latin roots as a legal term. But in terms of dying for their beliefs ... Christians sure weren't the first ones to do that.
I was always skeptical of the whole "Christians in the arena" thing, even back in my Sunday School days. The Romans were highly successful at wiping out perceived political opponents. If Rome had felt threatened by Peter and Paul and their followers, there would indeed have been a systematic round-up and extermination of the sect. Dr. Moss's book notes two cases where Roman authorities wiped out religious leaders wholesale. One was the cult of Bacchus in 186 C.E. The other, lasting longer but almost as completely ... the Druids.
There wouldn't be much point in writing a book that sets a historical record straight and stops there. The bigger point is how a myth of persecution warps a praise and worship team, making it view the world in the most stark black-and-white terms. Either you're one of us, or you want to destroy us. No wiggle room. And it is this feeling that the world wants to destroy them (and by the world, they mean the world as run by the Devil) that has inclined Christians to admire martyrs and, in some cases, to become martyrs themselves.
There are important lessons to take from The Myth of Persecution. One is that it is important to understand the difference between a perceived threat and a really dangerous situation. I stand accused that I have sometimes pictured a world where radical Christians try to wipe out Wiccans. This is not consistent with the world we live in today. The vast majority of modern Christians are tolerant of Pagan faiths, as the majority of polytheist Romans were generally tolerant of early Christians. It is our responsibility as sensible people to keep Pagan thought from veering into hyperbolic "they're out to burn us" thinking.
And the ball is in our court, folks. I don't think it is necessary for us to forget and bury those who were persecuted and killed for witchcraft. But it is important for us not to define ourselves by that history. The "New" part of "New Age" gives us the opportunity to look for wrong turns made by the major faith paths, in order to avoid the kind of thinking and behavior that leads to dogmatic dysfunction.
The story of the first 400 years of the Christian religion, as examined in books like The Myth of Persecution stand as a good cautionary tale for how not to construct a world religion. Sectarian infighting, undisciplined discourse, paranoia, and an establishment of orthodoxy -- all of these are pitfalls that Pagans can identify and avoid before the ball of victimhood gets rolling.
Dr. Moss wrote The Myth of Persecution to take the Religious Right to task for their claim that they are being persecuted in today's society the way their martyred Christian forebears were in Rome. The deeper message comes through to practitioners of Pagan faiths: Don't buy into the martyrdom complex. It's dramatic, exciting, even romantic -- but it doesn't mature into a healthy praise and worship practice.
Books like The Myth of Persecution show us how perfectly good furniture gets ruinously stained for all the wrong, infuriatingly human reasons. So my Equinox/Eostre/Alban Eiler challenge to you is this. Light a candle and pray a blessing upon all the good and true people who worship the busy god. They mean us no harm. To believe otherwise is to set our religions on a path to the same kind of orthodoxy we're so determined to escape.