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Real Martyrs Don't Murder

In January 1996, I joined 60 Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders at a conference sponsored by Freedom House. The purpose of the meeting? To spotlight the persecution of Christians around the world and to call religious leaders to advocate for these believers' rights to practice their religion freely.

After several horrifying reports, moderator Charles Colson called for our comments. One response sticks in my memory. "We must remember," opined the prominent leader, "that we Christians in America are persecuted as well."

Colson cut him off: There was no moral equivalence between the marginalization of U.S. Christians by secularized institutions and the torture, imprisonment, and executions faced by Christian minorities elsewhere. Chuck was right—and would still be right today.

The early martyrs talked about battles, warfare, and victory, but all of their "combat language" was spiritualized as they peaceably emulated Jesus' sacrifice. That's not always the case today. New Year's Day 2011, a car bomb killed about 20 worshipers at a Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt. Despite Christian leaders' pleas that the violence should stop with these deaths, local Christians ransacked a mosque, burning its holy books.

Notre Dame University professor Candida Moss uses that anecdote to introduce her new book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (HarperOne). She believes that the "violent" response of Christians sprang from seeing themselves as a persecuted minority, a perspective that she believes grew out of a flawed understanding of church history. Moss wants to undermine the martyrdom "mythology" that feeds ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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Christianity Today
Real Martyrs Don't Murder
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July/August 2013

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