Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Curious Belief that it's a Good Thing to Die: Some Examples

One day in 185 C.E., a large group of Christians appeared at the house of Arrius Antoninus, Roman proconsul in Asia Minor, and demanded that he order their execution.  It seems he obliged as to a few of them, but told the rest of them to go home, noting that if they wanted to die there were available to them plenty of cliffs from which they could hurl themselves and rope by which they could hang themselves, without his assistance.

We learn of this remarkable incident from Tertullian (Quintus Semptimius Florens Tertullianus), a great Latin Christian apologist of the time, who noted it in correspondence to another Roman official written in defense of Christianity and urging against persecution of Christians.  Tertullian was a lawyer and, sadly, it's not unusual for lawyers to use almost any argument in making a case.  Here, it seems he was arguing something to the effect that "we Christians want you to kill us, so threatening to kill us or otherwise harm us won't do you any good."

Had I been a Roman official of the time, I wouldn't have found this argument very persuasive, except in establishing that Christians were annoying lunatics (which is it seems is how Antoninus thought of them and how he treated them).  This presumably wasn't Tertullian's intent.  The fact that Tertullian cited this event in his petition to a Roman official, however, indicates at the least that it wasn't a story made up by the opponents of Christianity to ridicule it.  Tertullian seemingly takes pride in it.

I don't want to enter into the debate regarding the extent to which imperial Rome persecuted Christians, although the subject is fascinating.  What I've read on that topic leads me to believe that most historians think that reports of the deaths of Christians resulting from Roman persecution are greatly exaggerated, like that of the death of Mark Twain.  For those interested, I'd recommend The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss.

Nonetheless, assuming Tertullian was noting an event that actually occurred, I find it interesting that it took place and find its use in an argument against persecution even more interesting.  Two questions arise:  (1) why did the Christians confront a Roman magistrate and demand that he have them killed? and (2) why did Tertullian believe their example noteworthy in arguing Christians posed no threat to imperial authority?

As it would seem clear that Roman provincial authorities didn't hesitate to execute those they considered dangerous (except Roman citizens who could appeal to the Emperor and would in that case be sent to Rome), it must be assumed that the Christians were quite aware Arrius Antoninus would execute them if he was so inclined.  So they must have known their execution was a real possibility if not a probability.  There's no real likelihood they expected he would not execute them.  They must have anticipated he would have them killed.

Their demand that he have them executed can only mean that they wanted to be executed.  They wanted to die at his hands.  They hoped he would have them killed.  According to Tertullian, Antoninus addressed them as "unhappy" or "miserable" men in dismissing them; he clearly thought them to be unfortunates, misguided or demented for desiring death, and wouldn't cooperate in their execution.  He must have annoyed them greatly when he chose to ignore their unusual demand and sent them away. 

The fact they sought out the proconsul and clamored for their deaths means they weren't content to await execution or patiently wait to be persecuted. It's not that they were willing to die for their faith if the Romans came and took them and demanded they give it up.  That didn't happen.  They were too impatient for that; they wanted to die so badly they tried to make the proconsul kill them.

It's difficult, then, to consider these particular Christians martyrs as that word is normally understood.   It's also difficult to think them noble for dying for their faith, or an idea, because they wouldn't abandon it or denounce it.  Someone who demands that they be killed isn't admirable to most people.  As Christianity became more widespread in the Empire and it became common for Christians to hold imperial positions, it seems the orthodox Church came to find such examples of zealotry embarrassing, and the insistence on death as indicative of heresy.

Unless these seekers of death are considered wholly demented, it must be assumed that they demanded to be killed because being killed, dying and perhaps just being dead in itself was good, proper, desirable in some sense, for them at least.  Perhaps they thought that they were literally better off dead.  Perhaps they thought they would be rewarded after death.  Perhaps they thought that by dying at the hands of Roman authorities they would become like Jesus.  Perhaps they thought God wanted them to die.

As for Tertullian, I think we can only assume he thought that referencing this incident would somehow act to convince a Roman official that Christians should not be persecuted.  Why he thought this is a mystery to me.  I think it's doubtful he thought this incident would persuade the official that Christians were noble or heroic and so should not be persecuted.  Although ancient pagans certainly recognized and honored heroic deaths, demanding death in this instance would likely be considered incomprehensible by them.  I also think it's doubtful he thought this example would convince the official that Christians were harmless, or good, peaceful, subjects of the Empire.  The official might fear he would be hounded by Christians demanding that he kill them, in fact, regardless of whether they were persecuted.  So, I think we must infer that Tertullian was telling the official that persecuting Christians would have no effect.  "We have no fear of death."

These considerations are useful in these far too interesting times, as we're confronted by others who seek death, apparently for similar (that is to say, only, religious) reasons.  Those who seek death now, however, don't merely seek to kill themselves or have others kill them--they want to kill others.  Indeed, it seems they consider killing others the primary reason for killing themselves.

So, the ancient Christian death seekers were clearly different from those Muslim death seekers who kill themselves now intending to kill others as well.  There's a difference between wanting to be killed and wanting to kill others while killing oneself.

But it would seem that in each case it's believed that dying is good, and that God wants us to die in a particular way or will reward us if we do so.  And these are dangerous thoughts indeed.  Once we think God wants us or others to die, or that it's good that we or others die, we not only accept but seek death; our death or the death of others, or both.  Worse, we think we should kill.  Death becomes a moral imperative.

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