My colleague Lauren Markoe the other day interviewed Candida Moss, author of an interesting and controversial new book, “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented A Story of Martyrdom.” Integral to her thesis is that not only was persecution in the early church overblown — a debatable point, to be sure — but that too many modern Christians use that historical template to cry “persecution” at every slight, real or imagined.
Evidence for such overrreactions abound, and a recent example of this persecution myth — related to the Boston Marathon bombing — has now been debunked, and the record deserves to be set straight.
The genesis of this episode was an April 25 column in the Wall Street Journal by Jennifer Graham, who noted in the midst of the turmoil and explosions of that grisly day, Boston police turned away two priests who wanted to minister to victims because they were trying to clear the area to allow emergency medical personnel and to prevent casualties from other possible bombs.
Graham even invoked the image of 8-year-old victim Martin Richard to drive her point home:
“(I)t is a poignant irony that Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died on Boylston Street, was a Catholic who had received his first Communion just last year. As Martin lay dying, priests were only yards away, beyond the police tape, unable to reach him to administer last rites—a sacrament that, to Catholics, bears enormous significance.”
This episode, in Graham’s reading, was evidence of a sad cultural shift against Catholic priests and the welcome that faith once enjoyed. Her column actually didn’t have much evidence of that, and the quotations from priests and others were far more nuanced and balanced when taken together.
But credulous persecution fans of course ran with the story, spreading it across social media and amping it along the way so that, as Phil Lawler put it, clergy were “barred” by police “hostile to priests” in a move that augured a return to the bad old days where “Catholics Need Not Apply” signs were posted everywhere.
At First Things, John M. Grondelski saw “another prejudice at work here: the relentless quest to sanitize anything public of any religious presence.”
Yeah, well. The whole spin of this as evidence of a rampant anti-Christian bias never seemed to square with the more parsimonious explanation that amid a chaotic seen of carnage and panicked people and uncertainty over whether there were more bombs waiting to explode, the authorities at the scene just wanted to get control of the situation, get medical attention to those who could be helped, and wanted to prevent more casualties.
The priests cited in the original WSJ story indicated as much, but now an article in that notorious left-wing rag, the Boston Pilot, a.k.a. the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, debunks the whole persecution meme that ran wild through certain precincts of the hyper-suspcious right:
“The twist that this story has taken in some places just doesn’t reflect my experience on that day at all,” sad Father Tom Carzon, director of seminarians for the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.
The Pilot said Carzon called them after seeing how his experience was twisted:
Father Carzon said he felt that media reports portraying a conflict between priests and police as a general reality in Boston mischaracterized the situation, and said he understood the police turning people back, including clergy, in light of potential danger closer to the finish line.
“They were trying to keep safe a very unstable, chaotic area. Even the police who were there on the perimeter, they had no idea what was behind them. All they knew was that they needed to clear out the area, and they had no idea how much they themselves were standing in harm’s way,” Father Carzon said.
Carzon noted how the clergy worked with police to allow provision for pastoral care, which seemed quite efficacious.
The article also cited another Oblate, Father John Wykes, who did express a wish to be treated as a first responder but he also praised police:
“I take my hat off to the police for doing such a wonderful and thorough job on that day, and all the next days as well actually, in trying to secure the area and also in terms of this horrible manhunt, which included the horrifying exchange of gunfire and throwing of explosives,” he said.
“I certainly admire their work, but I look forward to working with them as an emergency responder if at all possible,” Father Wykes said.
The article also quote Boston Police Department spokesperson — which none of the other reports did — saying that officers on the scene were ordered to protect bystanders, including priests, and were following an order given at the time to allow no more people into the area because of the potential of additional explosions.
That seems like the obvious answer. But as they say at the tabloids, some stories are too good to check out — best to go with what you prefer to believe.
Hence the furor over “anti-Catholic” officials in Miami trying to close a soup kitchen run by Mother Teresa’s order — or not — or anger over the liberal media conspiracy to “blackout” coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial — or not — or the scandal of Obama’s Pentagon hunting down Christians in the military to court-martial them if they talk about their faith — or not.
Yes, villains come in handy, and we all like to have ready made bogeymen who can make every complex situation a matter of simple persecution. But crying wolf doesn’t really help the cause, and it diverts attention from cases of genuine oppression and suffering.