Radical Islam currently has a near monopoly on religious violence in the Near East. But the violence itself goes back much further. My friend Nancy Kerr comes by to read Syriac and Greek with me once a week, and we have been working our way through the account of the Martyrs of Karkha d’Beth Selokh. The account covers events from the third to the fifth centuries AD; and, with one exception, the oppressors are Persian. The victims are Syriac-speaking Christians in what is now northern Iraq.
The persecuting religion was the established, state-sponsored form of Zoroastrianism—called, in Syriac, Maghushutha. And, then as now, politics were mixed up in the whole. Christianity was, after all, the state religion of the neighboring Romans, with whom the Persians were locked in a long-term imperial contest—one that ultimately left both sides exhausted and made them easy prey for the Arab armies who would bring Islam to the area in the seventh century.
Ironically, many of the Christians killed in these persecutions belonged to groups that were persecuted in the Roman realm as well for their theological positions. Another grim irony is that the ancient city of Karkha is modern Kirkuk, where their Christian descendants are now threatened by a new brand of the same violence.
It’s important to say that the Near East has no monopoly on religious violence. Nor do Moslems, even if Islam is particularly in the news at present. Modern Zoroastrians have no apparent hankering after state-supported violence. But plenty of other religious people do, including some Christians, who ought to have learned better from Jesus, and even, here and there, some Buddhists.
Contemporary atheists sometimes imagine that if humanity could only get rid of religion, it could resolve the problem of mass violence. Not likely. For one thing, religion, even if it waxes and wanes in different societies and periods, shows no signs of going away. For another, the great modern atheisms of Nazism and Communism have been the bloodiest persecutors of recent history, far outpacing anything radical Islam has yet done.
Nazism and Soviet Communism were as much faith-systems as any religion, with the same capacity to manipulate human emotions for nefarious purposes. Does this absolve religion? By no means. But it demonstrates that you don’t get rid of the human capacity for evil by getting rid of religion—even if you could.
The concluding passage of our Syriac document lays out horrible scenes that transpired over a few dreadful summer days in the fifth century: Christians were marched in from all over the province. They came in procession, the cross at their head, singing hymns. Their clergy were slaughtered first, then the rest—thousands of people.
The officer in charge was one Tahmyazdegerd, himself a priest of Maghushutha. One of his first victims, the bishop of Kirkuk predicted that he would one day stand in the same place as his victims. And after days of unending bloodshed, that is exactly what happened. A woman had just arrived, with her two sons, and insisted on joining the number of the martyred. He tried to dissuade her and, failing, ordered her and her older son beheaded. After they were killed, the younger son, a toddler, fell wailing on their bodies, and refused to be taken away or comforted. Tahmyazdegerd finally ordered him killed too.
Then, according to the narrative, he saw the heavens opened and all the people he had slaughtered mounting up to the throne of God. He immediately declared himself a Christian and was subsequently tortured and executed by the king.
The skeptic will think, “Yes, the brutality was eventually too much for him.” The less skeptical will at least think that the faith of the Christians, who went to their deaths singing rather than let the government violate their inmost being, made a deep impression on him. Even the reader most deeply in tune with the writer may be troubled to hear that God waited so long to provide the revelation.
There is no simple unraveling of religion and violence here. In real human history, there is seldom an easy way to disentangle all our complex social modalities. You cannot blame all the evil on a single world region or culture or religion—or on religion as such. Religious people have been great peace-makers as well as horrible agents of destruction. In this case, the Christians fought violence by refusing to become entangled in it.
I do not mean to suggest that that is the only possible Christian response. Martyrdom is not the only way of maintaining human dignity in the face of such evils. But it is one way—probably the only one available to the Christians of that place and time. And its power became manifest. Tahmyazdegerd eventually recognized that, to remain a human being, he himself had to become one of the oppressed instead of their oppressor.