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Circumcellions & Islamic Martyrs:
Lessons in Terrorism

May 15, 2018
by William P. Meyers

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Circumcellion Christians Provide a Warning

I don't worry as much about Islamic terrorists as I do about American Evangelical Christians. It would be different if I were in the Middle East, but I'm not there. I am living in the U.S.A.

So far evangelicals have not acted as crazy as the most extreme Sunni sects have, but that is not because they have a better religion. Christians have a long history of both murdering non-Christians and fighting among themselves. I think it is worth examining what distinguishes those who use religion as a pretext for fighting, including the inhuman form of fighting that is properly labeled terrorism. I will add, and hope you already know, that most Christians, evangelical or not, and most Muslims, are mostly peaceful. Here I will focus on those who are not peaceful.

As I have already hinted, Christians have a pretty bad record of fighting and terrorism, but not all history is equally helpful to study. Humans are complex and societies are complex. Two countries, each dominated by a different religion, might fight for reasons having nothing to do with religion, just like two counties professing the same religion might go to war with each other.

Consider Circumcellions. They were among the losers in the Christian civil wars that killed million of people after "Saint" Constantine, a bloodthirsty monster, decided to favor the Christian religion. He also determined what was orthodox and what was heretical, which often came down to a hairs-breadth difference between two imaginary theological opinions. This happened roughly in the fourth century A.D.

Allow me to quote Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at some length [Modern Library edition, volume 1, pages 720-722]. This is mostly taking place in North Africa, which was Christian before it became Muslim. The Donatists were an allegedly heretical sect, of which the Circumcellions were a subsect.

"Driven from their native villages, the Donatist peasants assembled in formidable gangs on the edge of the Gaetulian desert, and readily exchanged the habits of labour for a life of idleness and rapine, which was consecrated by the name of religion, and faintly condemned by the doctors of the sect. The leaders of the Circumcellions assumed the title of captains of the saints; their principal weapon, as they were indifferently provided with swords and spears, was a huge and weighty club, which they termed an Israelite, and the well-know sound of "Praise be to God! which they used as their cry of war, diffused consternation over the unarmed provinces of Africa. At first their depredations were colored by the plea of necessity, but they soon exceeded the measure of sustenance, indulged without control their intemperance and avarice, burnt the villages which they had pillaged, and reigned licentious tyrants of the open country. ... as the Circumcellions pretended to restore the primitive equality of mankind, and to reform the abuses of civil society, they opened a secure asylum for the slaves and debtors who flocked in crowds to their holy standard ... they engaged, and sometimes defeated, the troops of the province . . . In the beginning of the present century [18th] the example of the Circumcellions has been renewed in the persecution, the boldness, the crimes and the enthusiasm of the Camisards."

So far it sounds like an ordinary peasant rebellion with religious overtones. But it gets weird:

"Such disorders are the natural effects of religious tyranny; but the rage of the Donatists was inflamed by a frenzy of a very extraordinary kind; and which, if it really prevailed among them in so extravagant a degree, cannot surely be paralleled in any country of in any age. Many of these fanatics were possessed with the horror of life, and the desire of martyrdom; and they deemed it of little moment by what means, or by what hands, they perished, if their conduct was sanctified by the intention of devoting themselves to the glory of the true faith, and the hope of eternal happiness. Sometimes they rudely disturbed the festivals, and profaned the temples of Paganism, with the design of exciting the most zealous of the idolaters to revenge the insulted honor of their gods. . . . When they were disappointed of every other resource, they announced the day on which, in the presence of their friends and brethren, they should cast themselves headlong from some lofty rock."

What within Christianity allowed this behavior? I can see the refusing to be a peasant or a slave part, and the New Testament does say to drop what you are doing and follow Jesus. I think the problem is saying that there is a Heaven, and all you have to do to get their quickly is die a martyr. Most of the time people's natural fear of dying, and suspicion that Pie in the Sky is a con, keeps the suicides to a minimum. But when people are desperate, and form a mob psychology, whole groups may imitate each other.

And so back to Islamic terrorism and American evangelicals. Islam, like Christianity, promises instant Paradise to those who die for it. Throw in some injustice, making a young man feel like his cause is just, and some indoctrination, making it seem like it is an honor to be a suicide bomber, and no other hope in life, and the surprise is there are so few recruits, not so many.

Evangelicals in America are mostly well-off materially, but they may not feel that way. It is one thing to be a sore winner, it is another to lose your home and job and end up homeless. It would only take a fanatical leader or two to start the carnage if the American economy gets bad enough.

Evangelicals can't stand anyone not pretending to be in their fairy tale. They want to force their ways on everyone else. It is not much of a leap to murder and mayhem in the name of Jesus.

Nor do I think atheists and agnostics are entirely immune to fanaticism leading to inhumane behavior. One needs only look at one atheist Trinity: Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. They were power-hungry men who used the promise of an earthy paradise to persuade their communist followers to massacre everyone who did not agree with them, to form the Soviet Union. But the Reds did not seek out martyrdom.

There is a difference between a soldier who takes a risk and a person hell-bent on being a martyr. Contrasting the Taliban with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda illustrates this point. Or think of an American war movie from the World War II era. Men asked to go on "suicide missions" went, following orders. But the idea was not to commit suicide, it was to kill the enemy, and the hope was some of the men would survive. That is very different than walking into a place of worship dressed in a suicide vest.

Having had some moments perilously close to fanaticism when I was younger, I simply urge everyone to consider that you might be wrong. There may not be a posse of virgins waiting to meet you if you die fighting for Jesus or Allah. You teacher or mentor might be full of dung. And there might be a path out of your misery that does not involve taking other people's lives.

On the other hand, I would never deny to anyone their right to self defense, if it really is self defense.


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