A lot of ink is regularly spilled by the usual suspects on the need to find some sort of common ground to unite the generally-Christian West and the mostly-Muslim Middle East. The obvious link would seem to be joint economic interests, but neither side seems particularly interested, perhaps because the globalization of trade makes ideological squabbling look petty and self-serving, and that's bad for the sort of petty and self-serving people who thrive on ideological squabbling, and who, not entirely incidentally, occupy most of the seats of power.

Could a more useful link come from the two religions and their common origins? Both are rigidly patriarchal, though Islam prefers visual suppression of women to verbal, Christianity the reverse. Both have deep roots in the Middle East. And both set high store by martyrdom: the willingness to lay down your life for the greater glory of God.

Here in the old Teeming Milieu, we tend to mock this sort of thing — at least, on the part of the Muslims. And that, too, is to be expected: our martyrs are better than their martyrs, and if you don't believe it, just ask us. We will duly trot out the calendar of saints and point out all the early Christians who suffered for their faith, all the virgins put to death for their chastity, all the persecution Christians have suffered from day one to the present at the hands of Roman emperors, Chinese Communists, and liberal courts.

The part about the Chinese, at least, might even be true. Most of the rest is twaddle. Diocletian, always mentioned as a major persecutor, was indifferent to Christianity throughout most of his reign, and got involved only when his priests suggested the presence of Christians was interfering with the officially-sanctioned rituals. The imperial decree as issued wasn't much more than "This is Rome; so do as the Romans do, already." But Christians were incensed, and not just by the stuff burned at the Roman rituals, and after tensions escalated for a few years, the official oracles demanded the closing of some Christian churches. No executions yet. Christians responded by setting fire to the imperial palace at Nicomedia; three Christian priests were accused of arson and put to death, and alleged co-conspirators were rounded up. Most of them were eventually released. Official Christian history records this as a veritable reign of terror.

As for the virgins, their state was and is severely overrated anyway. Chastity is about as much of a virtue as malnutrition. Still, it was important to the early Church to hammer the point home, and dozens of tales were concocted, each involving some pure Golden Girl who would rather die than give it up to some official Roman reprobate. The actual Roman law, which stated that virgins could not be executed at all — someone would have to disqualify the poor woman first — was conveniently glossed over or omitted entirely in, you guessed it, official Christian history. Is anyone really surprised what happened to Galileo in the light of official Christian astronomy?

So maybe this is the wrong approach to common ground after all, and we should continue to pursue the economic models. Saves on the sword bill, and anyway, in terms of bringing cultures together, one McDonald's is worth any number of martyrs.

The Vent

16 March 1998

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 Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill