TheoLog Entry

“Early Christian writing discusses the use of self-injury as ritual.”

So says Dr. Kammie Juzwin, a psychologist in suburban Chicago, in a Tribune article about the increase of self-injury among depressed teens (“Self-Injury Cuts Deeper Into America’s Youth,” August 1, 2005).

What could he possibly mean? Readers of Israel’s scriptures know well that it is foreign gods who demand self-injury, not the God of the bible (see the story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal, 1 Kings 18). Perhaps this is a reference to Origen’s self-castration, reported by Eusebius of Caesaria. In response to Jesus’ enigmatic words (Matthew 19:12) Origen apparently went the extra mile. The old joke among church historians asks why someone who took so much of scripture to be allegorical speech decided to read this particular verse so literally!

Or perhaps he means ancient Christian ascetic endeavors, in which early monastics took to denying themselves food, sleep, and sex in an effort to discipline their bodies as part of their following of Jesus. Scholarly evaluation of ascetic efforts has revised a great deal since early moderns simply impugned it. They now see its practitioners among ancient philosophical adherents and Jewish sects as well as Christians as part of an effort not to punish the self so much as to pursue a greater good—in this case, following the poor, hungry, and single Jesus and solidarity with those with whom he was friends. In any event, ancient Christian asceticism looks downright gentle alongside the common punishment of bodies associated with contemporary dieting and workaholism, or its libertinism with regard to sex.

In short, as a theologian trained in ancient Christianity, I know of no “use of self-injury as ritual” in ancient Christianity, despite these sorts of phenomena that don’t quite fit the bill. Origen’s castration seems to have been remembered precisely because it was so offensive, and is not discussed without his censure also being mentioned. Ancient ascetics favored hospitality to the stranger and gentleness to others far more than self-denial, according to the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

The good doctor’s comment seems akin to the general disparagement of Christianity, both ancient and modern, that reigns among educated elites still now in post-modernity. Christianity or religion in general must be world-denying and bad, self-mutilation is bad, and the dots get connected. But the comment is as imprecise as if I were to say that “early medical writing discusses the use of self-injury as ritual,” thinking of bloodletting by leeches. This was clearly self-injurious, was clearly used widely, and had a ritual component to it, as every visit to a doctor does. Therefore, by implication, medicine is bad. The statement would be rightly laughed at—not only were ancient doctors doing their best amidst their misinformation, we have long since grown past the practice of blood-letting, so my effort to impugn medicine as such would be quite poor form.

So too here. The comment reminds me of the claim in ethics textbooks that suicide was commonly encouraged among ancient Christians. What has happened here is that Christian praise of martyrdom is read by moderns who are ignorant of religion as praise of suicide—completely wrongly. Christians who went to their deaths made a political claim in which they refused to acknowledge the lordship of Caesar or disown their claim of the Lordship of Jesus. If Caesar demanded their lives of them in response, so be it. But suicide has always been ruled out unequivocally in Christianity as in its forebearer, Judaism. Even the noteworthy historical exceptions, such as the mass suicide of the defenders of Masada as the Romans closed in in 73 AD, is the sort of exception that proves the rule.

Journalists and doctors who impugn what they have not bothered to try to understand is nothing new in religion. The question is what people of faith ought to do in response. Write a letter to the editor? Email the doctor or the writer? Write an article in response, like this one? Amid the torrent of misinformation, when would such strategies ever allow for rest?

The fact is we also have at the heart of our faith two imperatives not common among these other professions—the insistence that we tell the truth, and the mandate for repentance. So I try here to say where the shoe may have fit, either with Origen or the desert fathers, though not at all well. There is plenty we have to repent of, here and in every other place, God knows. The fact is that Christianity, as a faith built on a God become flesh, has an overwhelming affirmation of the created order at its heart. When this, our best light, has been dimmed, as it often has, by other parts of our heritage that are more world or body-denying, shame on us, and thank God we’re trying to do better. But when doctors or journalists cast off-hand and ill-informed disparagement on our forebearers in faith, shame on them.

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