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The Circumcellions

AKA The Agonistici

The name "Circumcellions" somehow sounds like the name of an advanced Star Trek alien race, or perhaps a groundbreaking association of Ancient Roman jurists. The truth is so much less, and yet, at the same time, somehow, so much more...

The word itself means "guys who hang around villages," rather unglamorously. The Circumcellions were a Christian suicide cult of the fourth and fifth centuries. Their religious practice consisted of delivering random beatings to strangers along the road, with the purpose of goading the strangers into killing them. If that didn't work, they just threw themselves off a cliff instead.

While there's a myth that Christianity began with a monolithic Roman church, the first five centuries of Christianity were in fact a very diverse period in which competing groups battled it out over all manner of doctrinal and political issues.

The Circumcellions were one such group. Based in Northern Africa, at the edge of the decaying Roman empire, they spun off from a more conservative anti-Roman sect to become one of the more peculiar footnotes in the history of Christianity.

Sociologically, the Circumcellions were the Roman equivalent of trailer trash -- rural, uneducated and less-than-notable in terms of contribution to the gross national product. The only job of a Circumcellion was simply "being a Circumcellion." Despite this, members of the sect didn't starve to death... because that would take too long.

Although they considered themselves breakaway Christians, one would be hard-pressed to develop a theological justification for the Circumcellions. Its parent cult, the Donatists, was founded on the basis of an extremely complex stand that generally extolled the virtues of Martyrdom.

The Circumcellions took the premise to lemming-like proportions (literally) and decided that martyrdom was the ultimate Christian value. They set out to accomplish it... by any means necessary.

According to the gospels, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before the Crucifixion. Many Christians have taken this command as an injunction to nonviolence and evidence of Christ's pacifism.

The Circumcellions, on the other hand, took this passage to mean that they shouldn't use bladed weapons. Instead, they favored large clubs, which they inexplicably called "Israelites."

Using their "Israelites," the Circumcellions whacked their victims around in the hopes of provoking their own martyrdom, all the while shouting "Praise the Lord!" in Latin. Because of their combativeness, they were also known as "agonistici," the Latin word for fighter which is the root of the modern word "antagonist."

Since they were destined to be martyrs, the Circumcellions didn't trouble themselves with such virtues as chastity and poverty. Frequently drunk, they cavorted with women and often robbed those victims who failed to assist their martyrdom with a sufficiently violent counterattack.

Frequently, their enthusiasm outstripped their common sense. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a much-discussed historical incident along the highway illustrated this point:

A number of these fanatics, fattened like pheasants, met a young man and offered him a drawn sword to smite them with, threatening to murder him if he refused. He pretended to fear that when he had killed a few, the rest might change their minds and avenge the deaths of their fellows; and he insisted that they must all be bound. They agreed to this; when they were defenceless, the young man gave each of them a beating and went his way.
When faced with such setbacks, the Circumcellions opted instead simply to drown themselves or jump off cliffs. Men and women alike embraced "martyrdom" in this way.

Their parent sect, the Donatists, disavowed the Circumcellions in short order, because they were quickly becoming the laughingstock of the heretical community. The Donatists specifically forebade jumping off cliffs, to no avail. Crowds of Circumcellions and their supporters would flock to the streets to honor the cliff-jumpers' deaths.

Ironically, the Donatists died off before the Circumcellions, who refocused on tormenting Catholic priests and bishops with beatings, torture and even occasionally rebaptizing them as Circumcellions. They would sometimes set on caravans of wealthy merchants and free their slaves, forcing the masters to pull the carriage behind them.

The Circumcellions eventually suffered the same fate that befalls most suicide cults -- it died out due to excessive death. Contributing factors included the anarchist tendencies of attacking both religious and civil authority figures, which demanded a forceful government response, combined with the pressures that arise from persecuting the wealthy, combined with their predeliction for hurling themselves off cliffs in the absence of any other way to die.

If you're a Catholic, however, thir legacy lives on. You can thank the Circumcellions for the doctrine of the "just war" and your inability to invoke "conscientious objector" to get out of military service.

You see, it was in response to the wacky shenanigans of the Circumcellions that St. Augustine wrote the first major theological justification for the use of violence by Christians -- so that they could defend themselves against the club-wielding morons.

So remember, as you're getting bombed out of that foxhole, you're doing it to protect the Catholic Church against the absolute dumbest religious movement in history. "Praise the Lord!"


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