I’m pretty sure this is the most entertaining description of a religious sect I’ve ever read. I hadn’t heard of the Circumcellions, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either; the OED decorously limits itself to “A name given to the Donatist fanatics in Africa during the 4th c., from their habit of roving from house to house” (hence the name: Latin circum ‘around’ + cella ‘cell’), but the linked article says:
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[…]
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[…]
There’s more where that came from, including an argument (I don’t know if accurate) that it was the Circumcellions who were responsible for the doctrine of the “just war”: “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.” (Via Kattullus’s MetaFilter post on a podcast lecture series about the Byzantine Empire by Lars Brownworth.)