I read an article a while back by a writer on the Patheos website. The website is sort of a clearinghouse for religious writing of all kinds by prominent and more or less respectable writers. One caught my eye as it was about the idea of persecution. These articles are interesting to me because they quite often lament either (a) the fact that Christians are being horribly persecuted for their beliefs or (b) Christians are complaining about being persecuted and need to stop. This one fell into the first category. The writer, who refers to himself as relevant and reformed, was lamenting the loss of American Christianity around the middle of the twentieth century or the 1950s. In his mind, this was a version where Christians are the dominant political and religious force in the culture. He continued talking about the lack of morals and godly direction and the same general themes you most likely expect from someone seeing what they saw as the loss of their ideas in the public marketplace. As I read the article and came to the bottom, I scrolled through the comments sections. Most of the comments were simply criticisms on the writer’s supposed right to decide what everybody should believe when not everyone believed in the same things. The commentors referred to the author’s ideas as authoritarian, alarmist self-pity, and attempting to impose his version of reality on the rest of the world. Sometimes the author responded, sometimes he chose not to.
Two words did catch my eye and put a bit of a bug in my brain: different and threatened. As human beings, we generally feel threatened by what is different. Things which are different tend to trigger an animal response of fight or flight within most of us and we either run away from things that are different or we fight to subdue the different things and force them to be like us or run away themselves. Author and philosopher Umberto Eco writes, “Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So, when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.” What I think Eco is saying is, we need to know our way of doing things is the right way, at least in our own eyes if nothing else. We have to have a standard to measure ourselves by and usually that standard is one passed down to us with some modification for the passage of time. Anyone who is different or thinks differently is threatening and those who threaten us are our enemies.
As Jesus begins the discourse we call The Sermon on the Mount or as it is in Luke, The Sermon on the Plain, we get a list commonly known as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are nine sayings that reflect the reality of most people living in Jesus’ time. According to historians, something like ninety to ninety-five percent of the Roman Empire lived in what would be deemed subsistence poverty, meaning whatever they earned that day fed them for that day and they had to work the next day to make enough to eat again. Savings was nonexistent, and retiring was what you did at the end of the day to rest for the next.
Church leaders, pastors, and religious scholars have talked, written, and preached about the Beatitudes for centuries. Opinions range from them being a sort of litmus test for who belonged in the kin-dom to comfort for those struggling with difficulty to a path leading to a meaningful life. I tend to see the Beatitudes were a way of saying, yes life is rough for the poor—and that’s most of us in Jesus’ day—but even in the rough life you’re living there are blessings from God and opportunities to find light and goodness. Even in dark places and difficult things, God and the Kin-dom of God can be found.
As Jesus ends this discourse, he adds two final ‘blessed’ statements, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These two statements have been used quite a bit recently as expressions of Christian persecution in the United States.
So, rhetorically speaking, do you feel persecuted? Do you feel like they are out to get you?
In philosophy there is thing called the logic of conditionals or if-then statements. The basic version goes if A, then B. B. Therefore A. A lot of people have used this kind of logic to prove a lot of things and one of those is the idea of persecution.
If I am a follower of Christ, then I will be persecuted.
I feel persecuted.
Therefore, I am a follower of Christ.”
“This train of thought mistakenly assumes that godly living is the only thing that entails persecution. But, as everyone knows, non-Christians are persecuted for many reasons in many different situations.” True persecution is harm. When Jesus made the statements in Matthew 5, he was making them in a culture where people who were ostracized were often excluded from the community and that put people in a dangerous physical situation. Also, Jesus qualifies persecution as “for the sake of righteousness” and being “reviled”, “persecuted” in general, and people uttering “all kinds of evil” against you.
David Curry president and CEO of Global Christian Relief, an advocacy group for Christians facing persecution in other countries writes,
While we cannot deny that Christians in America today experience discomforts, inconveniences and sometimes even social ostracization, these instances simply do not rise to the level of the horror that countless global Christians face every day. Moreover, there is very little evidence that this level of carnage is coming to the United States soon.
In America, we’re blessed with incredible amounts of freedom. We can attend church, pray, meet with fellow believers and read the Bible whenever we want without legal consequence. But many millions of our brothers and sisters around the world simply cannot do those same things without facing repercussions, often dire.
Giving basic human rights to people you don’t religiously or philosophically agree with and who don’t have them is not persecution.
Having to live in community with people who disagree with you religiously or philosophically is not persecution.
Someone looking at you funny for having a religious bumper sticker is not persecution.
Not getting your way is not persecution.
Are Christians persecuted? In other parts of the world, yes. In America, were inconvenienced at best. Stop living in fear. We need to let go of this narrative and focus not on whether we are getting our way but focus on whether we are walking in the way. The people around us, different though they may be, are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters in this life. I have many who disagreed with me through the years, but I have never known anyone who meant me genuine harm. Even if they did, what did Jesus say about our enemies? Love them. Love them as neighbors, love them as ourselves. There is no room for fear in faithful discipleship but there is plenty for love and openness.
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