American Christians talk a lot about the possibility or reality of persecution coming to the United States. What we often don’t realize is how much our culture is directing the conversation.
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
The above is a quote from the film V for Vendetta, a visionary if brutal film about combatting fascism. It also embodies an idea that conservative Christians have long felt in the United States, that because our country was founded upon ideas of freedom and rule of the people, it is truly the people who are in charge, and the leaders who work for us. When this arrangement does not appear to be respected, we embrace the ideas of rebellion and revolt. The recent dystopia fad of Young Adult literature and movies speak to this: Divergent and The Hunger Games are both franchises that draw from this idea, not to mention the classic dystopian novels such as Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. The message is simple and clear: the people are being abused and the answer to this abuse is to rise up against the powers that be.
Lying implicitly in this worldview is the concept of humanism, a system of thought that prizes the value and contributions of humanity as being lofty and worthy of overcoming the challenges set before us. From this perspective, individualism reigns, and in particular an emphasis on individual rights over and above authority systems, whether those systems be local, national, or otherwise. When taken in the context of the Christian worldview, particularly that we are sinful creatures unable to save ourselves, these two ideas are inherently in conflict with one another. This is true when humanism influences our approach to political matters, and the interplay of religion and politics, every bit as much as it is true in theology and soteriology.
The idea of a government that works for the people is interesting as a concept in the political realm. That’s an idea I’m fascinated by and love exploring as political philosophy. There’s a negative aspect to this as well, and it’s this—that thinking has infiltrated the church, and has done so in such a way that our thinking towards many aspects of the Christian life – and most especially the response to persecution from sources of authority – has been turned in a direction that is clearly unbiblical.
Every time a Christian is somehow met with some form of persecution (which in many cases hardly even counts as such when we consider what our brothers and sisters are facing in other parts of the world), we as a community tend to express outrage, anger, and indignation that a Christian in America should ever have to be submitted to such treatment. I don’t wish to belittle this circumstances. Some of them are indeed quite serious. The baker in Washington (the state) who was sued for not servicing a same-sex wedding has lost her business and is now forced to operate out of her home. She has quite literally lost her home and source of income for standing for her Christian convictions. Earlier this year, a Christian fled the country when a court granted her ex-partner from a lesbian relationship visitation rights to her daughter, even though the ex-partner was utilizing inappropriate sexual behavior during the visits that was so extreme the girl was considering suicide. I am not contesting that these are trials and difficult times for Christians, and the Christians in these particular situations I just mentioned have said nothing to make me think ill of their attitudes. Rather, what I am contesting is the typical Christian response to these scenarios, oftentimes in a social media culture response by other Christians observing the situation.
Such events are often met with long tirades on the evils of social progressivism, Islam, or whatever the enemy or source of the opposition may be. It’s tempting to go along with these attitudes, thinking them the Christian response, but when we look to scripture itself, we see quite a different picture.
“All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matthew 5:11)
“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:20)
In addition to all of these passages that encourage us to expect persecution, and to meet it with grace, we also have general statements of the demeanor of Jesus’s followers like “meek,” “poor in spirit,” and “peacemakers,” all of which are found in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Both of these ideas are even combined in one passage, 1 Peter 4:16: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” Every one of these passages is in sharp contrast to our typical response. The first-century Christians did not react in anger, outrage, and bitterness, but with grace, prayer, and faith.
The outrage and anger we do feel seems to be rooted in an odd mixture of Christian conservatism and humanism. What I mean by that is we have become so fixated on rights generally speaking that we begin to believe, whether we say it out loud or not, that we have a right to a life without persecution. This is utter nonsense. We are no more entitled to an easy Christian life than we are entitled to salvation itself, which is to say, not at all.
Here’s what I propose. Instead of expecting the possibility that we could create a country in the fallen world that is a refuge for Christians free of any persecution, we ought to expect persecution. Instead of creating stories about rebellion, we ought to be creating stories about meeting persecution with grace. The church needs to encourage a culture where we prepare each other for opposition in the culture, by cultivating grounded faith, teaching apologetics, and setting realistic expectations. When our reaction is one of somberness and prayer and not one of anger and outrage, then we will have come to a biblical perspective on the issue of religious persecution.