Persecuted as Jesus Was Persecuted

Persecuted as Jesus Was Persecuted January 4, 2018

It’s been a month or two, but I’ve been stewing on something. In the wake of allegations that Roy Moore dated teenage girls while in his 30 and sexually molested a 14-year-old, CNN’s Martin Savidge interviewed Moore’s brother, Jerry Moore. I was struck by a specific statement:

Moore went so far as to say “that his brother is being persecuted, in his own words, like Jesus Christ was,” according to Savidge.

I am not unfamiliar with this claim. When Michael Pearl came under criticism after his child training methods resulted in the deaths of three children, my evangelical mother told me that the criticism was evidence that he was in the right. After all, she said, Jesus said his followers would be persecuted like he was.

What does it mean, then, to be persecuted as Jesus was?

Let’s see. Jesus was arrested, flogged, and crucified. This is absolutely not happening to American Christians today, and it absolutely did not happen to either Roy Moore or Michael Pearl. Rather than evoking any of this, the concept of being “persecuted as Jesus was persecuted” is typically invoked when a Christian is criticized or—let’s think about this for a moment—accused of sexual abuse.

I took a moment to look up what the New Testament actually says about persecution. I kept coming with things like this:

Romans 12: 14—Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Matthew 5:10—Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This does not seem to back up Jerry’ Moore’s line of argument at all—or Roy Moore’s actions or situation. Roy Moore wasn’t persecuted because he was righteous—quite the opposite, actually. He also didn’t respond by blessing those who accused him, and neither did his supporters.

Certainly, the idea of being persecuted as Jesus was persecuted wasn’t invented whole cloth. In the book of John, Jesus made this statement:

John 15:20—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.

But here we return to where we started—Jesus made this statement right after a plot had been hatched to kill him, in the midst of serious foreshadowing. Unless I very much missed something, no one hatched a plot to kill Roy Moore. What, precisely, is “persecution”?

Michael Pearl spent decades advising parents to use corporal punishment break their children’s wills, physically overcoming them and leaving them utterly defeated. And yet, when three children were killed by parents following his methods and teachings, many of his followers—like my mother—viewed criticism of Pearl and his teachings as persecution. Is criticism of a person’s ideas or views on its own persecution? That seems a rather low bar. Jesus himself criticized others’ ideas quite fequently—was that persecution?

In Roy Moore’s case, his brother Jerry described allegations of child molestation and predatory behavior as persecution. Consider where this line of reasoning leads—to Christian pastors or elders waving away allegations of sexual abuse as Christian persecution. Unsurprisingly, this already happens. Pastors responding to credible allegations of sexual crimes by assuring their congregations that they’re simply being persecuted for their faith is in fact a thing.

Boz Tchividjian gave specific examples in his 2013 article, The True (and False) Persecution of the Church:

Geronimo Aguilar, a Richmond pastor who recently stepped down after being charged with sexually abusing two children, recently issued a statement listing all the accomplishments of his ministry and noting “my family and I have been facing difficult trials and persecution.” Many of his parishioners have publicly expressed support for their “persecuted” pastor.

Another pastor, Paul Washer, delivered a message claiming that Christians “have a wrong idea of martyrdom” because we believe we will be persecuted for our “sincere faith in Jesus Christ. “ Although our faith is the “real reason” for our persecution, Washer contends the government will publicly claim the persecution is because we are “enemies of the state” or even “child molesters.”

Aguilar and Washer are not alone. In the 26 years I have worked in the field of child protection, I have routinely encountered accused clergy and their flocks who claim “persecution” as the real reason they are facing an allegation of sexual abuse.

Evangelicals need to have a very serious conversation about what it means to be “persecuted as Jesus was persecuted”—and about the very nature of what it means to be persecuted. Until and unless they do, we’re stuck in a world where pastors and congregations alike use the concept to defend predators and child molesters—comparing them to Jesus in the process. Let that one sink in for a moment.

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