Toward the end of Between Babel and the Beast, Leithart decries the lack of Christian martyrs, especially in the West. I believe his statement is (I loaned the book to someone so I don’t have it ready to hand) “We have not been very good at producing martyrs.” The context makes clear he is talking about Christians in the West, if not America specifically. It is not always easy to interpret Leithart’s statements, but I take it he is saying that American Christians have so accommodated to Americanism that there is no real opportunity for persecution or martyrdom. That is, we tend to “go along to get along” by baptizing whatever our society and culture values as our values: civil religion, pre-emptive and punitive wars (by definition unjust by traditional just war theory), unrestrained capitalism, consumerism, obsession with entertainment, etc., etc. It’s rare, I take him to be saying, to notice a Martin Luther King among Christians today (to say nothing of an Ignatius or Bonhoeffer).
I was sharing about Leithart’s diatribe against Americanism among Christians with a cherished friend who is also brilliant (a certified genius and one of the wisest people I have ever known) and a devout Christian. His statement to me was “Whenever Christians are not in charge they will suffer persecution.” By “Christians” he meant “real Christians,” not nominal Christians. I take it he meant that the only reasons real Christians in America don’t suffer persecution are that they still have enough public influence to steer the culture and its powers in their general direction. But, he believes, that influence is waning and we may expect to see real Christians being persecuted, if not martyred, here, in America, in the not-too-distant future.
These are shocking claims by Leithart and my friend. It’s been a long time since I thought seriously about being persecuted just for being a Christian and living out my Christian faith.
I grew up in a Christian environment that expected Christians to be persecuted, mildly then and much more harshly, even violently, as the world deteriorates toward the “rapture” and “tribulation.”
I can remember some relatively mild events of persecution. One Sunday evening, when I was about ten years old, we were “having church” with the windows open (no AC then!). We were probably singing loudly (we were Pentecostals). When we exited the church building (probably around 8:00 PM or so), there was a large group of neighborhood teenagers gathered across the street mocking us. They were kneeling down and laying hands on each other and pretending to pray for each other. Then some of them would pretend to be “slain in the Spirit” and fall on the sidewalk or the grass. It was quite a display. Around that time many cars in our church parking lot were being vandalized and, allegedly, the city police would not send patrols to protect them.
We felt righteous, of course. But we thought that was mild compared with what was yet to come as America became increasingly secular and pagan.
When I was in junior high school I got teased because I was overtly religious and because my religion was strange to many of my classmates. For example, I brought a note from our pastor to get out of dancing in gym class (when the unit on dance came around during the school years). I didn’t go to movies, so some kids teased me about that. At home my parents said I should be glad that my Christianity was so obvious that other kids noticed and that I was suffering for Christ’s sake. I didn’t really think I was suffering much (I had plenty of friends), but the teasing could be annoying sometimes.
Recently, partly by reading Leithart and talking with my friend, I’ve begun to reconsider the whole issue of persecution and martyrdom. Jesus did indicate that his followers would always suffer because of following him. How often does that happen in America today? Occasionally I read about a Christian losing her job because of refusal to go along with some policy or practice she regards as contrary to her faith. And right now there’s the law suit by Hobby Lobby against federal policies requiring companies to provide insurance that includes payment for birth control that amounts to abortion (viz., the “morning after pill”).
My friend’s point is, I take it, that as our government leaders wander farther and farther away from core Christian values, they will find real Christians strange in their midst and begin to pass laws that will make us criminals by default (so long as we continue to live according to distinctively Christian values).
This has happened in the past with non-mainstream Christian groups such as the Doukhobors in Canada and Mennonites in the U.S. (many spent WW1 in federal prisons for opposing the war and evading the draft). My friend (and possibly Leithart) thinks we are in for more of that as mainstream, real Christianity becomes counter-cultural.
Well, however, if Leithart is right, what is more likely to happen (and may have already happened to a large extent) is that Christians will simply go along to get along and drop their distinctives in order not to be persecuted.
A question all this raises for me is: Is it a sign of something wrong with our “Christianity” when persecution is virtually unheard of? Or is that a sign that culture is “Christian enough” that real Christianity is not strange? Is my friend right that when Christians are not in charge, real Christians will be persecuted? Is that inevitable as the secularization process continues?
What are some signs of what is to come? Well, look at the mass media, especially entertainment. Where are any Christian characters portrayed sympathetically in mainstream entertainment? Why is it that virtually no characters on television go to church? Remember “Seventh Heaven?” Such an exception. Even there, however, it was rare to ever hear the name “Jesus” pronounced. The Christianity of that pastor and his family seemed awfully generic–compatible with almost anything except blatant dishonesty (and, of course, failing to be true to yourself).
Sometimes I suspect that IF real Christians were living out their faith consistently, there would be more persecution. But I think the lack of it is a combination of two things: 1) our culture and the powers that be are still “Christian enough” that real Christians are tolerated even when they speak out against mainstream culture and government, and 2) by-and-large Christians have accommodated so completely to culture that the cutting edge of their Christianity is difficult to see.
I don’t think Christians should seek persecution; that’ s not the point. But I do think real Christianity has such angularity in relation to any human culture that total lack of persecution should be cause for self-examination.