The Problem of Persecution

The Problem of Persecution May 27, 2022

Christians have a weird relationship with persecution, often speaking and acting as if it only applies to us. It’s all too easy to get overfamiliar with an idea, especially when referring to a Biblical word, laden with set associations. I want to look at persecution from scratch.


The dictionary defines persecution as ‘hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs; oppression’.


The word ‘especially’ is important in that sentence, because although persecution is most often related to race, religion, or politics, its full application is broader. To understand the root of persecution, we are best off seeing it as ‘hostility and ill-treatment’.


Religious persecution is a subset of general persecution, and Christian persecution is a subset of the subset, and yet it is this which occupies our minds when we speak of persecution. I get frustrated when receiving a plethora of communications about persecuted Christian groups around the world, but rarely hear anything from my fellow Christians about the Weger Muslims in China, whose lives are all but forfeit, their existence cruel and insufferable under intense persecution by the Chinese state. I know plenty of atheists and agnostics who are deeply moved by the plight of the Wegers, but few Christians. There’s something wrong with this picture.


Why do we emphasise Christian persecution over the persecution of other religious groups? Is it just cheering for the home team, or do we see Christian persecution as more special and important than the mis-treatment of others? Do we put ourselves first and others last?


In reality, Christians have a significant advantage when facing persecution. The Bible tells us to rejoice when suffering for the sake of Christ. Not that persecution is in and of itself seen as a good thing by the Biblical writers, but it played a huge part in the growth of the early church and the spreading of the faith across the Middle East and into Europe.


The Biblical writers urged the early believers to rise above their ill-treatment, reminding them that if they are persecuted for Christ, great will be their eternal reward. That still applies today, and as such the Christian can put a positive spin on this form of suffering in a way that other groups (not necessarily religious groups) who are marginalised and mistreated cannot. Heaven is our home, and our Lord greatly rewards us for our faithfulness under fire. Similarly, we rejoice in our sufferings when they lead us to personal growth. The positivity available to us in Christ, and which we are urged to embrace in many New Testament passages, is a game changer, enabling us to rejoice in the most difficult and dark of circumstances. Ultimately, we shall be in Zion.


I’m not saying that we should be less concerned about Christian persecution than the persecution of other groups, but our hearts should beat at least as swiftly for any marginalised and mistreated group. Persecution is not a Christian word. It is a signifier of injustice and cruelty, which every Christian should war passionately against.


Another aspect of our weird relationship with persecution is how we apply the term to modern, Western life. There are places around the world where Christians are truly persecuted in the Biblical sense, but despite a chorus of claims to the contrary, I don’t see much of it in the West.


The West is currently engaged in a culture war, which is more about Right versus Left than any matter of faith. There are those who claim that all Christians must vote a particular way, and that if you don’t you aren’t a follower of Christ. Such people are rightly criticised for their intolerance, and yet consider themselves persecuted for their faith, when in reality it is they who are persecuting other believers, rejecting, judging, and mistreating them because they do not share their political stance.


We have become confused. The right to bear arms is not a matter of faith; it is pure politics. Neither capitalism nor socialism are fundamentally Christian, and if others oppose or criticise you for your adherence to either, this is not religious persecution. It is not for the sake of Christ.


Being asked to wear a mask during a pandemic is not persecution, and neither is suffering the consequences of rude, aggressive, or obnoxious behaviour. By crying persecution over such matters, or over political or cultural conflict, we demean the sacrifice of those truly suffering for their faith around the world. While we squabble over empty nothings, they lose their livelihoods, families, and even their lives.


I fear for the Church, at least in the West. We have become petty, entitled, divided, and cultish. Our voices are angry, rather than soft with compassion. Our Lord’s greatest commandment – to love God and each other – is not the driving force behind Christian debate.


For me, there is an important question we can (but usually don’t) ask ourselves about persecution – who do I persecute, and how am I going to stop it?


What group of people do you instinctively marginalise, avoid, or mistrust? A religious group? A sub-group within your own religion? People who vote for a different party or have different politics? A racial group? A particular gender? Those whose sexuality is different from your own?


Which individuals do you actively participate in side-lining? Who doesn’t matter?


In the West, this is the form of persecution we should be most concerned with – our own treatment of others. Challenging our prejudices, behaviour, and personal dislikes is part of what it means to carry our cross each and every day.


I pray the Lord will speak to our hearts, identifying where they are calloused and cold, and softening us with his compassion.

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