Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians

Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians October 4, 2013

As a rule, I don’t discuss the contents of one of my new Scripps Howard News Service columns here at GetReligion. However, from time to time I need to do so in order to describe some of the content of a new podcast in our GetReligion “Crossroads” series with radio host Todd Wilken & Co.

This is one of those weeks. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Meanwhile, this week’s column for Scripps grew out of all of the reading I did writing a recent GetReligion post on the subject of the recent wave of persecution being inflicted on religious minorities, especially Christians, in Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan. That post included a link to an early post — a very GetReligion-esque essay — by a senior editor (M.Z. Hemingway to be precise) at the new webzine called The Federalist.

As I worked on that GetReligion post, I kept having flashbacks to an earlier Scripps column I wrote long ago on the same topic (“Persecution: The power of apathy“). Eventually, that’s where I decided to start this week’s column:

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn’t more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren’t that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

“The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering,” said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for Scripps Howard News Service. “Perhaps this … could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism.”

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book “Their Blood Cries Out,” with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

After I filed the column, an editor emailed back a logical question. I had used the punch phrase, “That was 1997” twice. Was that intentional or a typo?

Very intentional, I replied.

In fact I spent about an hour trying to find a clear, concise way to set up the haunting similarities between the religious persecution scene in 1997, which led to “Their Blood Cries Out” and developments in the past year or two that led to Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea writing their new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.”

I found the similarities between the events, and thus the column, from 1997 and the waves of bloody headlines — often from the same nations — from the past two weeks to more than haunting, but downright agonizing. More on that in a minute.

So are some GetReligion readers thinking logical thoughts as I spell all of this out? Thoughts like, “Well, of course, Marshall, Shea and activists of their ilk think this is a front-burner issue. They are conservative Christians and we all know that conservative Christians see persecution behind every rock.”

That’s part of what I found so haunting. Many media people were already saying that back in 1997.

That’s why it’s so important to tune into the work of the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., of the liberal National Catholic Reporter — who has a brand new book out called “The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution.” I have not nabbed a copy of that book yet, but I predict that many of its central themes can be seen in this NCR piece from last year, an Allen piece so rich in journalism-essential content that I could have written an entire second Scripps column about it. I almost did that.

The piece is called “Five Myths about anti-Christian persecution” and here are some samples from “Myth No. 5: Anti-Christian persecution is a right-wing issue.” This is classic old-school, pro-human rights liberalism:

Of the five myths considered here, this is undoubtedly the most pernicious. If we can agree on anything in this polarized world, it ought to be that persecution of people on the basis of their beliefs — whatever those beliefs may be — is intolerable. …

One could add that in the post-9/11 era, anti-Christian violence by Muslims is a terrific rallying cry for hawks on the American right, which may help explain why some liberals remain skittish.

All this … says much more about American politics than the nature of anti-Christian persecution. Alas, we’ve developed a political culture that could turn Mom and apple pie into wedge issues too.

The truth is that persecution against Christians, ideologically speaking, is an equal-opportunity enterprise.

One thinks, for instance, of the famous martyrs of the liberation theology movement, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, or the six Jesuits and two women murdered in El Salvador in 1989. There’s also Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi, beaten to death in 1998 two days after releasing a report on his country’s civil war that heavily criticized the army and right-wing paramilitary groups. More recently, there’s American Sr. Dorothy Stang, murdered in Brazil in 2005 for advocacy on behalf of poor and indigenous Amazonians; or Indian Sr. Valsha John, slain this past year for defending members of the tribal underclass against expropriation of their land by coal mining companies.

Defending persecuted Christians, in other words, is hardly an effort that should concern the political and theological right alone. Styling anti-Christian persecution as a political football is not only an obscenity, but it’s factually inaccurate.

This is a key reason that mainstream journalists and many liberal activists shy away from this issue, even while the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel say things like, “Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.”

This “right-wing wedge issue” myth was common in 1997 and it’s still around today.

But here is what is really haunting. Back in 1997 more than a few evangelicals were so into end-times novels and their prophecy charts that they saw the persecution of the church in the Middle East as a good thing, a sign that the Second Coming was just around the corner.

Now it’s 2013 and many evangelicals continue to be silent on this issue. Thus, here is how my new column ended — with material that we discussed at length (causing me to get quite emotional) in this week’s podcast:

While the truth is painful, Marshall said in a recent interview, it’s important to asking questions about all those silent believers and their silent churches. If anything, it appears that many American Christians are even less interested in global persecution trends than they were in the past, while their churches are even more independent and focused on a therapeutic, individualistic approach to faith.

“It’s like all of these horrible events are just blips on the screen. They are there, then they are gone and forgotten,” said Marshall. “Sometimes, it’s easy to think that Christians in America don’t even know what is happening to their brothers and sisters around the world.”

Please check out the podcast. I normally say “enjoy” the podcast, but this is not an enjoyable topic. I hope the material is sobering and helpful.

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