What is Persecution?

What is Persecution? May 28, 2019

The warning in Vice President Mike Pence’s graduation speech about the potential shunning of Christians has been making the rounds on my facebook page. That speech also came up in a recent radio interview that I did. My answer to these issues is the same I have had for a few years now. Yes Christians will face discrimination in certain segments of our society. But we do not need to state we are being persecuted. In light of the harassment of all religions in China, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and the oppression of Christians in ancient Rome, it seems unseemly to talk about persecution for the troubles Christians face in the U.S. today.

But the other day I thought, “Am I right?” I have stated that Christians are not being persecuted today, but what is the definition of persecution? So I did a quick online search to get a well-accepted definition.

Merriam-Webster offers two definitions. First, persecution is “the act or practice of persecuting especially those who differ in origin, religion, or social outlook.” The second definition is that persecution is “the condition of being persecuted, harassed, or annoyed.” Well, that is not helpful. But then I looked at the definition of persecute. Two more definitions. First, persecute is to “harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict specifically and/or to cause to suffer because of belief.” The second one is to “annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (such as attacks, pleas, or importunities) and/ or to pester” (So hey my kids persecute me).

Harassment and annoying others seem to be at the core of this definition to persecute. But what about other definitions? The Cambridge Dictionary states that persecution is “unfair or cruel treatment over a long period of time because of race, religion, or political beliefs.” Vocabulary.com states that it is “unfair or abusive treatment toward a person or group of people, such as the persecution of someone who is different by calling him or her rude names and making threats.” Macmillan Dictionary states that it is “extremely bad treatment of someone, especially because of their race, religion, or political beliefs.”

Okay, what do I glean from all of these definitions? My basic impression is that the level of damage one has to endure to be persecuted is a good deal less than I imagined. One does not have to be thrown into jail or have one’s life threatened to be persecuted. Indeed according to one definition, rude names qualify. Given that reality, I have been wrong. Christians can say they are being persecuted. Because, if rude names and bad treatment is the standard, then I can even argue that Christians have been persecuted in the comment sections of my blogs. No, this is not some version of Christian persecution complex. I am just going by the definition found in my search.

That does not sit well with me emotionally. I think it is because my image of persecution does not comport with these definitions. In my image of persecution, there are either widespread government policies intended to oppress a group or massive groups of private citizens physically harassing people and their property. By my definition it is not only Christians who are not being persecuted in the United States. Nobody really is. We have to have a term that distinguishes the actions of bad governmental policies and the horrible actions of a few extremists and the treatment of the Muslim Uighur in China. For me that term has been persecution. I cannot think of a group in the United States that meets that type of definition of persecution.

I suspect that when many Christians use the term persecution they are implying a level of mistreatment that is not accurate to their current situation. Of course we can be tempted to change the definition in ways that are self-serving. For example, Christianophobia tends to be the bigotry of the highly educated, wealthy white progressive. The way it usually manifests itself is not through violence since such individuals have a great deal of institutional power. Rather they can use that institutional power against Christians in a variety of ways (i.e. academic discrimination, media bias, all-comer policies). If I wanted to advocate for Christians, I could define persecution as something done by those with institutional power against a group that does not have cultural power proportionate to their numbers. But that would be a biased definition and clearly one to be used for the interests of my own social groups. As such, it is one that should not be adopted.

Likewise I am not inclined to accept any type of definition of persecution that is rigged to serve the interest of some favored group. Rather than rely upon such a definition, we should look at the unique situation of each group and address concerns as best we can. Of course, our natural inclination is to only support groups that we like. That is the sort of confirmation bias which places our group in a superior position. Ironically, that is also the sort of bias we can use to justify persecution, whether the formal definition or my image of persecution, of those we do not like.

Christian persecution complex? Yeah, it exists. Other types of persecution complexes exist as well. That is why I am going to use my more basic definition of persecution as systematic governmental oppression or violence rather than the formal definitions of persecution. Until our social understanding of what persecution means changes, it is best to use that social understanding rather than formal definitions. So I will still discourage U.S. Christians from using the word persecution and to stick to more defensible claims about discrimination.

""It appears that the definition of extreme leftism is trying to actually do something to ..."

Could Evangelicals Turn on Trump?
"What exactly do you want as a Christian? My understanding of the present situation is ..."

Could Evangelicals Turn on Trump?
""Yes, because catering to the center served us so well with Gore, Kerry and Clinton.No, ..."

Could Evangelicals Turn on Trump?
""now if Dems can only realize they need a centrist instead of falling into Trump's ..."

Could Evangelicals Turn on Trump?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • grazorblade

    In my experience some instances of persecution theologically conservative Christians point to some pretty bizarre things that do line up with the liberal narrative of “complaining about a loss of privilege”.

    Most common examples are saying they are persecuted because they no longer have prayer in schools, removing 10 commandments from courthouses efforts to remove “in God we trust” and some nonsense about merry Christmas

    On the other hand there is the discrimination Christians face in academia and other culturally elite areas of society, the almost comical negative stereotypes of any christian in almost all american fiction, the other issues you and others have raised and of course the reality of growing up a born again Christian where that isn’t common. I mean I had friends who were physically beaten up for being born again but most of us were just teased. Apart from the stereotypes, the most bizarre slur was people making homophobic slurs against you because you were non-violent and abstaining before marriage, then later without any sense of irony say they don’t like Christians because they are homophobic. Of course then there are the more subtle forms of bigotry which become more common when you get older. Christians I know have a few different survival techniques – use jokes about your faith to entertain people, downplaying your faith and constantly apologizing for various things Christians have done or being up in peoples face over the top outspoken about your faith. Ultimately I try and live by “do onto others as you would have them do unto you” and used my experiences to think of groups that have it tougher and try and speak up for them the best I can. I know many Christians in the world have it tougher and the little I face is nothing compared to the joy of knowing Christ. But it is disheartening that in my experience you can’t even talk to your closest friends about this.

    Having said all that the weird examples I brought up (exclusively from people living in the deep south) are almost as frustrating. I mean those reasons seem a little silly to me and counter productive for dealing with real anti christian bias. Is there some subtle story I’m missing that they aren’t able to express (like maybe there is some symbolic prejudice going on here) or is it just that the Christian experience varies vastly by profession and geography (from experiencing a loss of privilege to experiencing bigotry)

    • Maine_Skeptic

      “…I mean I had friends who were physically beaten up for being born again but most of us were just teased…”

      Can I ask if this was in the US, and if so, what part of the country? I believe you, and I’m trying to understand the context.

      • grazorblade

        The high school experiences were in Australia and the adult experiences in the USA (apologies I probably should have specified). In the USA I’ve been in the south and north east with some brief time on the west coast. In my career there is a crazy amount of travel!

        • Maine_Skeptic

          “…In the USA I’ve been in the south and north east with some brief time on the west coast…”

          Thanks for answering. I think I can offer some insight. While this comment is written with benign intentions, I should warn you that my perspective is that of a former Evangelical who spent my teen years and twenties in the deep South and in Texas.

          I do remember feeling alien as an Evangelical in those days. I felt even more alien when I began to question Christianity, but the reasons were the same. In both situations, I lived outside the “home team” approach to belief. I don’t think most human beings think that much about what we believe, so we adopt certain beliefs in our youth that come to feel familiar and comfortable. Those who share our beliefs and our approach to those beliefs are kindred spirits that we recognize and appreciate without having to identify them as such. They’re like our home team for sports, whose fans share a common enjoyment when our team does well, and a common frustration when it doesn’t.

          If someone takes the whole thing “too seriously,” they become suspect. Start talking about Old Testament prophecy and the Old Testament law, and people start getting uncomfortable. By silent agreement, people understand not to examine certain things too closely. The “home team” Christians are saved, and that’s all they need to know. Life’s too short to spend it worrying about little details in the Bible.

          For many committed Evangelicals immersed in Bible study and prayer, , digging in deeper is almost compulsive. God gave us a glimpse into his very mind. How could we not want to explore that mind, and know him more deeply? He gave us the Holy Spirit with all His power, how could we not want to step out in faith and see the miracles we’ve read about and heard about?

          In the South, Evangelicals remain on the “home team,” but sometimes they don’t feel like it. Other Christians are not going to turn on the Evangelicals, because “we’re all Christians,” but if you’re the only one of your friends at the cell group meeting, and the others are out at a country and western bar drinking beer and boot skootin’, you feel alien.

          Enter the religious marketers and televangelists, who build their fortunes on the fears of those who feel alienate by “our liberal culture of sin.” They “remind” us of things that are patently false, like that America is a Christian country, and that those who aren’t Christian enough are going to destroy what we’ve built. And we believe it, because these people speak and act like our own “home team.” They tell us our fears are not only real, but that we’ve underestimated the threat.

          On the flip side, within academia and more juried institutions, the Christianity of the Bible believers is appreciated, but they’re still taking it all “too seriously.” It’s up to the elite insiders to keep things fair and balanced. Instead of working with Evangelicals to make their best arguments, or to help refine their theses so that they fit within the realm of legitimate inquiry, they may give the cold handshake and polite “goodbye.”

          Ramping up the tension is the fact that the “home team” concept is in flux. It swerves recklessly back and forth between extreme legalism and post-modernism, both of which are divisive

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…systematic governmental oppression or violence rather than the formal definitions of persecution…”

    I agree with your definition of persecution more than the dictionary definitions you’ve cited, in all ways but one. Oppression doesn’t have to be governmental, and I would argue that most governments don’t persecute minorities without the assent of the majority of the population. That’s why dictators always divide the people, turning the people against each other and stoking the majority’s hatred toward minorities. It makes the majority easier to manipulate and less likely to stand on principle.

    • georgeyancey

      I think I am in agreement with you. That is way I talked about widespread violence. Perhaps I was not clear enough that this does not have to be governmental violence. So I will take the responsibility for not being clear enough.

      • Maine_Skeptic

        “So I will take the responsibility for not being clear enough.”

        I was just clarifying. It isn’t that there’s anything to take responsibility for, but I appreciate your response.

        I also appreciate that you let dissenters comment on your articles. As you know, I disagree frequently with you, but I admire that you don’t shut that door.

        • georgeyancey

          I actually respect your dissent because you seem to try to understand where I am coming from, even if you disagree with me. Dissent is fine. If we both agreed on everything then one us is not needed. Hope you keep reading my stuff and chime in when you want.

  • Powerglide

    In America, Christians are treated way better than atheists, but you don’t hear us whining about ‘persecution.’

    • JustNTyme

      You just did. .

      • Powerglide

        Try reading.

        • JustNTyme

          Atheists killed more human beings in one century than Christians did in the previous 19 centuries.

          So any contempt people feel for atheists would be completely justified, based on all those dead bodies.

          • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

            The killers were atheists, but they were also bad people who wished to do harm to others.

      • Powerglide

        Look, some people are occasionally treated poorly. Atheists, while sometimes the victims of prejudice, are in no way being persecuted. Of course, currently, the people being shot down by terrorists are mostly Jews, Muslims, and Black Christians. Well, it’s a far cry from what happened under Domitian, but the flames of hate and violence are being fanned. And it’s a lot easier to stir up hatred and anger and fear in people if you can convince them they’re being persecuted. The madman who killed 11 innocent folks in a synagogue not two miles from where I sit thought white Christians were being persecuted. This persecution talk is both nonsensical and dangerous.

        • JustNTyme

          If you don’t like the persecution talk, why do you read Christian blogs?

          Other than hating Christians, you poor things have no emotional life at all. Every atheist I ever knew was emotionally stunted. Utterly incapable or compassion or empathy.

          • Powerglide

            Apparently you haven’t been meeting the right atheists

          • gimpi1

            Um, I have to jump in here. You asked, “If you don’t like the persecution talk, why do you read Christian blogs?”

            How about to find out what people who aren’t like me feel and think about things? Do you only read things written by people you agree with?

            I know several Atheists. They are all empathetic and compassionate, with full, mature emotional lives. Perhaps you need to meet some new folks.

  • BernankeIsGlutenFree

    “In my image of persecution, there are either widespread government policies intended to oppress a group or massive groups of private citizens physically harassing people and their property.”

    Like, for example, the government deliberately deciding not to address or talk about a public health crisis just because of who its primary victims are? Or thousands of parents disowning and making their children homeless just because they belong to a particular demographic?

    My point is: sure, it’s a fact that nobody is really being persecuted in the same way Jews in Nazi Germany or Tutsis in Rwanda were, but that doesn’t mean that the “persecution” experienced by Christians in the USA is of a kind with that experienced by others. I’m dead certain that if any group in the US could switch their cultural condition with that of American Christians, their condition would improve.

    • georgeyancey

      No way would I trade my cultural situation with conservative Christians if I was Jewish, or a sexual minority or a person of color (wait I am). Media, academia, the arts are clearly more sympathetic to these other groups. Now if you are talking political power then you have a conversation. Cultural
      power. It is not even close.

      • BernankeIsGlutenFree

        Then I’d say you have a flatly incorrect perception of how different groups are treated in America. You’re confusing what you’ve overheard mediocre effete white Liberals pontificate about on MSNBC for the real world. Now, that media perception isn’t nothing. It does matter. But does it matter more than if you were:

        Jewish? Are you sure (https://youtu.be/zcoYKuoiUrY?t=2538) about that? Do you really want to be one of the main pillars of neo-nazi propaganda, rhetoric, and hatred?

        A person of colour? Being seen as incompetent (not just by tenured professors, by literally everyone including other Christians) just because you have a “Christian sounding” name? Cops being more nervous and twitchy around you? Generational poverty? Literally any political action you ever take, no matter how peaceful, to address these problems being seen as justification for the initial bigotry itself?

        A sexual minority? Be honest with me. Tell me plainly. If you could swap whatever discrimination Christians currently face in the US for just the suicide, parental abuse, and homeless statistics for LGBT youth (one in three attempting suicide, 7-fold overrepresented in the homeless population), not to mention the other dozen aspects of anti-queer sentiment I can bring up, do you actually think that Christians would be the ones benefiting from that deal? Truly? I would make that swap in a heartbeat, and then regret it immediately because it would mean literally tens of millions of Christian kids dead or on the street. Or how about trans people? Do you want to be spit on in the street, or murdered just because some idiot decided to talk to you in a bar and didn’t realize you were Christian until after they decided to grope you? That’s what you’re comparing academics and media personalities occasionally scoffing at you to, and you’re right, it’s not even close.

        • georgeyancey

          Fine. Provide me a current character on a TV show that is a conservative Christian and treated in a sympathetic manner. Then I be willing to entertain the possibly that conservative Christians have cultural power inline with Jews, sexual minorities and blacks.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            The only TV show I watch that’s currently airing is Chernobyl (which is great), but that takes place in the Societ Union, so I don’t really think that’s the right setting to consult. I’m sure there’s a Tim Allen sitcom or something, but whatever.

            But let’s assume your implication is correct and there are literally zero sympathetic portrayals of conservative Christians in television today. More than that, let’s assume there are zero positive portrayals of conservative Christians in all contemporary American media. Do you think that means that conservative Christians would be made better off if they were to take on the media portrayal–and homelessness, suicide, and familial abuse statistics–of queer youth? Do you really think a few modern versions of Archie Bunker and Hank Hill are worth that price? Do you not understand that media portrayals are only meaningful insofar as they effect the real world?

          • georgeyancey

            The fact that you seem to think that conservative Christians are Archie Bunker says reams about your ignorance of us. The fact that there are no sympathetic conservative Christians on TV shows indicate the weakness of the claim that we have cultural power. If conservative Christians cannot even get a single sympathetic character on TV makes your assertion unviable. And if you do not see out having cultural power in the media, academia and the press does not help the image of a group and help that group gain power then I must believe that it is because you have the privilege of enjoying such cultural power. Nonetheless, I think the shallowness of your assertion is quite clear. Good day.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            Your continual avoidance of my direct question proves to me that you know the answer would disprove your thesis. The fact that you have to ignore and avoid the truth to make your point means that so far as YOU know, your point is wrong. You should have yourself a think about why you insist on lying to others about that.

          • Adam “Giauz” Birkholtz

            The defining traits of conservative Christians presented in whole are simply unsympathetic because conservative Christians seem to thrive on harming people. Even helping the poor is more about looking good than actually eliminating poverty and preventing its spread.

          • You have Ned Flanders. Are you happy now?

          • georgeyancey

            Wow. You do realize you just proved my point right? Okay maybe you don’t.

          • Octavo

            How are you going to define Conservative Christian? Annushka “Anna” Volovodov on the Expanse might count. She’s a Christian pastor who has political influence and leverages it to help homeless people. She’s also married to a woman, so under some definitions of conservative, she’s disqualified. In order for her to qualify as a good example, conservative Christian can’t mean bigoted against LGBT people. If you disqualify her on those grounds, we can move to a narrower question: are any anti-LGBT bigots given a positive portrayal in television? I think the answer to that is probably no unless you count Tim Allen’s character on the recently canceled Last Man Standing.

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            FYI, I’m watching The Wire right now and one of the only characters who takes a continual active and positive role in his community and with the people in it is a pastor. So there you go. Literally the next show I started watching satisfied your request.

          • georgeyancey

            You are right. Some vague pastor character completely destroys me. What am I to do? lol

          • BernankeIsGlutenFree

            One of the only productive and genuinely decent and effective people in a series so acclaimed that President Obama literally invited the creator to the the White House to talk about it? Yeah I would say that should sate you pretty good.

            Have you seen The Wire? I genuinely think you’d like it.

  • George Ertel

    I was so pleased when I began reading your essay. A man who would look up actual definitions, see that he was wrong, and admit it. But then ….

    The formal definitions don’t fit your needs, so dump them in favor of what you want to believe. Just as no one is entitled to his own facts, no one is entitled to his own definitions.

    You have overlooked that persecution is a continuum. Few others went thru what the Tutsi went thru. The West Coast Japanese during WW2 did not, yet it’s hard to take seriously the suggestion that they were not persecuted. And the two families of Jehovah’s Witnesses during WW2 who lived in a small town 175 away from Phoenix, where they were forced to drive for groceries because the locals refused to serve them — they weren’t persecuted? The Christian who is not hired because her presence might upset her co-workers — that’s not persecution?

    Maybe it’s not the Holocaust, but it fits the conventional (albeit not your political) definition of persecution.

    • georgeyancey

      I spend a little time thinking how to respond because you are correct. I am not using the official definition of persecution but one I find more useable. The reason is that under the official definition then everyone can claim to be persecuted. I mean what group is not called a rude name from time to time. So to make sense of the term and to describe real danger I will try to qualify from now on that I prefer a more useable meaning to the term but officially, yes Christian are persecuted, like everyone else in our society. You probably will not agree with me but at least I hope you see where I am coming from.
      Now I do agree that dehumanization can lead to the type of oppression we see in Nazi Germany and there are those who are dehumanizing Christians. Will that lead to oppression? A few years ago I would say absolutely not. Today I still think it unlikely but not impossible. So we Christians do have the right to fight for our rights so that this dehumanization does not go into a dark place. I think on that we can agree.

      • George Ertel

        Thanks for responding. And yes, I agree that that every group gets called rude names from time to time, so yes, all groups suffer some persecution. But a key component is how the community responds to persecution: does it renounce it, the way mistreatment of Sikhs is quite properly renounced? Or is it dismissed as irrelevant or actually deserved? The latter is what seems to be the reaction to Christian persecution.

        • georgeyancey

          I will agree with you that the rudeness to Christians is not called out as much as rudeness to others. That is why cultural power is so important. Christians do not have it while other groups do. I strive for an honest balanced approach where I point out these issues but still recognize that we are not persecuted in the common understanding of the word. At this point I feel it is the best I can do. If things really do start to head towards a more traditional type of persecution you can trust that I will not be silent about that. But we are not there yet.

          • George Ertel

            That seems fair! And in my attempt to be fair, I acknowledge how meanings have shifted over the decades, with meanings as defined by scholars (or at least publishers). Looking at definitions in the online Webster’s 1828 edition, words like persecution, misogyny, and civilian had decidedly different/tighter definitions than they do today. My belief is we ought to abide by today’s definitions, while making distinctions in how we use them.