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.

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