The persecution of Christians: 4 ways to respond

The persecution of Christians: 4 ways to respond November 20, 2013

Wherever there is no legal protection in place to prevent it, the powerful are able to prey on the powerless.

That doesn’t always happen. The powerful sometimes, in some places, choose not to prey on the powerless even though there’s nothing to stop them. Sometimes the powerful are quite nice, allowing the powerless to enjoy a modicum of freedom and prosperity while living relatively unmolested. But such benevolence is unreliable. Benevolence is never sufficient as the only constraint on the powerful.

The only way to guarantee freedom and personal safety for the powerless is by enshrining that guarantee in a framework of law that protects the rights of all, including the powerless.

That is all you need to know to understand any form of religious persecution or religious conflict. The persecution of religious minorities occurs wherever the rights and freedoms of minorities are not guaranteed by law. Religious conflict occurs wherever religious rights and freedoms are not guaranteed by law, but are contingent on which faction holds power.

Workers bury the victims of religious violence. In this case, the victims were Christians, but I hope that information does not make you more, or less, saddened by what you see here.

It doesn’t matter which religions are at work. The character, qualities and substance of the religions in question are irrelevant. We’ve seen this time and time again throughout history, and we could point to a dismaying number of current examples to reinforce the point. Religious persecution is not a function of the religious character of the majority nor a function of the religious character of the minority. The only variable that matters is whether or not there is a legal framework guaranteeing the rights, freedoms and safety of minorities.

Absent that, even religious homogeneity (or a-religious homogeneity) will not prevent religious persecution. In a completely Christian nation without such a legal framework, you will wind up with Protestants persecuting Catholics (or vice versa). In a completely Protestant nation without such a legal framework, you will wind up with Lutherans persecuting Anabaptists, etc. Religious diversity is not the cause of persecution. The cause is the lack of legal protection for religious minorities.

In the past 20 years or so, North American Christians have become increasingly aware that other Christians in other parts of the world are facing real persecution. This persecution exists because:

A. Christians are, in those countries, a minority with little political power; and

B. Minorities with little political power in those countries do not have legal protections guaranteeing their freedom, rights and personal safety.

Both of those conditions are true wherever Christians are persecuted. Both of those conditions being true is what makes it possible — or perhaps inevitable — that those Christians will be persecuted.

Given that, we can see four possible responses — four potential changes that would protect Christians in those countries from suffering religious persecution.

1. We could attempt to convert everyone else in those countries to Christianity, thereby ensuring that Christians were no longer a powerless minority.

2. We could try to enhance the political power wielded by the Christian minority in those countries, thereby providing them with the means to protect themselves from religious persecution.

3. We could promote the adoption of legal protections for Christians in those countries, guaranteeing the freedom, rights and personal safety of Christians there.

4. We could promote the adoption of legal protections for all religious minorities in those countries, guaranteeing the freedom, rights and personal safety of everyone there.

I have, obviously, stacked the deck there, laying out these four possible responses in a way that I hope makes clear my preference for No. 4. But I also believe this to be an accurate description of the main courses of action that it is possible to pursue in response to the religious persecution of Christians elsewhere. And while I’m not attempting to paint the first three options in a flattering way, those responses are not inventions or caricatures — real people and organizations are really pursuing all of these approaches.

Response No. 1 in that list is attractive to Christians with a strong missionary impulse or sense of evangelistic obligation. I admire that impulse — although not uncritically — but missionary efforts are a wholly separate discussion. We don’t need here to get into a discussion of the Great Commission and the various ways that various Christians have pursued that vision. All we need to mention here is that, as a strategy for protecting Christians from persecution, this does not and cannot work.

Again, religious homogeneity is no substitute for legal protection for the rights of minorities. Without such a legal framework, mass conversion would only lead to intra-religious persecution replacing inter-religious persecution. And this approach could well lead to the disastrous outcome in which the bad situation of Christians suffering injustice is transformed into the bad situation in which Christians are perpetrating injustice.

Response No. 2 is particularly attractive to Christians with a tribalistic understanding of their faith. Christians who most identify as a kind of political tribe here in the U.S. are most likely to think of Christians elsewhere as also primarily existing as a kind of political tribe. This response carries the same danger as the one above of changing the roles while maintaining the injustice. But in this case the transformation of Christians from those suffering injustice into those perpetrating injustice is a deliberate step. That’s not good. It’s particularly not good given that in the absence of legal protections for the rights of religious minorities, political disputes often metastasize into politics-by-other-means, which is to say into violence.

This is not a hypothetical discussion. Consider the plight of the Christian minority in Syria and the way its relationship with the Assad regime affects the response of some North American Christians to that conflict.

These first two responses seem closely related in that both are attempts to change the context of the first condition that makes persecution possible, the condition in which Christians are a politically powerless minority. Yet these two responses also directly contradict one another. The political tribalism of the second conditions Christians to respond to everyone else as an outsider — a “them,” an enemy. Nothing could do more to undermine the missionary impulse of the first response, and nothing could do more to ensure that its missionary efforts would fail. We can pursue the Great Commission or we can define our religious identity in terms of political tribalism, but we cannot do both at the same time.

Response No. 3 is most popular among Christians who misdiagnose the cause of religious persecution. These folks tend to overlook the vital necessity of legal protection and legal rights, focusing instead on what they imagine must be some ineffable intrinsic quality of Christianity that makes Christians uniquely prone to suffering religious persecution. Since they’re convinced that persecution is thus a unique problem for Christians, they’re drawn to a proposed solution that only applies to Christians.

Take a look at this interview with Rupert Shortt, who has written a book with a title that seems to crystallize this confusion, Christianophoba: A Faith Under Attack. Shortt seems to start from the assumption that the persecution of Christians is due to the nature of Christianity itself, and thus doesn’t seem interested in any discussion of legal rights for religious minorities. The only thing that seems able to distract him from seeking to identify this peculiar aspect of Christianity is the challenge of identifying the peculiar aspect of Islam or of Hinduism that makes adherents of those religions supposedly prone, intrinsically, to persecute Christians.

There are no such peculiar aspects. Religious majorities will persecute religious minorities wherever they are unchecked by any legal framework guaranteeing the rights of those minorities. It doesn’t matter which religion is on top and which is on the bottom.

The religious content of the majority religion inflicting such persecution is relevant only to the extent that doing so tends to have a corrosive influence on that religion. In that regard, while it’s most urgent for particular Christians that their legal rights be secured in order to protect them from religious persecution, it’s perhaps more urgent for Christianity as a whole that the legal rights of all people be secured in order, in part, to protect Christianity itself from becoming corrupted through its complicity in the persecution of others.

Christians who view religious persecution through this confused lens aren’t able to offer any coherent response to the many situations in the world in which Christians are suffering religious persecution and religious violence at the hands of other Christians. As Ruth Alexander recently wrote for the BBC, those situations are among the most lethally dangerous — accounting for most of those reported as “Christian martyrs” every year. (That framework of “martyrdom” tends to reinforce this confusion — fortifying the misimpression that religious persecution is something suffered uniquely by Christians.)

I’m not sure that the goal of this response is a sustainable solution for Christian populations now facing persecution. I don’t think it’s actually possible to grant rights for one group but not for everyone — at least not in the long run. If Christians are granted the “right” to religious freedom, but other religious minorities are not, then that “right” is not really a right, but a privilege. And privileges are more tenuous. They do not afford the kind of “inalienable” security that rights promise.

Thus the only way to ensure that Christians enjoy such rights, it seems to me, is to ensure that everyone does. No. 4 is the only response with any real potential to succeed. And it has the added virtue of being the only response that would simultaneously protect minority populations of Christians from persecution while also protecting Christianity itself from the corrupting affects of becoming a persecuting majority.

If we want to protect Christians everywhere in the world from persecution, then, this is what we should be fighting for. We should be demanding full religious freedom for every religious minority — including, of course, every non-religious and a-religious minority. We should be opposing any and all “blasphemy” laws wherever they are imposed. We should be opposed to any and all religious tests for public office or for basic civil rights. We should be championing laws that would guarantee the religious freedom of Christians in Egypt, but we should also be championing laws that would guarantee the religious freedom of everyone else in Egypt. We should be championing the religious freedom of Muslims in Burma, the religious freedom of Baha’i in Iran, the religious freedom of minority Shia or Sunni Muslims in countries controlled by majorities of the rival sect, and the religious freedom of atheists everywhere.

Legal protection for everyone everywhere. That’s the only response that can work, and it’s the only response worthy of pursuing.

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