For a lot of folks in recent days, the question of persecution of Christians in the Western world is something of a non-starter. As we’ve noted on BreakPoint, for some, including a disturbing number of Christian pastors, concern over increasing state and social hostility is relegated to the back burner. It’s not that they think it shouldn’t be an issue but simply that it’s not a particularly important one.
Some go further than this. They say that it’s counterproductive, illusory, or even selfish for Western Christians to harp on the supposed dangers of persecution in our day and age. It is seen as somehow more virtuous not to complain about prejudice in this case, and that we should simply let the inconveniences of bias continue. This argument can come in several forms.
There are those who say that American Christians have a persecution complex. There’s something to this. Particularly those shaped by certain eschatological formulations, being oppressed grants the believer a measure of dignity and uniqueness. The increased opposition of the world makes our present position a clear indication that ours is the final act of history. Since this is the case, critics say we can ignore cries about persecution.
However, this line of reasoning can only go so far. It may be true that “crying wolf” makes it harder to believe complaints of oppression, but, as with Aesop’s Tale, this doesn’t mean there aren’t wolves about. It may be true that a hypochondriac makes the most of every flutter and feeling, but we’d be poor cultural doctors if we ignored all cries accordingly.
Another suggestion is that Western Christians have no right to complain about their plight when other Christians in other ages and places have faced far worse. As true as it might be that being denied a permit to operate on a college campus isn’t quite the same as being flayed alive, this is a false dichotomy, and a condescending one at that.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, just because one pain is less intense than another, it hardly follows that it doesn’t hurt. Should a sick person not seek medical care when it’s available simply because others are sicker, or people in other places and times didn’t have medicine or doctors? If someone steals your property or beats you in the streets, should you not complain because you weren’t murdered?
Now some, rightly noting that suffering is an intrinsic part of the Christian life, argue that we should almost go so far as to embrace whatever persecution comes our way. After all, didn’t Jesus promise us that in this world we would have trouble? And didn’t He declare that we were blessed when others persecute us?
This is to confuse means and ends. Yes, very often it is through suffering that we are made more into the image of Christ as our idols are stripped away and our vanities revealed in their shallowness. But what we miss when we see such suffering as a de facto goal is that the pain through which God purifies us from all unrighteousness is not in itself a good thing.
We may all point to great gains in godliness from seeing our loved ones or ourselves endure great hardship through disease and death, but these desecrating results of the Fall are the things over which Christ weeps and which will, in the Final Day, be cast into the lake of fire. The blood of the martyrs may be to their honor, but the Father’s wrath is reserved for those who spill it. God may well use the means of suffering to bless His church, but to seek or accept such oppression as beneficial in itself is to call good what is evil.
Others argue that persecution and opposition are just what the doctor ordered. In times of plenty, the people of God grow fat in their comfort, so what we now need is a little hardship. The tares will be less likely to take root among the wheat, and the wheat will grow more surely fixed to the good soil of Christ. Further, isn’t it so that the church never grows so well as when under the heat of oppression? Not always.
Yes, we can point to some amazing times of growth in the church, both numerically and morally, when hostility was the defining trait of the age. We can look to the Early Church, which grew from a few hundred souls on the edge of the Empire in the middle of the 1st century to the official religion of Rome by the middle of the 4th. We can see the amazingly counterintuitive embrace of Christianity by African slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, all while it was the faith of their oppressors. We can also find inspiration in the story of the Chinese church in the 20th century which went from tens of thousands in 1949 to, arguably, over 100 million today, all in the face of some of the most intense persecution in Christian history.
However, just because something works in some cases, it doesn’t mean that it will work in all. It is very true that there are certain advantages to being an unfavored faith. You don’t get half-hearted people joining up for the comfort or social benefits when it’s no longer cool to be a Christian. We’ve seen this in recent years in America as the number of people attending church has dropped, now that being a member lacks the cultural cache that it once possessed. Without roots, the shallow faith of the false believers withers easily, while the true Bride of Christ remains.
We must keep in mind that, this isn’t always the case. Contra Tertullian, the blood of the martyrs is not always the seed of the church. As much as we rejoice to see the happy endings of persecution in the early days as the church overcame the Empire, or when slaves became the chosen children of the Most High, or when house churches defied the tyranny of Mao, this is not the entire story. The Middle East, which was the center of Christianity for a thousand years has been stripped of its churches and Christian population over the last half-millennium. The first forays of Christians to the Far East were wiped out under pressure of Chinese and Japanese state actions.
This should not surprise us as the Bible reflects this concern. When Jesus was arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane, He noted that, without Him, His little band of brothers would be scattered. When the Apostles were first hauled before the Sanhedrin, many of the leaders wanted to have them killed. But Gamaliel argued that they’d seen various presumptive rebels come and go, but, after their demise, their followers drifted away in the wind. Despite Hollywood clichés and our romanticism to the contrary, most of the time when a leader is killed or a people is oppressed, the end result is an inspiring martyr or the victory of the downtrodden but the death of the movement.
Finally, it’s worth noting that while Christ and the Apostles endured much and insisted that these pains were part and parcel of the Christian life, they were quite willing to avoid the effects of persecution if the situation allowed it. True, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, and He was meek and mild in the lead-up to Good Friday, not fleeing from those who sought Him nor even offering up a defense in the face of their great wrong. But, before His hour had come, He expressly avoided capture by would-be assassins and challenged those who’d abuse their authority to His harm.
Further, even though the likes of Peter and Paul could wax eloquent about the blessings and reality of suffering for the Faith, they, too, sought to avoid persecutions if they could. Think of the time in Acts when Peter challenged the ruling body of the nation, arguing that they were wrong to imprison his fellow Apostles. Paul did much the same thing years later when he rebuked the High Priest and exploited the factionalism between Pharisees and Sadducees to make good his escape from their clutches. On more than one occasion, Paul made use of his legal rights as a Roman citizen either to avoid persecution or to rebuke those who had oppressed him.
Persecutions and hostility are inevitable and may even have a positive side effect, but they’re never good. A health scare may add years to a man’s life on account of an improved diet and lifestyle, but the initial affliction remained a deadly disease. In the same way, we should never confuse the divine commands to endure the opposition of the world in patient faith with an acceptance of this hatred or an expectation that we should take such hostility without protest or thoughts of escape.
What made the infant church successful in its early years was not that they were persecuted. After all, many mystery religions were also opposed by the Roman state, only to disappear from history. No, the secret of their success, the plot of the Book of Acts, and our hope in our day, is that in spite of the unconquerable opposition of the cultural and political powers-that-be, the church of Christ continues to grow because of God’s divine support.
When we’re faced with the opposition of the world, we should never presume that it is our right to avoid it. If it was not too high a price to pay for the likes of Peter and Paul, Boniface and Perpetua, Liddell and Thomas, or the countless, nameless others who’ve suffered for the sake of Christ, it should never be seen as beneath our dignity. God has allowed and even used the hostility of the world in His ongoing quest to restore His world.
Even so, in keeping with the testimony of God’s Word and the example of these older brothers and sisters, we should always see persecutions, large and small, as something to be avoided, opposed, and to long to see them come to an end. In the same way that we are to work everyday to bring our world more and more in line with God’s intentions for human flourishing, we should do everything we can to end the scourge of persecution, near or far. Just as we strive to see a world without sin or disease or death, we must work for God’s Shalom to replace humanity’s persecution of His people.
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