A friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from TheDailyBeast.com concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution. More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.
The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries. The topic? “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”
The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess. As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.” While I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.
The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place. And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t. Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.
When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation. And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking. So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months. Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted. Or maybe not.
Though it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted. God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers? These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make. Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked. It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference. After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.
For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern. But this is not the same as persecution. Call it something else. But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.
The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.” I agree. It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality. But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution. And even in those places where elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime? If a minister is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution? Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse. I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges. I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.
Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real. Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.
We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up. I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine. Maybe so. But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.