Mistakes Christians make about persecution

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the decay of cultural Christianity and the possibility of Christian persecution in Australia.

Christianity is still rated at 52 percent of the population, whether nominal or active. Christians can worship openly here. You may receive ridicule for your views, but you can still publish an open letter in a national newspaper and no one wants your head.

But undeniably, there is a growing undercurrent of hostility toward Christians. In isolated cases, some religious educators in schools have been discouraged from telling children to evangelise. We’ve seen “Crucify No Voters” spray-painted on churches. There are also claims that Australia could join the World Watch List one day, though bizarrely with no data to back this up.

In this changing climate, though, I wonder if much of our thinking around persecution – what it is and how to respond – is causing more harm than good.

Persecution has a strong link to the Christian identity. Any youth kid worth their salt in the 90s would know about Jesus Freaks, the DC Talk song and a book about Christian martyrs – both of which encouraged kids to embrace their outsider status. The Columbine massacre lionised teenagers who gave their lives for their faith, even if this angle turned out to be a myth. More recently, films like God’s Not Dead and Left Behind riff on this similar vein of persecution as a noble baptism of fire.

Now that the tide is turning toward a more secular West, some Christians are starting to jump at shadows. Everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to a lack of prayer room in a hospital have been framed as symptoms of persecution. We are digging our heels in on political issues and are running to the poles in our zeal to stand up for Christ.

If we want to have a voice that the world will listen to, then it’s critical that we can properly judge when we are being attacked and when we are not. Because right now, moral panics and a sense of entitlement are doing more to harm the gospel than promote it.

Here are some mistakes we make about what persecution is – and isn’t.

Disagreement isn’t persecution

Issues like same-sex marriage, transgenderism, euthanasia and abortion tend to pit Christians against much of culture. And pressure begins to build. Christians no longer attract respect, but derision. For many Christians, it’s a shock to the system to be consistently on the losing side of a debate. But we can’t conflate disagreement with persecution.

As Rachel Held Evans said,

… public opinion has shifted on same-sex marriage (particularly within the Church), and this means [conservative Christians] are more likely to encounter pushback when they insist same-sex marriage ought to be illegal. Facebook friends may argue with them. Comedians may satirize them. Bloggers may write posts like these disagreeing with them. But to conflate such disagreement with the sort of persecution Jesus warned his disciples about is not only myopic, but also a slap in the face to those Christians who face very real persecution around the world.

Too often, Christians can think that legislating for everyone’s best interests in a pluralistic society is capitulation. But it’s going to become an increasing reality, and we need to get a grip on how to respond.

When we see disagreement as fundamental opposition, we end up withdrawing into ourselves and worrying about our own interests only. This is fatal, and ignores the instruction of Paul to do nothing out of vain ambition, but to look to the interests of others (Philippans 2).

The art of listening

Being criticised or accused of sinful actions isn’t the same as being persecuted.

Heartbreaking stories emerged during the plebiscite about how Christians have harmed people in the LGBTIQ community. This is all the more tragic when you read about how tough it is to struggle with sexuality. Members of the LGBTI community have the highest rate of suicidality of any group in Australia, according to BeyondBlue. LGBTIQ Christians have testified over and over the mental distress they faced wrestling with their sexuality in an unfriendly church, where they often had a choice between renouncing their faith or being rejected.

A counsellor friend of mine told me that calls from LGBTIQ Christians skyrocketed in response to the plebiscite. Many of these people would have been hiding in plain sight, listening to sermons that assumed only heterosexuals were listening.

The response? Many vocal Christians decided this was not a time for humble conversation, but a call to arms. Instead of compassion, many Christians jumped into defensive mode and said that LGBTIQ people were attacking traditional values.

One article took my breath away when it trumpeted the persecution of Christians by the “pink mafia”. When the backlash hit, the author said that this was persecution. Not for a second, I guess, did he think it was normal offense taken at disrespectful and ignorant language.

Others may stereotype Christians (“hateful bigots”). But Christians can be just as bad at stereotyping others (speaking with venom about “the gay lobby”).

To much of the world, we’re the big bully who cries when a kid finally hits them back. As Rachel Held Evans said,

What the persecution complex suggests is that conservative Christians only care about bullying, oppression, and discrimination when it happens to them.

Listening is where we need to start, not defensiveness. We need humility to see where we’ve been wrong. When we jump to be offended when we discover Christians can sin like everyone else, it’s self-defeating. As Louis C.K. said once, “If someone tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide you didn’t.”

Adapting to change

Persecution is also not the same as having your dominant position decline. John Dickson said in a recent interview,

When many Christians speak [in a public forum], they sound like you’re meant to listen to them because they are the referee.

Christians may once have been the conscience of society, the “referees of the game”. Both church and society reinforced this. But times have changed, and most of our country doesn’t see the church that way anymore. Christians are now players in the game, equal to everyone else.

As the argument goes, “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Christians have enjoyed privilege for a long time – so to many, the fuss around the supposed persecution is baffling and even offensive.

Do we have a right and responsibility to speak out? Sure. But it’s not through demanding control of debates or scolding non-Christians for not living in a Christian way. As John Dickson says, we can’t think of Australia as a “backsliding Christian that we need to call back”. Most Australians won’t have been Christians to begin with.

Recognising true discrimination will be important, because it will happen – for ourselves and for others. But we need to approach this wisely and with nuance. Declining cultural Christianity isn’t happening just to infringe on our rights. As one writer put it,

Too much is at stake for evangelicals to waste our resources and credibility on frivolous and occasionally self-provoked “injustices.” Imagined offenses drummed up by sensationalists and fear-mongers should be exposed and denied. At times, even legitimate offenses should be overlooked, when they are petty. By focusing attention on real and substantial incidences of persecution, evangelicals will be much more effective at educating their neighbors and fighting for truly important matters of religious liberty.

We are in an enviable position in Australia in many ways. In some countries, Christians can be killed or sent to a labour camp for their faith. Missionaries in places like North Korea, Afghanistan and Pakistan often can’t even be identified due to security concerns.

We don’t know what the future will bring in Australia. This is why it’s even more important to learn discernment now. We’ll need to learn how to overlook offences where appropriate; respond where appropriate; and step back where appropriate. We need to pursue a healthy theology of suffering and persecution, resisting “us” vs “them” thinking.

We also need to cultivate a healthy self-awareness. With this, we can focus on our ability to engage, understand and speak up with grace. If we don’t, I’m afraid “we don’t deserve a hearing – and [won’t] get one”.

7 Replies to “Mistakes Christians make about persecution

  1. Hi Cheryl,
    Having lived in Egypt, where Christians face death, kidnapping and genuine discrimination, I certainly endorse your call to keep the Australian situation in perspective and not embrace victimhood. However, I would encourage Christians to ensure that the architecture of religious freedom is not eroded in Australia. Indeed, it may even need strengthening in some areas where it was not under threat previously. Just as criticism of Christianity is not persecution, neither is sincere criticism of Islamic beliefs Islamophobia or of Judaism anti-Semitism. Christian workers (and people from other and no faith background) ought to be free to disagree with social causes adopted by their employers where they conflict with genuinely held beliefs. Christian student groups at universities ought to be subject to the same rights and responsibilities as other groups, not banned for promoting messages consistent with their beliefs. Christian organisations ought to be able to hire people who adhere to their values, as do political parties. If these protections are eroded, we might find that in a generation or so we are facing the genuine discrimination and persecution that is not yet upon us.

    1. Yup absolutely, Andrew. I think the anticipation of persecution is making us jumpy in the present time, which is what I was getting at/criticising here. But I agree that we need to start preparing a healthy theology around persecution and recognising what battles we ought to fight in the short and long term.

    2. For me the real test is whether we’re intent on seeking freedom of religion for all and not just for our own communities. If Christians want robust religious freedoms, I would expect to see us looking to make space for other religious communities. I haven’t seen much interest in that yet and am on the lookout for it!

      1. I agree there, too, Arthur. My problem with much of Christian rhetoric at the moment is that it’s all about self-interest. We do need to keep up with what’s happening, but how we’re responding right now has so little self-awareness. Fighting for our rights has tragic irony when so many people view the church as steamrolling vulnerable people (ie, recent events in Australia like the Royal Commission).

  2. Hi Cheryl.
    A very timely article. I find myself tending towards over-sensitivity about criticism of my beliefs and feeling ‘persecuted’. But I also can see that the things I am reacting to are things that are likely to lead to real persecution: the objectification of people on FB and the consequential insensitivity, bullying and disrespect as we (all) treat people as less-than people.
    I have, however seen the attitudes that led to this in my family for decades. In fact, so much so that I recognise my family as not just non-Christians, but anti-Christian. The bad thinking that has led to ‘everyone is right’ has, somehow, also led to ‘everyone is right, except for Christianity’.
    Now, I can SO understand why there is a kickback happening, with all the things that people pretending to follow Jesus have done in church history, and even those sincerely following Him. Eg. the Crusades, sexual abuse by priests, the reason abortion was made legal (women were put in terrible situations).
    I have recently begun thinking that we should actually have courses on persecution in church. What is it? What is it not? When should Christians react to it? When should they not? How should Christians react to it?
    Here in NZ there is a movement on retaining our religious freedom. Here’s the website, if you’re interested: http://ourreligiousfreedom.org.nz/
    Actually, it looks like there might be one for Australia as well. Just take the NZ off and add AU.
    Recently in NZ, a rugby player was asked what he thought about homosexuals. Why he was asked is another question (for a theologian, he was a great… rugby player). His response has had him hated and vilified in the press and all over the place, sponsorship withdrawn and everything. But it has also highlighted the religious freedom issue – at least for me. His response was honest, but not particularly well-couched – he sounded quite judgemental – you know, the usual thing. But he was a rugby player… sheesh!
    So many things here, but it’s good to talk about stuff like this, keep each other thinking and accountable.
    One person I have been listening to lately is Jordan Peterson. One thing he says that makes a lot of sense to me is that we think by talking, by having a conversation. If one party shuts the other down by shaming them or blocking them or legislating against them (‘hate speech’), then we are stopping the conversation and therefore stopping corporate thinking. The blocked party stops engaging, withdraws and ends up in a bad place, where they might break out in frustration – and in over-the-top ways.
    Anyway, this has been quite a ramble.
    Thank you for pushing these buttons and starting the ball rolling on this type of conversation. Let’s keep it up, though it may get difficult, uncomfortable and challenging. It’s worth the fight.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Susan! I appreciate your thoughts. This was a tricky article to write, because I by no means think that we shouldn’t act, or respond, to vilification and persecution. It could become much more of a reality. But I recently put my finger on how unhelpful it can be when we’re defensive and over-sensitive. We are in a very polarised environment, and it’s not easy to have dialogue when both sides think the other is bad or evil! My sense is that we need to listen, understand and pick our battles.

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