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”.