Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Is there a "polite persecution" of Christians in the USA?

The phrase "polite persecution" comes from Pope Francis. It's cited in this article from TIME. I have no interest in the political aspects of things mentioned in the piece by Mary Eberstadt, since I believe that the Church should step into the political arena only rarely.

But she cites incidents that seem to support Francis' belief that "polite persecution" of Christians is a reality in the United States:
According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

This new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. 
Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology—or else. Flagship evangelical schools like Gordon College in Massachusetts and Kings College in New York have had their accreditation questioned. Some secularists argue that Christian schools don’t deserve accreditation, period. Activists have targeted home-schooling for being a Christian thing; atheist Richard Dawkins and others have even called it tantamount to child abuse. Student groups like InterVarsity have been kicked off campuses. Christian charities, including adoption agencies, Catholic hospitals and crisis pregnancy centers have become objects of attack.
Eberhardt goes on to point out that instances like these hardly warrant the overwrought characterization of Christian "persecution" in the US as the equivalent of what happens to Christians in territory controlled by Isil, for example. She's right!
Yet [she says, again rightly, I think] we must also acknowledge that when some Americans citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views, something new has snaked its way into the village square: an insidious intolerance for religion that has no place in a country founded on religious freedom.
I linked to this over on Facebook and received this thoughtful response from Steve, a junior high classmate:
From my experience, there are a number of Christians who are overly sensitive to even the least disagreement of their beliefs, especially when those Christians are loudly calling for everyone to conform, and they call this mild disagreement persecution. That is laughable on its face. I wish people, of whatever or no belief, would be secure in their own selves that they didn't have to seek justification in numbers. Sadly, a lot are not that secure. Jesus himself warned that believers would be persecuted for righteousness' sake, but they would be rewarded for it. So it's rather curious to me why Christians would complain about persecution.
I responded:
Steve, thuggish Christians, a term that should be oxymoronic, are a scourge to the Church. I'm totally opposed to efforts by both the Christian Right and the Christian Left to impose their versions of Christian ethics on society as a whole. Christian ethics are meant to be a voluntary outgrowth of one's relationship with Christ, not a regimen of theocracy. 
And while I don't agree with everything the author of this piece says, the facts she marshals to show the shunning, marginalization, and ridicule to which Christians are subjected these days conforms to my own experiences. To speak openly about one's faith in Christ and belief in the Bible as the definitive Word of God, is to be seen by many as bigoted, closed-minded, irrational, and superstitious.

Some of this reaction--evidenced throughout modern culture--can no doubt be traced to the legalists who call themselves Christians acting as though they speak for Christ on political issues. They engage in an idolatry of a false Jesus--conservative, white, legalistic--who bears little resemblance to the Lord who transformed this one-time atheist to a believer saved by God's undeserved grace through faith in Christ.
There is simply no way to draw a straight line between Christ and a particular political program. People who say otherwise are either deceived or deceivers. I lament the bad rap that people like these give to Christ and Christians. 
When a crowd, their bellies full with food that Jesus had provided to them, sought to make Jesus their political king, he condemned and rejected their impulses. As Jesus said elsewhere, His kingdom has invaded, but is not of, this world. 
That shouldn't lead Christians to quietism when it comes to the affairs of the world. Karl Marx was totally wrong when he described all religion--he especially had Christianity in mind--as an "opiate of the people." Versions of Christianity that lull believers into a passive acceptance of injustice, whether at personal or societal levels, encouraging people to wait for "the sweet by and by," are wrong and faithless. Jesus threw the extortionist currency-exchangers out of the temple for the injustice of their business, all done in the name of God. Jesus wasn't passive and told believers to give to Caesar--the government--what's owed Caesar and to give God what is owed God. Christians are to be active, constructive participants in the lives of their communities, nations, and world. Micah 6:8 in the Old Testament tells believers: "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord has required of you, but to love justice and to do mercy and to walk humbly with your God." 
All of this has led me through the years to seek to be a constructive participant in my communities' lives: tutor at a local school; chair of a public school district's levy campaign; member of a county Developmental Disabilities board, another county's juvenile drug abuse prevention task force, and of a county social services commission; president of the board of a countywide Boys and Girls Club; candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives; and so on. 
But not once in these activities have I claimed that the positions I took on policy issues were God's will and that those who disagreed with me were wrong. In fact, I've always tried to make sure people understood that I knew I might be wrong. 
Yet I fear that church bodies and Christian groups who take a "thus says the Lord" approach to public issues have created a backlash against what is, essentially, a cartoon version of Christian faith. 
That is one contributing factor to the subtle "persecution" of Christians in contemporary culture.

Others include: the brainless refusal to examine the truth claims of Christian faith by supposedly intelligent people (I believe that they are intelligent, but willfully ignorant when it comes to what Christianity is really about); the incuriosity of a culture more interested in being entertained and immediately gratified than in probing why they exist and why their world isn't right; and materialism which can insulate people from reality, deluding them with the unspoken belief that they are "gods" to whom life owes them something. 
Of course, many who are bitter and angry with Christians are people who have been mistreated by Christians or gone through hard lives for which there are no easy explanations. To people like these, Christians should listen. Christians should pray for such people. And Christians should seek to bring such people God's love and God's justice. Sometimes the job of Christians and the Church is to clean up the dung spread by others in the name of Christ. (I fully own that I have sometimes, inadvertently and thoughtlessly, been guilty of dung-spreading, by my life and my words. I repent for it.) 
These factors are what I think lay behind much of the sometimes subtle anti-Christian ferocity that exists in the US and the West these days. 
None of it comes as a surprise to me. And we're not suffering like our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. And sometimes all too comfortable Christians see persecution where it doesn't exist, such as on Starbucks cups at Christmastime. But Jesus warned that Christians would face fierce opposition and spurning for their faith. It's just surprising to see how fierce and uninformed it can be.
Steve answered:
Great reply Mark. I'm going to re-read it tomorrow. I think it's obvious you've done a lot of thinking about this, as have I. Sometimes I think a lot of American Christians have no real understanding, at all, of Christ's teaching. They are great cherry pickers. I try to live and let live. We all have to get through this life the best way we can, and whatever religion or philosophy helps one get through life, I'm all for it. As I said, some people feel threatened when, after offering their religion, the recipient says "no thank you". I believe in "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". No one should be persecuted for their beliefs, ever. Thanks for taking the time to write that response, I am glad for any opportunity to further understand these issues.
Steve is a terrific guy and I am looking forward to seeing him and his wife Kim, a classmate since elementary school, at our high school class reunion later this month. I also look forward to reading his reply.

So, what do you think?

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

No comments: