While love was hoping all things, the BBs have piled on the situation in Houston in a way that raises a number of interesting questions about persecution. Tim Bayly himself insists that the difficulties contemporary Christians confront increasingly resembles what Chicken Little faced:
. . . the persecution suffered by Christians in this country is powerful, silencing the witness and confession of the Gospel everywhere and constantly. To act as if we don’t see or care about this low-grade persecution because it hasn’t yet come for us and our job and children, or because it hasn’t yet come to our city or school system, or because our mayor is not a lesbian who is subpoenaing the sermons of the churches in our city, is to refuse to read our times as closely and well as we read the clouds. It is to sleep when we should be preparing our children to stand against social pressures, stigmas, and loss of income so in the not-very-distant future they will be able to stand against imprisonment and execution.
Sure, it sounds histrionic to speak of the iron fist of diversity, inclusivity, and pluralism as a real threat to the civil liberties of Christians today. Unless, of course, one has studied the growth of the persecution and martyrdom suffered by our brothers and sisters in Christ under the iron fist of that same diversity, inclusivity, and pluralism enforced across the ancient Roman Empire.
As an American who still thinks that the point of the United States had to do with opposition to centralized and consolidated government, I can sympathize with small-government types who object to the politics of Houston. But as a Christian, I have trouble thinking that this qualifies as persecution or that we should oppose it. After all, the New Testament is replete with calls to Christians to bear their cross:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. (1 Pet 4:1-3 ESV)
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:7-12 ESV)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:3-12 ESV)
This doesn’t mean that Christians should be masochists who look for ways to experience pain or that we should somehow lose a capacity to distinguish quiet and peaceful lives from one characterized by affliction. But it does suggest that persecution is not something about which we should bitch. It goes with the turf and may actually be evidence (pay attention Obedience Boys) of a lively faith.
At the same time, does a subpoena rise to the level of persecution? Consider a piece by Ross Douthat some time back:
If the federal government suddenly closed all religious schools in the United States, banned homeschooling, and instituted an anti-religious curriculum in public schools, I would absolutely call it persecution. But a step like denying religious colleges access to public dollars would not rise to the same level. It would certainly create hardship and disruption, and weaken institutional religion in significant ways. But it would leave the basic liberty to educate one’s children in one’s own faith intact, and I cannot see the warrant for claiming that a given faith is “persecuted” by the government’s decision to withhold a subsidy. Again: Disadvantaged, yes; persecuted, no.
Likewise, if the government suddenly required businesses to fire Christians, or instituted a policy of discrimination that prevented them from being hired, that would clearly be a form of persecution. But having the rules of a few professions suddenly pose new ethical dilemmas for religious believers is the kind of thing that can happen in any time and place. It’s a challenge, a hardship, a form of pressure … but it’s not really persecution as I think most people understand the term.
And to Dreher’s point that this definition would imply that there haven’t been that many cases of sustained persecution in the United States — well, I suppose I think that’s right. I wouldn’t use “persecution” to describe the rules that kept Jews out of Ivy League schools and country clubs, for instance, or the experience of atheist parents before the Supreme Court rolled back school prayer, or the hostility and scrutiny that Muslims sometimes face in the post-9/11 U.S.A. Or to use my own faith to bring the distinction to a finer point: In the 19th century, the Ursuline convent riots were a case of actual anti-Catholic persecution; the climate of anti-Catholicism that produced the Blaine amendments was not. This isn’t to minimize the anti-Catholicism of the 1870s and 1880s; it’s just to say that not every form of hostility deserves the same label as the work of a Diocletian or a Nero.
And using the “persecution” label too promiscuously, I think, carries three risks beyond intellectual inaccuracy. First, as Dreher sort of concedes, it doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the vast gulf separating the situation of Western Christians and the incredible heroism of our co-believers overseas, who face eliminative violence on an increasingly-dramatic scale. Second, as I tried to suggest in the column, it doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the gulf separating the situation of Western Christians and the situation of gays and lesbians, past and present, facing persecution at the hands of religiously-motivated actors. And finally, it doesn’t actually prepare conservative believers for a future as a (hopefully creative) religious minority, because it conditions them/us to constantly expect some kind of grand tribulation that probably won’t actually emerge.
Could it be then that by invoking the language of persecution Christians are simply showing their desire to get in the line of victims? After all, this is the recent and easy way to achieve status in the United States, namely, to show that you are the object of oppression (even to the point of having your feelings hurt). But that was hardly the attitude that characterized the early Christian martyrs who knew a thing or two about persecution. Here the BBs may want to take a page — of all things — from a woman named Perpetua:
But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.
There is persecution and then there is persecution (thanks to our mid-West correspondent).