I have found myself coming across a lot of in the media and online from North American Christians referring to themselves as suffering for their faith or even being persecuted. almost without exception, when I dig into their issues it most often is a situation where Christians have lost a place of privilege in our culture (one that we should perhaps not have had in the first place), but are responding to it as though they are being put to the rack.
We’ve all ready Matthew 5:10-12:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
At one time or another I am sure that most of us have wondered if our lack of persecution was somehow an indictment that we were not living as Christ commanded, and perhaps there is some truth to that. However, in the light of the freedom and peace we do experience as Western Christians, we need to be aware of two potential dangers in this respect.
First, we must be careful not to over-inflate our struggles as though they are persecution when they clearly are not. While we should engage in civil discourse about things we believe strongly about, I believe it dishonours the prophets and martyrs who have gone before us (and who truly suffer even now around the world) to claim that we are persecuted and suffering for such things as no prayer in schools or marriage equality. Yet far too many of us do just that.
This is what I call becoming “paper-cut martyrs,” people who inflate their own righteousness by treating legitimate but relatively minor struggles and challenges as though they were in the arena standing before lions. Let us not dishonour God or those who truly suffer in any attempt to boost our own spiritual status. After all, it is for Christ’s sake that we suffer, being no reflection of our own merit or worth. Where it is not being done to build up our own so-called holiness, it is being done out of faithless and selfish fear- a fear we claim to have been liberated from by Christ, where death itself has no sting!
Second, if we make mistakes or treat people poorly in the name of God, it is not persecution when they attack us or Christianity as a result. It is shameful, for example, to claim that we are “under siege” by some ambiguous “gay agenda”, citing how many LGBTQ people openly criticize and attack the church. The fact is that Western Christians have little idea what it has been like for the millions of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to live with such universal hatred and abuse, often at the hands of the church and in the name of Christ. That Christians have largely mistreated these people for centuries is not even debatable. While hatred is never justified, it is not difficult to understand why we have been cast as the enemy. We have earned every bit of the distrust and anger directed towards us. Therefore, to call their attacks persecution is like willfully knocking down a hornets nest and then claiming innocence when getting stung.
It is important to name and repent of these kinds of dynamics whenever we see them. There is also a place for the prophetic rebuke of our fellow believers for perpetuating this way of thinking and acting. However, we must also remember that the best rebuke of bad behavior is a life dedicated to living the better alternative. Now more than ever we the world needs to see an alternative witness from Christians- people willing to put themselves out there in humility and repentance, even when it is socially and religiously unpopular to do so.
Sadly, such faithfulness itself can result in suffering at the hands of other Christians. The final beatitudes foreshadow the inevitable suffering and death that comes with being true to the teachings and example of Jesus, for it points clearly to the cross. The undeniable sin and brokenness in the world, in our communities and in our hearts mean that suffering and death are inevitable, even necessary. However, we must remember that we are blessed! We can rejoice and be glad because not even death can stop the kingdom that is breaking forth. In fact, it is through death that the miracle of resurrection brings hope and salvation to all creation.
(adapted from my book “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom”)