I hear it a lot these days.
“You can’t be open about your Christian faith without being persecuted”
“Traditional family values are being overthrown.”
“We’re no longer a Christian country.”
This is a common refrain around the Western world. I see it and hear it in New Zealand, although Evangelicals in North America have cultivated a particularly potent version of it. For what it’s worth, here’s the general idea:
We are a nation that was built on Christian foundations. Those Christian foundations include a Judeo-Christian ethic and traditional family values, ultimately creating a moral fabric to society that is pleasing to God and has led to the prosperity of Western nations like us. In recent decades this Christian foundation has been under attack. Postmodernism, feminism, the sexual revolution, gay and transgender rights are all challenging the ground on which our society is based. These attacks have been so successful that Christianity is now a persecuted faith. If you stand up for your faith in public you will be vilified and ostracised. Christian free speech and religious freedom is under threat.
That’s the basic script. It varies from person to person and country to country, but it’s a pretty consistent concept. The problem with it, of course, is that it’s not really the case. Is it true that Christians are persecuted for their faith in some parts of the world? Yes, undoubtedly. But this is not the situation in the West. In the West, Christians are simply experiencing what it means to no longer be at the centre, and even then that’s not entirely accurate. Some are just experiencing the feelings that arise when their place at the centre is being questioned.
One of the problems that this script creates, is that it demeans genuine religious persecution; Western Christians are the “boy who cried wolf” and everybody is rolling their eyes. But that’s not the biggest problem; the real concern is what this mentality does to the Christian’s view of the world. Because all of our beliefs function in some way, leading to concrete attitudes and actions in our everyday life.
So what happens when certain Christians have convinced themselves that they’re under threat, and are asked to respect the broadcast of a Muslim call to prayer in the wake of a white supremacist terrorist attack (as happened this year in New Zealand)? Well, the response from some was inevitably troubling. Instead of an empathetic and compassionate appreciation of a very minor symbolic act of inclusion, this moment was interpreted as an assault on Christian identity and a betrayal of our Christian foundations. Emails and social media posts circulated in the conservative Christian community, crying out against this “persecution” and of Islam being forced against us – the outrage machine of concerned Christian citizens and significant church leaders in New Zealand who should know better.
In North America, this same persecution complex has been manipulated with cynical abandon by Donald Trump, who couldn’t care less about Christian faith but is more than happy to co-opt this manifestly absurd self-pity for political gain. What else could explain his ludicrous claim that because of him Americans are now saying “Merry Christmas” again. It is a not-so-subtle play to his Evangelical base, who have convinced themselves that their fundamental rights are at stake simply because people of other religions want to celebrate their own festivals.
Ultimately, this persecution complex insulates Christians from the possibility of listening and learning. When Christian institutions ban women from church leadership, for example, they might interpret the inevitable pushback as a feminist and anti-Christian attack on their ability to stand for truth, rather than seeing it as a moment for insight. And when a well-known Christian speaks out publicly to condemn gay people to hell (as has also happened recently in Australasia) conservative Christians interpret the reaction as unfair persecution that challenges religious freedom, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility that their opinions and beliefs are genuinely harmful to others and need to be questioned.
This is not to say that the church should simply change its beliefs when it encounters reaction; not all change is good (or necessary). But this persecution complex insulates people from having to consider any kind of change at all, and sometimes change is sorely needed. In the end, this situation has ensured that many Christians miss the emphasis of the Jesus story entirely, as they busy themselves defending their “rights”. Because at its heart, the Christian message was about a radical sensitivity to suffering, about a story told from the underside of power, and a story of what happens when the divine presence is found on the margins and beyond the influence of religious institutions and political power.
The Jesus story repeatedly emphasises the inclusion of the ‘other’, and a respect and embrace for those who are typically seen as on the outside. Does Jesus speak of being persecuted? Yes, indeed he does. But he speaks of being persecuted in the context of loving those who were usually excluded by religious and political systems. In his sermon on the mount Jesus speaks of the persecution that comes to those who consistently uphold the poor, those in mourning, those who are gentle, and those who are hungry and thirsty for things to be put right in the world. Jesus anticipates a reaction from those in power, not because he is clamouring for a “voice” or to establish a Christian nation, he anticipates persecution because he is showing empathy, inclusion and radical grace to those who are so often pushed to the margins by the religiously and political powerful.
I think that Jesus would be found standing alongside Muslim brothers and sisters as they grieve an awful tragedy. That Jesus would be found embracing the refugee who is fleeing from terror in their homeland. And that Jesus would be found embracing friends on the Pride Parade rather than making comments that further exclude and demean. And if Jesus was to have harsh words for anyone, it would be for the religious and political powers that add to the grief and suffering of those at the margins by emphasising their ‘otherness’ and cultivating fear.
And so in the midst of clamouring to defend their place in the world, certain forms of conservative Christianity are in danger of overlooking the Jesus they claim to believe in. Of course this narcissistic tendency to place ourselves at the centre of a story in which we are the victim is not exclusive to conservative Christianity; it pops up in all sorts of places among all sorts of people. But this version of Christian faith is deeply concerning, because if the church continues in this trajectory it will find itself to be a major contributor to growing tribalism and to a future of violence and conflict.
Which is not the Jesus way at all.
Michael Frost works in the arenas of theology, spirituality and social change. He is interested in the idea that theology should subvert harmful ideologies and open us up to liberating and transformative conversations. He hosts a podcast and blog called In the Shift, for when life and faith go off script. Follow him on Facebook here.
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