I had an exchange with a friend on Twitter recently where he referenced the “Christian persecution complex.” Filling in some gaps, I believe what he was actually referencing could be called the “American evangelical persecution complex” (understanding “evangelical” at least in this one context to refer to conservative Catholics as well). Basically the argument is that (predominately white) evangelicals in America have lost power and relevance in the wake of fighting and losing the culture wars of the last fifty years or so. This loss and new cultural status is now being interpreted by many evangelicals as a kind of persecution. This supposed persecution is more about rhetoric and sour grapes than it is about reality since 1) evangelicals do still enjoy a privileged status in our culture – at least for now, 2) experiencing rejection – and hurt feeling – from certain segments of a society is not the same thing as persecution, and 3) maybe it isn’t the worst thing in the world for our discipleship for us to lose a little power. Each one of those points has some truth to it.
So here’s the question I’ve been thinking about: Is it possible for a Christian in America to suffer persecution?
The easy answer to that question is, yes, of course. A Christian can suffer overt hostility because of her faith in any and every culture. Jesus never said, “Blessed are you when people persecute you because of me, unless of course you live in the United States.” If a business owner were put out of business by the government in China because of her Christian convictions, we would justifiably label such treatment as persecution. When it happens to a sister in Oregon, however, we are told by some that this is simply a case of the state of Oregon enforcing an otherwise just law. After a while “Just bake the cake!” starts to sound a little bit like “Whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” It is absolutely clear that individual Christians even in a nation like the United States do receive poor treatment because of their faith at certain times and places. Sometimes this might include losing friends, family, social status, or career advancement opportunities. You are not likely to follow Jesus to prison or to death in the United States, but that is a painfully limited understanding of persecution even by scriptural criteria. It might also help to be reminded that Jesus never said “Count the cost of discipleship unless you live in the United States.” Cost is a part of following Jesus no matter the cultural setting.
But what if we changed the question? Is the Christian community in America suffering systematic persecution?
The easy answer to that question is, no. I’m a big believer in the principle that if you call everything X, then nothing is X. If everyone is a racist, then no one is a racist. If all men are pigs, then the men who are really pigs become just other piggish faces in a crowd of pigs. “Totalized” thinking will normalize that which should never be regarded as normal and turns even the normal into just another example of the extreme. Or, to put it another way, if I claim in the United States to be suffering outrageous persecution for my faith I also run the risk of minimizing (and becoming callous to) the outrageous persecution being suffered by my Christian family around the world. Our dear brother Ajai Lall posted this powerful reminder to Facebook over the weekend. Far be it from me to appropriate persecution for myself while neglecting to agonize in prayer over those being persecuted around the world.
But that is not the end of the story. The easy answer is not always the sufficient answer. Ephesians 6 reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of this dark age. One of the things that can be taken away from that verse is that hostility is not always going to be overt and physical. Hostility will often be unseen, undetected, and subtle – which, as a strategy, makes a lot of sense! Hostility will often be seductive. Potiphar’s wife was no less hostile to Joseph’s faith than his brothers. Some will choose not to call this seductive hostility by the name “persecution.” That’s fine. That may even be a good thing in order to keep this separate from the physical hostility faced by many around the world. But persecution, broadly defined, is ill-treatment because of faith commitments. And I would argue that in an increasingly post-Christian, post-culture wars environment being a public person of faith will subject you to an increasing level of ill-treatment. This ill-treatment will start as seduction – It’s just easier to go with the flow. Why swim against the current of your culture? Just bake the cake (so to speak). We can start to hear Potiphar’s wife beckoning: “Come to bed with me!” To whatever degree this seduction is consistently resisted, it will not be long before the overt hostility begins.
I don’t say this because the Church in the West needs to feel sorry for itself and all the persecution that it’s enduring. But we do need to be alert and wise because the days are evil whether you are living in India or in “Christian” America.