What is the nature of Christian persecution and opposition? Jesus declared that we should expect to face persecution, and throughout history, Christians have often faced different types of oppression and hardships for their. Christians have come to not only expect persecution, but will even find validation in opposition from society. What types of opposition have Christians experienced, what are “good” forms of opposition, and what type of hardships should we reasonably expect and prepare for?
Jesus set the expectation for persecution early on, saying: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”. Jesus went on to encourage and even suggest reward for those who face this persecution.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
First, it is important to remember that persecution or hardship can never alone be used to validate the truth of one’s ways. This is a classic example of the genetic fallacy. Genetic fallacy is when we argue for or against something because of who believes it. A silly example would be saying that Nazi’s drank water, so therefore water is evil. A more serious example, is that Westboro Baptist firmly believe that they are doing the right thing with their ugly protests, and they say the opposition they receive proves it. We must be careful not to fall for genetic fallacy, and assume that since there is opposition that challenges our beliefs, therefore our beliefs must be right. Sometimes we face opposition for our beliefs, because our beliefs are wrong.
However, while recognizing that we can’t use opposition as a solid basis of truth, it is still helpful to recognize what types of patterns of persecution to legitimately expect. We can look for these both in scriptures and in history.
As we look at the verses above, this already gives some narrowing definition to legitimate persecution. Legitimate persecution is tied to who Jesus is and what he represents: righteousness. Certainly the great prototype and example of suffering religious persecution, is Christ Himself. So can we draw from His example?
One of the first things to notice is the source of Jesus’ persecution. The challenges and conflict that led to the cross are a major theme in the gospels. And who is the opposition in this conflict with Jesus? The Pharisees. These were the religious leaders of the day. And these weren’t just any religious leaders, they were, in fact the religious leaders of Jesus’ own religion. They (attempted to) follow the same God that Jesus preached. They were the proto-Judeo-Christian leaders of the day. They were the church leaders. In fact if we look more closely at the major theological division of the day; the resurrection, the Pharisees would even legitimately be categorized as the same denomination as Jesus. Yet these leaders were the major force of opposition and ultimately persecution against Christ. (And I say this as a leader in our church; it is humbling to remember that I am in position which is so prone to being in opposition to Christ).
This story of persecution continues well into Acts, as the early followers of “The Way”, as they called themselves, were thrown and imprisoned and killed. And again, who was the source of these attacks? They were the dominant church/religious institute. The conflicts between the dominant religion and the followers of “The Way” are the main narrative of Acts as they (the disciples) challenge the power structures and traditions of the “church” at the time (the religious organizations).
As Americans, we should recall our history, to be keenly aware of our experience with this. The pilgrims themselves were a group that were persecuted. And who were they being persecuted by? That’s right, again, the Christian leaders and organizational structure of their society. And even within our country Christians spearheaded the oppression of Salem Witch Trials and defended slavery.
Christians have come to expect persecution to come from secular society, but the Biblical narrative and even American’s own history demonstrate that isn’t always the case. They indicate that to follow Jesus is to invite hardship and challenge from Christians and their culture, as much as anyone else. If we are truly follow Christ’s radical and revolutionary call, that turns the natural way of religion upside down, this is as likely to illicit backlash from the Christian culture as anywhere else. The point is that Christ’s teaching are so contrary to our natural ways, that it is a challenge to every culture and sub-culture, whether it be Greek, Jew, American, or even Christian culture.
Now again it is worth remembering that persecution from either side does not validate the truth. You aren’t correct just because you are being opposed by Christians either.
Let’s also consider what types of activities actually lead to persecution. Being persecuted simply for what religion you belong to is actually quite rare. There are indeed cases of it. However, if you study the statistics on Christian persecution, you will see enormous variations in the counts. Why is this? It is because persecution solely due to religious affiliation is extremely rare. But persecution due to religiously inspired or commanded activities is much more common. Categorizing these activities as religious is naturally very difficult and subjective.
Again, this is demonstrated by scriptural accounts as well. They didn’t crucify Jesus because he was a “Christian” or believed in God. In fact, if his only teaching was just that he worshiped YHWH, he would have been welcomed with open arms. Jesus wasn’t crucified simply for being Jesus of Nazareth, or for his religious affiliation. Nor was Jesus even persecuted for laws that he established. In fact, the crime that Jesus was crucified for was clearly stated: sedition, or insurrection.
This points to the fundamental nature of most legitimate persecution in the world. Persecution isn’t usually about religious affiliation. It is not even about what laws the Bible teaches. Persecution is about power. Jesus wasn’t persecuted because he had some good sermons, or for a particular set of rules. He was persecuted because he was subverting the power structures and hierarchy around him. Jesus represented a threat to the order of power that the religious leaders were wielded. Jesus was turning this upside down, creating a kingdom where the first will be last, where the weak are lifted up and the strong are torn down. And this upheaval was not welcome by those at the top of the order.
Of course, Jesus was crucified by the Romans. This was partly due to the Jewish leaders insistence, but their own role was important as well. Jesus immediate challenge to the power structures of the church were most direct, but there was some truth to the threat Jesus played to Romans as well. To be sure, Jesus was very clear in resisting any type of military and violent coup against the Romans. But his followers had indeed switched their alliance. They no longer held to an unassailable alliance to the Roman empire. The Romans certainly didn’t have any physical threat to worry about from the Jesus followers, but to the degree that the Romans hunger for and demanded allegiance, the threat of allegiance to another Kingdom was very real in Christ followers.
And this persecution wasn’t just something that was externally triggered. Christ was on an intentional and committed path of sacrifice. It is on the committed path to sacrifice for others, sacrificing for the subversion of power, for the sake of those in need that real persecution takes place.
Likewise through the history of Christian persecution. It is not those that quietly have a private faith that are persecuted. It is those that are committed to sacrifice that challenge hierarchies of power around them, and choose to stand with the oppressed, that face the greatest threats.
Unfortunately, I feel like we have sometimes forgot this. In our Christian culture talking about persecution has far too easily become a replacement for real sacrifice. We talk about slippery slopes (it is also shocking to me when people explicitly state that they are basing their fears on a logical fallacy, like slippery slope) that will supposedly lead to persecution. This is a convenient replacement for making any real sacrifices.
This slippery slope fallacy is far too common. Many of us have mistaken the path of secularism as moving us towards persecution. But this path is not towards greater interest in (against) religion, but towards disinterest. The secular world is not growing hostile toward religion. It is growing bored with religion. Now this may be a worse fate. It has been said that the opposite of love is indifference. This reality may be hard to swallow, but many people just don’t really care that much about your religion or what laws it includes.
This exaggeration of hardships among Christians is not only out of touch with reality, but I believe it represents a shallow, wimpy Christianity. There are people who are tortured and killed for Christ. Comparing the types of opposition American Christians face with someone has to truly pay for their belief is, to be blunt, pathetic. Not getting your way with legislation and then comparing it to a slippery slope to persecution is nothing but weak and whiny Christianity. Until we have actually bled or been injured for our faith, we have little room for complaint.
Jesus called us to take up our cross (Matt 16:24). This isn’t a passive call, to sit around and worry, and fret, and wait for someone to come persecute you. This is active call, that begins with denying ourselves. Likewise, in our society, sacrifice doesn’t come passively. It comes when we actively and voluntarily give up our time and money for others. Christ-based sacrifice is found when we identify with, help, and give to others that are hurting or oppressed, and challenge the structures and hierarchies that hold them there (Eph 6:12). This is how we follow Christ on the cross.