Several years ago a good friend lost his teenage daughter in a tragic car accident. The night of the visitation, hordes of mourners crowded past him and his wife, extending condolences. In the midst of all the hugs, tears, and heart-felt sympathies one well-intentioned but severely misguided person said to them, “I know how you feel; I lost my dog not long ago.”
As crazy as this might sound, it really happened. I’m afraid that’s how American Christians sound to our global brothers and sisters when we bemoan the “persecutions” we are enduring here in the United States because of our Christian faith.
Persecution simply means that a less powerful person or group of people is experiencing hostility or ill-treatment at the hands of a more powerful group or individual. This hostility is almost always connected to some distinguishing feature (race, religion, politics, gender) that separates the more powerful from the less powerful.
There is no doubt about it; the landscape in America has changed. “Christian” values no longer seem to exert the influence they once did. But is what we are experiencing in the United States really religious persecution?
Biblical ideals are being challenged, the church’s voice is being somewhat marginalized, and yes, at times Christians are called names and treated unfairly. But is this persecution or are we just struggling to live in a world where we don’t make the rules?
This is a thorny issue for sure. And, as illustrated by my Facebook feed over the past few months, there is heated disagreement among Christians about what is happening in America. From diesel mechanics to cake decorators to government officials, Christians in all walks of life are claiming they’re being persecuted for their Christian faith. But I’m not so sure their faith is why they are being treated harshly.
In the midst of all the noise, I can’t help but wonder if some are enduring “ill treatment” because they are trying to superimpose their religious convictions on others through legislation and the power of government rather than showing the love of Christ through humility and service.
I have coworkers who walk a knife’s edge every day in their service of Christ. They faithfully, honestly, and openly labor in parts of the world that are truly hostile to Christianity. They go to work every morning knowing that the limited freedoms they have could, at any moment, be taken away. Yet, with joy and courage, they go on serving. Ironically, these friends don’t want preferential treatment, they don’t seek public office, nor do they push for Christianity to become the state-sponsored faith system within their country. They don’t want power. They just want the ability to freely share the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the strangest part about this whole conversation. Persecution has always been part and parcel of following God. From the Egyptian midwives; to Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel; to Jesus; to Paul; to the first three hundred years of church history; to China after the expulsion of the Christian missionaries; to the actions ISIS . . . the words of Jesus ring true through the centuries: “In this world you will have trouble.” But he does not stop there. Yes, we will have trouble. But what does he say next? “Fight back against an oppressive government”? No! “Defend me and make everyone live by the Bible’s rules”? Wrong again. Jesus simply said, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Our job is not to overcome anyone, anything, or any ideology. Jesus has already done that. Our job is to display the love of Jesus by what we say and by what we do. When we love our neighbor selflessly, as Jesus did, we communicate the good news of his love. When we serve our neighbor—gay or straight, sober or drunk, clean or addict—we shine God’s light into the darkness of this world. When we give a hungry person food, visit a prisoner, offer the thirsty water—when we do these things in the name of Jesus—God’s light shines into the darkness of this world and a kingdom-of-heaven outpost is established.
The message of Jesus is not one of privilege for the church and subjugation for everyone else. It is a message of hope, healing, and reconciliation for all. He did not rally his followers to fight for him when he was being crucified, nor does he call you or me to establish his kingdom by force of law or legislative coercion.
Jesus modeled service and surrender, and through the cross and the empty tomb he showed us that death is not defeated by fighting but by dying and experiencing the power of resurrection. The way of Christ is a way of humility not privilege, sacrifice not advantage, and leverage rather than coercion.