There has been a lot of talk these days about the persecution that Christians are facing in America. If what we read is to be believed, there is a systematic and diabolical effort to destroy the religious freedom of Christians. Chief champion and martyr to the cause has been Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, whose refusal to violate her conscience by signing her approval on same-sex marriage licenses has rocketed her into international fame and landed her in jail for contempt of court. What she has suffered has been held up of an example of the persecution of Christians that has already begun and that will only get worse, unless we take back America.
Mike Huckabee called it the "criminalization of Christianity", while Franklin Graham said that unless we stand up against "the evil being forced on us", then the result would be that "we won't even recognize the America that our children and our grandchildren will be left with." That is a terrifying prospect to consider, if we were to believe what we are hearing from these leaders.
Here's the things: We shouldn't believe them.
While I am in no way suggesting that we should not work very hard and carefully to maintain freedom of religion, acknowledging that bad decisions in either direction can have dire consequences, the rhetoric of persecution being thrown around is not only false, it is offensive. Some might (and have) retorted that Jesus himself supports these claims, from 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.
Yet, the merits of this argument are seriously mitigated by some very important factors. Jesus spoke these words not long before his own execution -- a brutal crucifixion. Further, his followers would go on to suffer some of the most horrific torture and death we could imagine, in addition to the social, economic and political alienation that often crippled their place in communities. Add to this the depth of their conviction and love of their enemies that they refused to use violence to protect themselves from such suffering. Even today, there are people (and not just Christians) who suffer genuine persecution.
When I see people trying to compare recent events with such suffering, I call it "paper-cut persecution". Not only is the "suffering" insignificant in the light of what other people have suffered (and are suffering) for their beliefs, but to them paint themselves as victims of circumstances they created is dishonest. Some have likened Kim Davis to Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the bus as an act of moral defiance. In truth, given her position of power and the emergence of new rights and equality (which were being denied), she is more like James F. Blake, the bus driver who refused to drive the bus when Rosa Parks refused to move. When we treat others unjustly in the name of God, it is not persecution when they refuse to let us do so.
I was recently warned that "we Christians" are "under siege", that we are victims of "the gay agenda", citing as proof 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, transgender queer, etc. people to live with such 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 (Christians) have been cast as the enemy. We have sadly earned every bit of the distrust and anger directed towards us. Therefore, to call their attacks persecution make no more sense than willfully knocking down a hornets nest and then claiming innocence when getting stung.
When we see these dynamics at work in ourselves, we need to name them and repent -- a repentance that goes beyond mere apology and seeks humble restoration and restitution. When we see these dynamics at work in others, we need to speak out against it. It can often be necessary to 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.
Unfortunately, in this age of culture wars and social media rants, we often allow arguments on both sides to escalate to the point of absurdity, where we are demonizing the other and elevating our own righteousness. Hank Green warns us here in a poignant challenge:
As Christians, we need to offer a new witness, both in the way we acknowledge our own failings, seeking to make things right, and in the way we against injustice with humility and love. We do not "win" when Kim Davis is publicly shamed or cheer when she is sentenced. Of course we can and should celebrate when justice is done, but let us celebrate the freedoms won while still mourning the very real persons who might pay the price for their mistakes. Failing to do so- failing to humanize these issues -- is a significant reason on why we ended up here in the first place.