Everyone loves a victim, and is happy to claim victim status. It bestows a kind of righteous aura, as well as a Get Out of Jail Free card when caught behaving badly. Perhaps for this reason many places cultivate a culture of victimhood. As the North American culture war rages on, the question may be asked: are Christians victims? Do they constitute a persecuted minority in the West?
It all depends, of course, upon how one defines persecution. When one looks back historically and abroad geographically, one sees real persecution. The Christians of pagan Rome in the second and third centuries, and the Christians of Soviet Russia in the twentieth endured true persecution. They were arrested simply because of their faith in Christ and membership in His Church; they were imprisoned, tortured, sent into exile or killed. Similar suffering is experienced now by Christians abroad, such as in the world of Islam (for which, I need hardly add, one should not blame one’s Muslim neighbour down the street). This is true persecution, and as far as I can see, no one in North America experiences that. Many people face discrimination and bullying, including gays and Muslims, but arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution are not experienced by any citizen on North American soil for their religious allegiance. If we choose to define as persecution the discrimination experienced by these groups, then we need to find another word to describe the experiences of those who are arrested, tortured, and killed for their Faith. Accordingly I would reserve the term “persecution” for those experiencing this latter form of suffering.
Perhaps a better way of approaching the whole question would be to inquire whether those publically espousing and promoting the beliefs and values of the Christian Faith pay a social price for such espousal and promotion. Here, I think, the answer is clearly, “yes they do”. But in asserting that traditional Christian values have become unpopular in North America and that Christians pay a price for espousing them, we must further define what we mean by “Christian values”. All sorts of people claim the Christian label, people as different from one another as John Spong and Billy Graham. Some assert, for example, that support for the LGBT agenda is incumbent upon them as Christians, while others assert that resisting this agenda is a part of their duty as Christians. Some feel that their Christian Faith compels them to support a woman’s right to abort her child, while others feel that their Faith compels them to oppose abortion. Given the tremendous diversity of people all claiming that their values and views are specifically Christian, a definition of Christian values would be helpful.
By the term “Christian values” I mean the values and views contained in the New Testament Scriptures and held by the Fathers as the authoritative and recognized interpreters of those Scriptures. Thus, to speak to the two issues mentioned in passing above, the Scriptures and the Fathers assert that homosexual acts are inherently sinful, and that abortion is tantamount to murder. One can disagree with these sentiments, but it seems clear enough that they are indeed those of the Scriptures and the Fathers. Of course one can disagree with the foundational documents of historical Christianity and its acknowledged spokesmen and still claim to be Christian. But integrity would seem to demand that one then admit to inventing a new religion, and have the honesty to give it a name other than “Christianity”. Some label adherence to the older and historical values of Christianity “conservative Christianity” or even “fundamentalism”. All such heated rhetoric and labelling aside, “conservative Christianity” is the only kind of Christianity that would be acknowledged as such by the Fathers, and a more liberal kind of Christianity that advocated acceptance of homosexual practices would not be called Christianity by them, but rather heresy—or perhaps simply worldliness. (Please note that I am referring to the historical theology of “conservative Christianity”, not to the politics of the American Religious Right.)
That Christians find themselves at odds with the prevailing culture is not surprising, and should not be a cause for Christians to wail in shock as if this were something new. Or, in the words of 1 Peter 4:12 they should “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you as though something strange were happening to you”. Nothing new or odd is occurring; the World is simply acting like the World, as it has always done. Our Lord warned us that the world will hate us because we are no longer of the world since He has chosen us out of the world” (Jn. 15:18-19). Paul exhorted us not to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Rom. 12:2, Phillips translation). James reminded us that friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4), and John told us that the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One (1 Jn. 5:19). Recognizing this fundamental opposition of the World to the Kingdom is not paranoia, but a basic category for Christians living in this age. This age (in Latin, saecula, from which we get the word “secular”) will always challenge and tempt Christians to cease living differently than others live and conform to the fallen categories of the world around us. These temptations will differ from century to century, and from place to place. In the first centuries of the Church’s existence, the main temptation was to idolatry. In the Old South at the time of the American civil war, the prevailing secular blind spot was its racism. The varying ways in which the World tempts Christians differ according to time and place, but the element of threat from worldliness remains, as the strong and rich tyrannize the weak and poor. In any age or place if Christians simply go with the secular flow, they will be going in the wrong direction. Worldliness remains one of the perennial temptations for the disciples of Jesus; and the perennial challenge for us is to discern where the secular world is right and where it is wrong. This discernment doesn’t require one to be a prophet or a genius. One just needs to be humble and teachable, able to read the Scriptures and willing to listen to the Fathers.
Just now in North America the World is pressuring Christians in matters of gay rights and abortion, and identifying yourself as a Christian who opposes these things is enough to bring angry voices and retaliation. Despite the fact that Christians form a sizable clump of the population in the U.S. (less so in Canada), espousing Christian values in these key areas where the World presses its agenda brings vigorous push back. This pressure seems to be increasingly hostile and frequent.
It seems that as long as Christians speak and act like the World in this cultural shift no sanctions will be forthcoming. If they dare to contradict the World as it changes older Christian norms and values, a price will be exacted of them. In a very real sense, there will be hell to pay. Admittedly this does not constitute persecution. But it does mean that the World is aggressively pursuing its own agenda and putting pressure on Christians to either conform or at least shut up. Living in a democracy where laws and norms can be debated and changed encourages us not to shut up just yet. Discipleship to Jesus Christ demands that we refuse to conform ever, no matter what.