Persecution is the wrong label
Mark Stephens on the P-word
Persecution is a hot topic right now. Some Christians see a swelling tide in Australia, while others think some perspective is in order. But our conversation could be improved via a richer vocabulary for describing hostility towards Christians. This would leave everyone better placed for discussions within the church and with the wider culture.
Christians were threatened because they were perceived to be a threat.
If we define persecution in terms of deliberate attacks on the person or property of Christians, then outright persecution of the early church was often local and sporadic rather than global and constant. The church did experience large-scale persecutions involving horrific violence against the faithful. But even some of those campaigns were more inadvertent than deliberate. For example, when the third-century Roman emperor Decius wanted to revive pagan sacrifices, his universal edict demanding loyalty to the gods necessarily collided with monotheistic Christians. But it is less likely that he set out to destroy the church.
However, Christians were regularly viewed through a lens of suspicion and fear. And much of this suspicion was directed towards what Christians didn’t believe in. This is why some were branded “atheists” – not because they didn’t believe in a god but because they didn’t believe in enough gods.
The logic of hostility was that Christians failed to join in with key practices that were seen as essential to the health of ancient society. The Christians were threatened because they were perceived to be a threat.
How might these insights help improve the conversation in these times of perceived hostility towards Christians? First, Christians don’t always have to employ the P-word whenever things get uncomfortable. The English novelist George Eliot wrote: “Opposition may become sweet to a man when he has christened it persecution.”
Labelling something as persecution can obscure the complexity of a situation. Yet part of the reason many want to reach for the P-word is the way everyone seems to treat it as an all-or-nothing category. Either Christians are being persecuted or hostility must be absent. But early Christian history shows that there are a range of ways in which Christians experience real social tension, without it always becoming outright persecution.
Second, acknowledging the presence of hostility, without jumping straight to the persecution label, opens up a space to ask exactly why tension might be present. Even the New Testament concedes that Christians can suffer for bad reasons, not just for good (1 Peter 2:20; 3:17). If Christians suffer because they are “obnoxious for Jesus”, then they cannot claim to be fools for Christ – they are just fools.
It is still helpful to ask why hostility is happening.
But let’s assume the best and presuppose that an experience of hostility is because of faithfulness not foolishness. It is still helpful to ask why it is happening. Does this episode represent a wholesale attack on Christian belief? Or is it because Christians are refusing to join in some thought or practice that society deems as mandatory?
Being specific in this way may not eliminate the hostility, but it might help Christians communicate about where the real issues lie. After all, the solid core of Christian faith will always clash with some features of every culture.
Third, the fact that persecution can be locally experienced should discourage thinking in “one-size- fits-all” categories. Just because I’m not feeling pressure doesn’t mean you aren’t experiencing hostility where you live and work. Hostility and persecution do not have to be society-wide and systematic for them to be real.
Finally, for those Christians who are experiencing hostility, even to the level of persecution, the bigger question to ask is how they can respond in ways that follow the example of Jesus and maintain love towards their neighbour. On this point the Bible has a lot to say. So here let me cite just two examples.
The book of 1 Peter is written to believers who are experiencing all kinds of trials (1:6), who keenly feel their strangeness in the surrounding culture. Yet Peter tells them to avoid all forms of retaliation, to humbly examine their own behaviour, to set apart Christ as Lord, and to commit to speaking with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 2:23; 3:14-16). Peter urges the believers to “commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19)
The book of Revelation knows well the potential for Christians to clash with their social context. While not everyone in the audience of Revelation is being persecuted, its template for faithful Christian living nearly always includes suffering. And yet the book’s author, John, still wants his readers to see themselves as “conquerors” or “overcomers.”
But here is where everything gets turned upside down. For the church’s power lies not in worldly weapons but in imitating the Lamb who conquered sin and evil through the sacrificial love of the cross (Revelation 12:11; 14:4). Accordingly, disciples in Revelation participate in the victory of Jesus through a willingness to give their lives and livelihoods away for the sake of God and for their neighbours.
No matter what it is that Christians are facing right now, this is the challenging vision that both Scripture and the history of the church have to offer.
Mark Stephens is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. He has a PhD in ancient history from Macquarie University.