Around the world, people are in prison for what they write, how they worship, who they support, and into which tribe or ethnic group they were born. Sometimes Christians are the persecuted, and sometimes Christians are the persecutors. There is a long history of both.
In our day, the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer is celebrated as a martyr, as are the four young girls attending Sunday School at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
As a college student I was deeply impressed by Richard Wurmbrand who served time in jail for smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain. I read and reread his book Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I have a friend from those same college days who, as a missionary to parts of Africa, has taken a pseudonym into order to speak and write about the danger to Muslims who convert to Christianity. Their baptism seals their fate, he says.
I have just finished reading a history of Christianity in Asia, wherein the dangers of Christian faith are described, including the violent efforts to eradicate Christian witness from China during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th Century, the Boxer Rebellion in the 19th Century and the Cultural Revolution during my lifetime.
These are awful realities around the world, and the Untied States is right to take a stand against these things.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), section 18, seeks to address these injustices by articulating the freedom of religion for all people. It reads:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Nevertheless, persecution is real; and we as Christians should pray for minority people everywhere: for their freedom and safety; for justice and righteousness; for perseverance and courage.
I honor those who suffer for Christ, in accordance with the words of one of the first martyrs: “If any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name” (First Peter, 4:6).
But what I do not honor is the effort by some in our own country to appropriate this persecution rhetoric for their own political purposes. For decades now, some Christian people have translated their own perception of marginalized status into a martyrdom mentality.
“Our country has been taken over by secular elites,” they complain bitterly to one another. “They don’t believe like we do, and they don’t allow us to do what we want to do.” What they want to do, of course, is to give Christian testimonies in public schools, offer Christian prayers at various public gatherings, impose their Christian rules of right and wrong on everybody, and discriminate against anybody who does not share their Christian values. When the courts, the Congress, and other elected officials refuse to allow this sort of privilege, they wail: “We are being persecuted!”
For ten years they read and watched the sympathetic narrative of their own life-story played out in a series of best-selling novels called Left Behind. While the authors projected their abandonment into the immediate future, millions of readers pulled that description into their own experience. They had already become the Left Behind people.
It is true: what was once the Protestant-Evangelical culture that dominated American life has been slowly replaced by a more diverse, even a more secular society. And the prerogatives they once enjoyed have given way to the opportunities and rights of people who think, behave, and/or worship in very different ways.
Then appeared their savior!
Into this slough of cultural despair stepped another who was also despised by the “cultural elites”—those who made the movies, owned the companies, reported the news, and wrote the books. His name is Donald J. Trump.
“Being an outsider is fine,” he said, referencing both himself and his audience at the epicenter of Evangelical education—Liberty University. “Embrace the label [of outsider] … As long as I am your President, no one is every going to stop you from practicing your faith.”
Here may be the clue to the greatest cultural and religious mystery of our time: how conservative Christians with a long tradition of public rhetoric in favor of devout and disciplined leaders embraced the one person least likely to model the kind of man they claim to value.
It is the marriage made in heaven, the partnership born in shared persecution. While they dance in joyous celebration, the rest of us can only shake our heads and mutter, “Please!”
(November 14, 2019)