” Why Persecutest Thou Me?” – Acts 22:7
You almost blush when you use the word, right? I know I do. “Persecution” is so linked with torture and slaughter that we’re loathe to think we American Christians could ever experience it.
To a point, I’m glad we’re reticent to use the word, because much of what we go through, no matter how unpleasant, doesn’t qualify for the Big P.
Criticism isn’t persecution, nor is honest disagreement. If someone thinks you’re wrong, or that you said something poorly, or erred in some way, and they express what they think verbally or in writing, that hardly makes you a martyr. If someone mocks you or holds you up to contempt, that’s not pleasant, but no, it’s not the lion’s den. Even if you’re verbally attacked, and your attacker expresses raw hatred, then although you’re despised and emotionally hurt over it, persecution’s the wrong word.
But when you’re interfered with, endangered personally or professionally, or silenced, then yes, now you’re talking persecution. Here’s how Strong’s Concordance breaks down the word:
Persecution: Greek diōgmós – literally, “the hunt to bring someone down like an animal,” trying to suppress (punish) their convictions. Literally refers to those seeking to punish God’s messengers with a vengeance – like a hunter trying to conquer (obliterate) someone as their “catch.”
Christians in North Korea, India, and Somalia experience persecution of the life-threatening sort, the kind we usually associate with the word. But in the United States, the First Amendment notwithstanding, we’re seeing not a life-threatening, but a life-interfering kind of persecution, a systematic injustice enforced through censorship, lawsuits, employment policies, and legislation directly threatening religious freedoms.
It seems unnecessary to belabor the What, as in, What’s Happening?, because you can see what’s happening by watching the news and following trends. The What is obvious. The Why is a little more elusive, but still
Scripture teaches, and history verifies, the antagonism between the ways of God and the ways of the World. One of Jesus’ least-loved promises was that we’d be hated just as surely as He was (John 15:20), a hatred we can chalk up to our refusal to go with the flow of this world, which runs counter to God’s intentions and directions. (Ephesians 2:2) Paul promised persecution to the godly (II Timothy 3:12) and Luke’s recorded history of the Early Church in the Book of Acts shows that it was, indeed, business
So yes, we expect it. But it’s hard not to wonder why it’s ramping up in a nation founded with such a commitment to religious freedom, and clearly influenced by Biblical standards. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit in light of recent developments in my home state of California (see here for a video message I recently posted) and it seems to me that three groups play largely into the growing pressure on Christians to either shut up or suffer: The True Believers, The Inconvenienced, and The Convicted.
The True Believers
Saul of Tarsus was a True Believer. He didn’t haul Christians off to prison because was he was a sadist or a bigot, nor because there was any financial gain to be made by it. He truly believed he was not only doing the right thing, but that he was doing it as God’s instrument, too. (See, for example, Acts 9:1; Galatians 1:13-14; Acts 23:1)
He qualified as the sort of guy Jesus predicted when He said, “… the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.”
True Believers see Biblical teachings as being dangerous, discriminatory, offensive, destructive. They feel strongly that doctrines of heaven and hell, the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to God, the definition of the family, standards of normal sexual behavior, and the sinful nature of man, as ugly creeds making people feel terrible and afraid. So they’re committed to expunging modern culture of all expressions of those doctrines, in the interest of a humane, healthy society.
It’s hard not to respect their commitment; harder, still, to reason with them. Since they’ve already decided you’re a bigot worth neither time or energy, they’d rather shout you down than deal with you as an equal.
Demetrius was one of The Inconvenienced. He manufactured idolatrous shrines for Ephesian citizens who purchased them to show homage to their goddess Diana. Since devotion to Diana was widespread, business was pretty good, until that nut-job Paul showed up. When people heard his preaching and turned from Diana to the Living God, they abandoned the goddess and her shrines, a conversion which was lousy for business. Demetrius called an emergency meeting of craftsmen who plied a similar trade, and they agreed to stir the city up against Paul.
They didn’t oppose him because they believed he was bad. They opposed him because they believed he was bad for business.
Some of today’s cultural movers and shakers, whether politicians, community leaders, or organizations, depend on their supporters maintaining a broadly-shared victim’s status. That, in turn, convinces people that they are the protectors, ever watchful against the Evangelical Boogeymen who are always trying to oppress them.
To whip up support, maintain political or organizational clout, and insure that they’ll always been seen as “needed”, they convince supporters that the Enemy lurks everywhere, but never fear, they’ll fight him so long as they’re kept in business, or in power, or both.
God forbid any of their own should convert to Truth, or at least to a level of enlightenment by which they realize the perceived threat of Biblical Christianity is no real threat at all. That’s when the coffers run dry; that’s when the city needs to get stirred up.
It’s hard to respect their cynicism or their tactics, but in the heated dialogues our nation’s embroiled in these days, it’s necessary to point
Stephen’s hearers were among The Convicted, and were they were none too happy about it.
One of the Church’s first deacons was also clearly a powerhouse preacher, empowered with sign gifts to boot. (Acts 6:5-8) When his preaching bore fruit, synagogue leaders tried disputing with him, to no avail. (Acts 6:9-10) So they resorted to tactics similar to those of Demetrius, stirring up opposition to him but, frustrating their own agenda, they gave him
So he seized the moment and, in turn, gave them a sermon. Timid souls should take some cues from his message, recorded in Acts 7, a confrontive, scripture-backed, pointed accusation which could have brought life to
Instead, according to Luke, when Stephen’s words “cut them to the heart” (Acts 7:54) they reacted wildly, killing the messenger in hopes of killing the Message as well.
When modern Americans react so strongly to Biblical images or doctrines they don’t like – whether of Evangelist Greg Laurie holding a Bible aloft, or an African-American Fire Chief expounding on the hetero-normative nature of marriage – you have to wonder why. Have we really become so fragile as a society that views we disagree with have to be silenced in order for us
I think it’s more than that. I know that whenever I’ve felt conviction, whether from the Holy Spirit or my own conscience, I’ve had to make a decision: heed the conviction and renounce the sin, or protect the sin and renounce the conviction. When I’ve decided to heed the conviction, needless to say, God’s peace has always followed.
But when I’ve decided to renounce the conviction (a sin I’ve indulged more than a few times) and turn its volume down with all my might, the last thing I’ve wanted is someone in any way expressing any thing which could remind me of the truth I’m trying to keep at bay.
That, I’m convinced, is the torment of The Convicted. He’s intolerant of inconvenient expressions, no matter where they are or how little they’re imposed on him, because they remind him of what he’d rather forget.
No wonder those who used to clamor for tolerance are now so intolerant! Having decided certain ideas are far too uncomfortable, their preferred choice is to silence them.
Of course, you can’t silence other voices in a free society if all you do is openly disagree with them. No laws were ever passed silencing someone’s freedom of expression just because the expression in question was disagreed with.
No, you have to ramp it up with charges that certain ideas aren’t just disagreeable to you, they’re dangerous. Destructive. Hate-inspiring. Enemies of the common good. Convince the public that certain ideas are akin to Facism or Bigotry, and the public (if too lazy to examine the facts for itself) may well join you in your efforts to blot out the words and thoughts you never want to hear.
The Convicted who heard Stephen’s sermon “cried with a loud voice and stopped their ears.” (Acts 7:57) Look at today’s University climate and you’ll note that they’re descendants have moved on to campus life, where they’ve perfected their ancestor’s art of shouting down, and shutting down, those pesky convicting ideas.
An Honorable Interference
We’ve no right, of course, to cry “persecution” if we’re getting push-back for being jerks. If Christians are obnoxious, unfair, or generally dishonorable, then we cannot qualify for the blessing Jesus pronounced on those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. (Matthew 5:10)
Likewise, if through our own laziness, we refuse to support and vote for candidates who’ll uphold basic liberties in this still-free nation, then our slothfulness will have invited the inevitable persecution and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. No honor there; only the bitter fruit of an unholy, un-American passivity.
But if at some point the Church in these quarters really does find Herself persecuted, literally and aggressively, let it be for righteousness sake. Let it be because we were unwavering, loving God enough to let ourselves be conformed to His ways, and loving our neighbors enough to invite them to join us in the effort.
No one playing with a full deck wants persecution. But no one running the race as it’s meant to be run can avoid it. If and when it comes, may it come because we lived, according to and empowered by, God’s grace.
Then may we, with all our hearts, respond to it with that same