Wednesday, April 28, 2010

PERSECUTION, whatever that is.

This post is written in the context of the debate concerning whether or not Christians are facing persecution in the UK.

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On Easter Sunday, the BBC screened a programme by Nicky Campbell that probed the question of whether or not British Christians are being persecuted. While Campbell acknowledged that "Labour's anti-discrimination legislation has led to clashes between religious conscience and equality for homosexuals", he concluded: "So, are Christians being persecuted? No they're not being tortured or killed like Christians in Pakistan and the Sudan. But a minority believes they are being sidelined and victimised. By the standards of a liberal society that can feel like persecution."

See: BBC’s Nicky Campbell: Christians feel persecuted by human rights law and councils
By Martin Beckford, Telegraph, Religious Affairs Correspondent, 31 Mar 2010

Similarly, in his ecumenical Easter Letter to fellow church leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, maintained that, unlike many other Christians around the world, Christians in the UK are not persecuted, and he called on the church to keep its fears in perspective. In his sights were advocates such as Lord Carey and Bishop Nazir-Ali, who have decried what they maintain is escalating marginalisation, discrimination and persecution of Christians in the UK. (See also UK versus "traditional Christian values".)

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent with Timesonline, entered the debate on 13 April, with a column and video interview in which she echoed Nicky Campbell and Rowan Williams, contending that is shameful to suggest that Christians in the UK are suffering persecution "on a par with" Christians in Jos, Nigeria (not that anyone ever suggested they were). Gledhill maintains that it is ridiculous and embarrassing to suggest that Christians in the UK are being discriminated against or persecuted for their faith.

See: It can only harm Christians to bleat about persecution
Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for The Times, 13 April 2010

However:

The Collins Concise Dictionary Fifth Australian Edition (2001) defines "persecute" as: "(1) to oppress, harass, or maltreat, especially because of race, religion etc. (2) to bother persistently."

Jesus warned his disciples that persecution would come, indeed, that it would be inevitable (John 15:18 - 16:33). Jesus explained: "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you." (John 15:19-20a ESV) The Apostle Paul likewise reminded Timothy that "all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).

The line some want to draw in the sand to separate "us" (not persecuted) from "them" (persecuted) is both imaginary and unhelpful. We are one body, and Christians need to understand that persecution -- which is a complex and varied phenomenon -- is integral to their testimony. This is why Jesus advised his would-be-followers to first count the cost, because unless they were prepared to carry a cross, they may as well not bother even trying to follow him (Luke 14:25-35).

Generally, Christians in the West have had to endure only the mildest forms of persecution: marginalisation, mockery, rejection, maybe some bullying, maybe some discrimination etc. This is because Christians in the West have been protected from violent expressions of hatred not only by rule of law, but by a Judeo-Christian culture that extols religious liberty as a fundamental human right. However, as the culture evolves into "post-Christian" (read "non-Christian"), intolerance escalates, authoritarianism emerges, religious liberty fades, and persecution intensifies. (See Understanding Religious Liberty)

My biggest contention with Ruth Gledhill's statement is her assertion that persecuted Christians are "victims". The Collins Concise Dictionary Fifth Australian Edition (2001) defines "victim" as: "a person or thing that suffers harm". Obviously anyone who "suffers harm" on account of their faith is a victim of persecution. But this is not what Gledhill is talking about. By "victim" she clearly means "loser".

This of course is absolutely ridiculous. When hostility emerges, the loser is the one who compromises or abandons their faith in order to avoid hurt or humiliation. For example, Ruth Gledhill herself admits that she is reluctant to wear a cross because she does not want to be seen as a victim (i.e. one of those losers). According to the Bible, affliction and persecution are means by which God's people are "sifted" (Isaiah 30:28) or "winnowed" (Matthew 3:12). In which case, Ruth Gledhill herself appears to be amongst the "victims" (losers).

On the other hand, those who stand firm despite the cost can never be losers even if they do end up as victims of persecution. Rather, they are winners who did not yield and could not be bowed. Persecuted believers are those who, in the face of injustice, dictatorship and threats stand firm and say, "Over my dead body!"

To suffer persecution for righteousness sake is the ultimate form of cultural criticism. Persecuted believers are protesters who refuse to act against their conscience despite the risks. In suffering the consequences they embody the shame and disgrace of society.

That a supposedly civilised society would persecute peaceful, law-abiding, benevolent citizens simply on account of their faith is shocking and unacceptable -- so shocking and unacceptable in fact, that virtually every state that does it denies it. To cover up what is really happening these states enshrine religious freedom in their constitutions and then enact laws that devout believers simply cannot in good conscience abide, while denying them the right to conscientiously object. For example, no-one is imprisoned for their faith in China! The Christians in China's laogai (gulag/network of nearly 1000 state-owned slave-labour prison camps) are all law-breakers, incarcerated for exercising their faith in a manner deemed unacceptable by the State.

I believe that this is actually the crux of Campbell's, Williams' and Glendhill's complaint with the likes of Lord Carey, Bishop Nazir-Ali and others who are testifying against the escalating hostility in British society. I believe they are desperate to deny that Christians are being persecuted because they cannot tolerate the thought that the UK might be evolving (or regressing) into a place where persecution of the righteous is becoming systematic.

But sometimes it takes the cutting down of the righteous to shock a people out their nonchalance so that they cry out in horror: "What have we become? To what depths have we sunk?" All through the Muslim world, there are Muslims questioning and leaving Islam because they have been shocked out of their nonchalance by Islam's violent persecution of peaceful, righteous Christian believers. As persecution escalates in the UK it will be the same. God is doing something new in the UK.

And with that in mind I would like to close with the very commendable words of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, in the same letter quoted above also said: "We who live in more comfortable environments need to bear two things in mind. One is that fellow-Christians under pressure, living daily with threats and murders, need our prayers and tangible support [. . .] But the second point to remember is that we need to keep our own fears in perspective. It is all too easy, even in comfortable and relatively peaceful societies, for us to become consumed with anxiety about the future of Church and society. We need to witness boldly and clearly but not with anger and fear; we need to show that we believe what we say about the Lordship of the Risen Christ and his faithfulness to the world he came to redeem."

I say AMEN to that! And I know Lord Carey and Bishop Nazir-Ali would too.

And when it comes to showing what we believe about the Lordship of the Risen Christ, I advocate that the Church stop wasting time appealing to "Pharaoh" (Exodus 5:15) and instead, look to the Lord, our crowing glory, for the "strength to turn back the battle at the gate" (Isaiah 28:5-6).

by Elizabeth Kendal