Thursday, March 01, 2012

Persecution in the West?

Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 1 Mar 2012

It has been widely believed that society in the West is not only increasingly more secular, it is more anti-Christian. In the classrooms, anything religious, especially any references to the Bible are readily tossed out under the excuse of: "No religion allowed in public arenas." In an infamous case several years ago in the US, prayer has been forbidden in public schools. Even the poor Christmas tree has not been spared, as one Ontario judge back in 2005 orders the removal of the poor plant based on the mistaken perception of it being a 'religious' tree.

Statistics appear dire. In Canada, while the general mood aims at promoting freedom of speech, of religious belief, of multicultural diversities, there is still a stigma with regards to Christianity in the marketplace. This has led to many Christian leaders saying that Christians in the West are being 'persecuted.' Just Google the phrase "Christians persecuted in America" and you will see a host of opinions about that, most of them agreeing that Christianity is under threat by militant secularism, the anti-Christ lobby in politics, the eroding ethical culture in various places, and so on. The big question of course is: "Is that true?" In this article, I will argue that Christians need not see persecution as a bad thing. In fact, persecution may very well be a sign that Christians are living out their faith actively and courageously.

A) No! Christians in the West are NOT Persecuted. Just Marginalized.

The word 'persecution' is a strong word. It has more to do with physical and mental torture. It has to do with the danger to one's life and emotional well-being. For example, here are two cases in which I believe the word persecution is apt. Take the case of the Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, the former Muslim who embraced Christianity. His crime: Forsaking his Islamic faith, embracing Christianity, and sharing the gospel with fellow Muslims.

In the West, many people are free to believe whatever they want to believe. Is such freedom extended to countries like Iran? No.

Another example is Cheong Ching, a journalist who reports from mainland China. Back in 2005, he was charged and detained without trial for more than 1000 days. Before he was a believer, he harboured lots of anger against the injustice he experienced. He became a Christian while in prison, and the Bible literally changed his life and his perspective. Here is what he writes in his new book about his 1000 days ordeal. The South China Morning Post reports of Ching's spiritual search:

"At first I wasn't searching for Christ, but the philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism ... but these couldn't relieve my depression, until I picked up the Bible,"

While Ching's case is not as serious as the Iranian pastor's impending death by execution, both of these examples deserve the 'persecution' label. Christians in the West are not persecuted. They are simply marginalized. James Emery White notes this with much passion too.

"Compared to the violence against Christians in many places around the world, the answer is no. Christians in America experience nothing compared to the persecution of Christians in such places as Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt or Syria." (James Emery White, "Are Christians in America under Attack?," Church and Culture Blog, Feb 23, 2012)
Instead, White claims that the real challenge for Western Christianity is the 'increasing hostility and intolerance toward Christian beliefs and values.' In a Western society that prides itself in trumpeting freedom of expression, an increasingly secular, materialistic, consumeristic, and individualistic society sees Christianity as a threat. The world sees the very stand that Christians make a significant threat to their way of licentious behaviour. That is the key reason for Christians being marginalized more and more.

B) Being Marginalized Is Not Exactly a Bad Thing

Here, I think of Christianity as a counter-culture kind of faith. I think of the beatitudes. The world tells us to be rich materially, that greed is good. Jesus tells us to be 'poor in spirit' (Matt 5:3). The world says to us to just mind our own business, grit our teeth and be tough, but Jesus urges us that 'blessed are those who mourn,' and in their mourning, we will be comforted (Matt 5:4). The world tells us that size matters, money talks, and power wins, but Jesus tells us 'blessed are the meek' (Matt 5:5). The world tells us that this is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth world, where it is okay to exact vengeance. Jesus tells us, 'blessed are the peacemakers' (Matt 5:9).  Note how Jesus ends the beatitudes.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:10)

Here, Jesus uses the word 'dioko' for persecution which can also be translated as 'to pursue,' or to 'persecute.' It is a word that is tightly linked to a reason behind the persecution. Note the words, 'becuse of righteousness.' This begs the rhetorical question: If Christians are reprimanded, accused, even jailed for doing good acts of righteousness, what then is the problem?

The Iranian pastor stands up for what he believes in, an honest and earnest declaration of faith in Jesus. He is persecuted by threats of execution which can happen anytime. Cheong Ching, although not a believer then, has his life totally changed when he meets God in the Bible. He is now a force for doing good. Having gone through injustice and hardship, Ching knows what it means to be persecuted. The early Church grows quickly and mightily precisely because they recognize that persecution is part and parcel of being a Christian. Unfortunately, the comfortable Christian in the West does not see it that way. Many still believe a kind of 'prosperity gospel' that teaches that God wants us to be rich, as a result of God's almighty grace and unmerited favour. In many sermons throughout the Western Church, the messages tend to be more of giving nice advice about work matters, personal relationships, wonderful stories about life, instead of the gospel!

Being marginalized need not be seen as a bad thing. In fact, being marginalized can be seen as a sign of Christians making their presence felt. If Christians stand up for doing good in an environment where hooligans and thieves run amok, it is a good thing. If Christians join hands with environment activists in wanting to steward earth resources better, it is a good thing. If Christians affirm the rights of individuals to have affordable housing, better compassionate causes, caring for the elderly, and be actively involved in the development of children and teenagers in society, and get slammed for doing it, it is still a good thing.

C) Beyond the Three Monkey Philosophy

Better for a believer to be 'caught' in doing good when the media arrives. Better for the believer to be actively engaged in good for society whether the cameras are here or not. Better for the Church to be directly involved in the betterment of the neighbourhood they are in. In all of these acts of doing good, if the Church is then 'persecuted' in the name of Jesus, it is still a good thing.

Let me end with the very encouraging words of the social activist, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
 "Never, never, be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way."

Remember the famous cartoon about three monkeys? All three of them deals with the response to evil: Don't see, don't listen, and don't speak. Unfortunately, such behaviour resembles too much like the donkey Benjamin in Animal Farm. In keeping quiet amid the evil and injustice occurring inside the farm, it leads to the unfortunate bullying of many other animals, and the demise of its best friend, Boxer the horse. No! Christians are not called to passively resist evil They are to be actively resist evil by doing good.

Three Wise monkeys Not Good Enough!

Let us not be easily discouraged when we do good in the name of Christ. In fact, any forms of hostility, intolerance, or persecution against Christians for speaking and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ is a testimony that we are living in the ways of Christ, not the world. Doing good is a good thing. To be persecuted for doing good is even better.


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