Enduring through persecution

Paul in prisonSt. Paul had his fair share of persecution.  The book of Acts records how Paul, persecutor–turned–evangelist, founded churches and suffered as a result.  The book concludes with Paul in jail, his fate hanging in the balance.

Founding a little church in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica was especially difficult.  Acts 17 states that he preached about Jesus in the synagogue and won only a few converts; the rest gathered an angry mob and accused him of treason.  He barely escaped to Athens.

The Bible contains two letters that Paul and his fellow ministers, Timothy and Silas, wrote to the new church in Thessalonica. In the letters, Paul expressed concern as well as praise for the church’s perseverance.

He sent Timothy back to the church in order to encourage them “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions” (3:3a).

Paul, however, takes an odd turn after that.  Rather than encouraging them to rebel or retaliate against their foes, Paul reminded them that persecution was a part of what it meant to be a Christian.

“You yourselves know,” he wrote, “that this is what we are destined for…we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution” (3:3b-4).

The church needed reminding that when they chose to follow the crucified Lord, they too promised to follow him even unto death.

Even Jesus did not shy away from this truth: “Those who do pick up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:23).

Over the past year, I have heard many Christians claim they are being persecuted for their faith.  Some say that persecution comes from an over-extended government bent on imposing morally questionable legislation, while others argue that persecution is a result of the loss of Constitutional rights.

Yet, when compared with Christians in the rest of the world–many of whom face exile, death, torture, rape, and exploitation directly due to their faith in Christ–it seems like what we call persecution is merely an inconvenience more than anything else.

According to Halee Gray Scott writing for Christianity Today, nearly 100 Christians are martyred for their faith every month, and two-thirds of the world’s nations discriminate against Christianity as a general rule.

According to Scott, “We’re incensed when a millionaire is suspended from a reality television shows for expressing his faith in a coarse manner…But we turn our heads and avert our eyes when the blood of the martyrs, our fellow Christians, cry out to us from the ground.”

I agree with Scott, and I would add that we spend too much time trying to retaliate against those who seem hostile while neglecting to repent for some of the things we say and do in the public sphere.

In the midst of persecution Christians have the greatest opportunity to reflect the best of the Gospel: Even as recipients of hostility, we share the love of a non-violent Lord who declared that compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion–not exclusion or divisive speech–are holy actions that represent a holy, merciful God.

While rejoicing in spite of hardship, we bear testimony that God’s purposes for us will triumph even over death itself.  We bear witness to a heavenly call in which we are not commanded to fight back, but to forgive and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul wrote that the Thessalonian church communicated “the gospel of faith and love” (3:6).  Theirs was not a campaign using worldly tactics, but of living out the Good News in which Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords.

They exchanged protest signs for faith, letters to editors for planting seeds of mercy.  They included people in their fellowship rather than exclude others who did not share their particular vision of the world.

I’m still not convinced that Christians are persecuted for faith in this great country of ours.  The world is doing exactly what the world always has done, it cannot do any other.  But Christians who claim to follow Christ have the choice to do what is right, say what is wholesome, and advocate on behalf of the oppressed rather than the privileged few.

It is time for conservatives and progressives to work together

A recent report released by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution (as told by The Christian Century) shows that the religious landscape of the United States is quite diverse and will shift in fundamental ways over the next two generations.

A majority of Americans, for instance, is considered “religiously moderate” (38%) while another 28% is considered “religiously conservative.”  Yet, the number of religious progressives (19%) and the nonreligious (15%) is growing every year.  It is newsworthy that progressives are only nine percentage points away from catching up to conservatives in the American populace.

Basically, although conservatives continue to have massive influence on American politics and evangelical communities, religious moderates and progressives will garner greater numbers in the population in the next century.  Meanwhile, statisticians believe that the non-religious sector will continue to grow exponentially as our culture takes an increasingly secular turn.

Reactions to this report are mixed and its not uncommon to find religious progressives asking whether they “won” the culture wars over the past thirty years against the religious right.  Meanwhile moderates still wonder how to market their brand of Christianity in a polarized atmosphere.

Growing up in a fairly conservative household, I once believed that we were indeed at war with the world and with secularism in general.  Books authored by Pat Robertson and others influenced me to think in militaristic ways about engaging our society.  Sure the battle was against Satan, but society was also inherently evil.

Over time, however, I grew quite impatient with this kind of rhetoric.  As I traveled beyond my own little “world” to places as far as Ghana and Israel, I discovered that society is not so much an enemy to fight, but rather a place in which God’s redemption is very much at work.  I fostered a Christian mission to “save the lost,” but I didn’t have to be hostile in my approach towards the world and towards those with whom I disagreed.

Now, it seems that progressives are getting to boast for once, and using militaristic language is an easy temptation for them as well.  Katherine Bindley, for instance, asks whether the rise of progressive and moderate forms of faith will result in a “political groundswell,” most likely to combat the era of a type of Christianity branded as homophobic, crassly individualistic, and out of step with mainstream America.

Even an article in The Christian Century entitled, “Survey finds strength in religious left,” implies that the religious right is somehow weakened because of generational trending and global approaches to theology and politics.

Although that’s far from militaristic language, such headlines contain a divisive undercurrent similar to that which existed in the faith formation of my youth.

Perhaps we need to ask a different question than those posed by many a journalist.  We shouldn’t wonder who will “win” the culture wars within Christianity, but rather imagine the creative and inclusive ways in which God can bring the Church together to wield a type of nuanced faith that shapes both minds and hearts.

We can side with our conservative friends and work on “right belief” and revival, but we can also find inspiration  and synergy in progressive values related to ecumenical collaboration, social justice initiatives, and interfaith dialogue.

I realize that Rodney King’s adage, “Can’t we all just get along?” sounds cliche.  It is almost naive; but perhaps if we focus less on winners and losers within the church, we can spend more time proving to the world (and the growing population of “nonreligious” individuals) that Jesus is transformative in our personal lives as well as our communities in which we live and in which people continue to suffer.

If we see the world–and each other–as “us vs. them,” then we will continue to see our partisan religion (and politics) become all the more entrenched.  Yet, the Bible pleads with us to not inflame a spirit of division, but to be of the same mind (1 Cor. 1:10).  Its simply a matter of finding ways to work together, focus on the things that are important to God, and let the Holy Spirit do the saving and judging at the end of the day.