This week our course focused on the ten persecutions against Christians by the Roman government throughout the first three centuries. Often it is stated Christians need to calm down with their ideas of grand persecution in the early days of Christianity since the reality was persecution was a sparse and usually localized event that lasted only a short time. While this is true of the known government backed persecutions of the first few centuries, such a dismissive understanding of persecution does not do justice to the reality of such events.
I do not intend to say Christians were always in every place and in every way hunted as in a blood sport. But it would be disingenuous to think only government action can be defined as persecution. We know of a number of events remembered in Scripture that are not a part of these ten Roman persecutions: the persecution of the Sanhedrin, which Paul was a leader of before his conversion, and the actions led by Demetrius in Ephesus come to mind as examples. There was also the conflict between Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews in the synagogues of Rome that grew to the point where Claudius expelled all Jews from the city in 49 CE. The truth is there were likely many events of persecution throughout the empire that were not recorded because they were not specifically sanctioned by the governing authorities.
This idea of persecution as only government direct action also misunderstands the social dynamics that come into play long before such government actions are able to occur. There must become a cultural mood which turns the society against a particular group of individuals. This mood is necessary whether for a government to seem justified in their direct actions against Christians or for a local group to believe they will not face punishment from the government for acting out against Christians. Christian beliefs and behaviors were generally cast as hateful, superstitious, fanatic, being against the common truths known by society, and anti-intellectual.
The key to persecution in a society is a culture which makes it uncomfortable for Christians to publicly believe and behave according to their teachings but creates a comfortable atmosphere for Christians to be ridiculed and sanctioned at many levels throughout the society.
Of course, this understanding naturally makes Christians begin to gauge how much persecution is going on in their own society. And here is where I begin to hate talking about the early persecutions for two reasons. While this general culture of persecution existed for them, Christians continued to faithfully live according to the gospel and invite non-believers into the faith. When there was intense governmental persecution some of the best and brightest leaders and laity were killed. They died at times for not simply throwing a pinch of incense in front of a six-inch idol of the emperor because they knew that their faith was one that could never be relegated to private convictions that did not control the way the interacted with other people, whether Christian or non-Christian.
But when we turn to our time, the contemporary world has convinced most of us that our Christian faith should not affect the way we interact with others. In fact, our politicians seek to lead the example in this! There are Democrats who have the audacity to say while their Christian faith is against abortion, they will not interact with the citizens of America in ways that limits abortion. There are Republicans who see no inconsistency in saying their Christian faith teaches humanity to work hard and do all that is possible to care for their families and to give dignity to all in such things, but will shatter families migrating to find hope in America, even going so far as to cage children!
The first reason I hate talking about the persecution of the early centuries is because we’ve lost the what it means to be Christians like them! Can we really call ourselves Christians if we do not publicly live according to our faith so that there is clear distinction between us and the world? A distinction so clear that we are easy targets to find in society, and even easier to hate?
The second reason I hate talking about the early persecutions is because Christians in America don’t even know how to support Christians as the cultural of persecution would begin. In our class it was indicated that American Christians have a persecution complex. The examples cited were Christians disliking the cultural change to using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and Christians disliking their businesses being forced to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies. It’s baffling to think Christian leaders are able to conflate these two examples, and thankfully our teacher sought to show the differences between the topics.
While the move to “Happy Holidays” could be seen as intentionally seeking to limit Christian public speech about the Advent season, and no doubt in some situations that is the case, most of the cases I’ve interacted with has been the desire to open up the language of the winter holidays in American culture to the non-Christian religious practices. Often, “Happy Holidays” doesn’t mean Christians cannot celebrate or talk about Christmas but that other holy days are allowed to be spoken of and celebrated as well. Respect for other groups celebrations is not inherently a form of persecution, but it must be recognized that such stated reasoning could potentially (and likely in some cases is) used to intentionally limit Christian public life.
The fundamental difference between “Happy Holidays” and being forced to bake a cake for a same-sex ceremony is that people are voluntarily choosing to say “Happy Holidays” in their public life. But in the example of a cake, the government, and society through it, is compelling Christians to alter their public life of historic Christian faith to obey the temporary norms of American society. The difference is not just one of degree but of kind. When Christians begin to be forced by society to act in public ways against their faith this is the reality of persecution which will eventually lead to governmental punishment and sanctions. If our view of persecution is so myopic to only include direct punishment by the government for Christian public life, then we are much closer than is comfortable in some places and in some ways. It might not be wise for us to assume the easiness of Christian public life in our local area is the same as Christian public life in a different local area in America. It might be best to simply support Christians struggling to live the faith publicly.
So, not only have Christians in America lost the convictions of the faith about how to live publicly, we have also become so culturally enveloped and politically entrenched into American society in different ways that we are willing to turn against fellow Christians when acts of persecution do begin in our society. Maybe there will be a purification of Christianity in America through a coming persecution, but unless Christians have learned how to publicly live their faith and support one another in the coming hardship I put little expectation on such a hypothetical.