In recent weeks (July, August 2020) some churches have decided to disobey the government’s ban on large gatherings. In a fraction of these cases, their leaders assert that they are casting off government oppression.
One California megachurch has reopened, without mandatory social distancing or face-masks and with congregational singing. They have chosen to adopt a narrative, that they are being persecuted by the state government, and that like all persecuted Christians throughout history, they must take a stand.
From their published announcement, I infer that this policy is based on six assumptions: (1) That COVID is not as bad as the corrupt government and news media make it out to be. (2) That to obey the government is to subvert Christ’s authority and contaminate the church, since these officials are intentionally trying, to quote, “to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.” (3) That since we know that political leaders can lie, then we must assume that our leaders are lying to us now. (4) That if political leaders make guidelines that make megachurch meetings cumbersome (and meetings of thousands of people in one place are a very recent innovation! How was the church faithful before Spurgeon pioneered them?), then the motive for such decisions must be the persecution of the church. (5) That this is the thin end of the wedge: “succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely.” (6) That according to the Bible and the history of the church, there is “only one way” for a church to show itself faithful: it must disobey the government and break quarantine.
I believe this entire line of reasoning is illogical, and worse, not what the Bible points us to. It also is symptomatic of a common assumption in the USA: that whatever is going on in the world, the important thing is how it affects us, the American church, not how it touches the other 7 billion people.
In addition, I would argue that their policy could possibly arise from the stance that I oppose throughout this article: “persecution envy.”
To illustrate, let’s look at another area of society: hip-hop artists who seek to have “street cred.” When they rap about poverty, violence, the harsh life on the streets, they create the aura that they have really been there, had armed battles, run from the cops, been in prison, hung out with nasty people. If it turns out that an artist has been making up a narrative, that he grew up in a nice suburban neighborhood, his stock takes a tumble.
Christians too, for example those in the US who are not under serious oppression, might be in the market for “persecution cred.” They look at the Chinese churches being razed; the Sudanese being hunted down; the 40-thousand Yemeni Christian community pounded down to a few thousand. They want to feel that American churches too march in the parade of martyrs.
Is Persecution Cred a factor in the above case? We have no way of telling. I do insist that it is a temptation we all face.
To live in the truth means to never weave an artificial narrative in order to raise our self-worth as a leader or as a congregation.
And back to the original article, now updated for 2020. A Christian Pakistani woman named Asia Bibi was beaten and arrested in June 2009. Her crime consisted of stating that Jesus was the resurrected savior, and that Mohammed could not save. She was convicted of blasphemy in November 2010, and sentenced to death. She was finally released in 2018 and now lives in Canada.
In 2020 in the Middle East, a couple was thrown into prison for translating the Bible into the local language.
In China there is an ongoing persecution of the church: the government is closing churches and arresting pastors.
These three stories and many others may be found at persecution.com, the official site of Voice of the Martyrs. The accounts reflect those we find in the New Testament and throughout history, where Christians have suffered from official government action (Acts 21:33-36). Much more frequently, Christians suffer from “illegal” mob violence (Acts 19:23-41); this second type is easily the most prevalent today.
Persecution today typically takes place in Muslim nations, India and Marxist China and North Korea. In Sudan, there has been a long, grinding persecution, resulting in hundreds of thousands of martyrs and enslavement.
It has been calculated that most of the Christians who have been martyred throughout history were killed in the time period from 1900-2010. Currently, about 90,000 Christians lose their lives for their faith annually. Perhaps the numbers have fallen over the past decade. But even then, that’s still equivalent to a World Trade Center attack every week.
Verbal abuse; alienation from one’s family or village; divorce and having one’s children taken away; loss of employment; legal restrictions; imprisonment; beatings; exile; threats; death. These are the tools of the persecutors for the last two millennia. If we include all these possibilities, then over 260 million Christians are deprived of their basic human rights in 2019. [Note: these stats are given for illustrative purposes; there is variety in how one group or another calculates persecution, and given the murky situations of some areas it is hard to make a reliable count].
Sadly, United States policy now restricts the entrance of Christians who are fleeing persecution. One could argue that the US persecutes far more Christians passively (not allowing them sanctuary) than it persecutes actively.
All Christians, even American ones, should assume that persecution could happen to them and not assume that God will keep them from it. Particularly in college campuses, Christians are facing hostility. Yet mainly this occurs at the less harsh levels. Many Christians have been verbally abused. Some Christians experience alienation from their extended family because of their faith. Jesus talked about this (Matt 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Some marriages break up when a non-Christian person leaves a Christian spouse. There are Christian wives who suffer abuse for their faith from violent husbands.
On the other hand, in America someone who is fired for his or her faith has legal recourse just as does any other person; that has not always been the case throughout history, even in the US. Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, churches are not required to pay taxes on income or on property, so long as they show that they are not misusing donations and so long as their employees pay their taxes. Churches are not denied building permits because they are Christians – which is the policy I have seen in Cuba.
One website I’ve read has an article on which it begins with gun control of assault weapons, then an emotional plea that “they” are certainly going to come and take away ALL guns, then the next thing – it’s a dead certainty! – is that they will take away our Bibles and put us in prison camps.
With all due respect, they are playing “martyr dress-up” (for the young people, “martyr cosplay”) rather than doing the real work of God.
What bothers me is how some Americans equate their sufferings with the horrific persecution that other Christians face. For example, I’ve just read a blog that said that “no church should allow itself to be subject to the government’s tyrannical 501(c) 3 non-profit, tax-exempt status” and called Christians “sheepish” for not rebelling against the I. R. S. The author stated that the government is at times the enemy of God, therefore it is now the enemy of God and should be resisted. His entire argument was that Americans are suffering just as Daniel or the apostles suffered.
Where are the thousands of American believers who endure loss of employment; legal restrictions; imprisonment; beatings; exile; threats; death? I have run into far too many of these Christians who are playing a game of make-believe and what-iffery, making out that their daily irritations put them in the front ranks of the persecuted, confronting the world with chin held high. Americans posture, while brave soldiers such as Asia Bibi are fighting the real battles.
I’m tired of hearing the response, “It’s getting to be that way here, too!” when I mention persecution in other lands. And of seeing all those B-movies about how American Christians are suffering and will suffer in the near future. Likewise, no-one in America legally lives under sharia law, despite the rumors that are bandied about (for example, the hoax about Dearborn, Michigan). Nor did President Obama ban Christmas; the War on Christmas panic was demonstrably created by Fox News in order to gain more viewers.
Here are some fallacious arguments that bolster the “poor, persecuted American Christian” myth:
- Equivalency fallacy. Take the example above, where churches who use their lawful I. R. S. exemption are labeled as collaborators with an evil government. This makes the normal, everyday actions of Christians who live in this age with cooperation with the devil.
- Cherry Picking, that is, pointing to the data that support your narrative, and ignoring or downplaying other data. Church arsons are given press, as they should be; but how many Americans know of the hundreds of American mosques defacings and burnings?
- Thin end of the wedge fallacy. The Jeremiah Project states: “Here in America the persecution of Christians has not yet reached the feverish pitch as in other parts of the world. There is still a Constitution that protects them and allows them to freely practice their faith.” Under Obama, this was linked to the fake news about FEMA death camps. Notice the nice use of the phrase “not yet.” The implication: American Christians are a persecuted people, and it’s only a matter of time before they burn down your church or throw you into prison. Sometimes they allude to the church in Nazi Germany.
- Root Cause Fallacy, Part A – As a kid in Rhode Island, I listened to a radio pastor who daily preached against Communism. The problem with this reverend was that he found commies under every stone. For months he fought a battle against the tiny local government, which required that all houses of worship, like other buildings where crowds gather, have an escape system with emergency doors and proper fire stairs. This man refused to obey the law and went to court, since to follow the fire code was in his mind caving in to State Control of the Church. The communists were out to get him, and the fire code was their foot in the door!
- Root Cause Fallacy, Part B – Everything went to hell since they took prayer out of schools! I won’t delve into this issue, only to say I think it simplistic. In fact, private prayer is entirely permissible in US schools.
- The Misuse of Bible Prophecy. America is heading toward Globalism; or a Cashless Economy; or a New World Order, as prophesied in Bible. Typically, the sitting American President is suspected to be the antichrist. President Obama was an easy target, since someone with an overactive imagination could accuse him of being all sorts of things: a closet Marxist and a secret Muslim and a drug addict who worked as a gay prostitute to fund his habit, and a Nazi and a New Ager (believe me, these adjectives cannot mix – I challenge anyone to show me a single historical example of a New Age Gay Drug-addled Marxist Nazi Jihadist). But let’s not have short memories. Only a couple of years ago, plenty of Christians thought that George W. Bush was the instrument of Satan; and many more felt the same way about his father when he was in office. Some Christians – but surprisingly few – suspect that Donald Trump is the antichrist. The idea: persecution has to be right around the corner, and it’s up to the preacher to rebel against the government now, before things get too bad. This too is play-acting.
- Coulda-woulda-shoulda. I read far too many blogs which follow this sort of logic: the government could impose martial law; and could take away the internet; the could make Christian doctors perform abortions against their will; and Democrats could establish Shariah law in Florida; and could tell the U. N. to take over the country and throw all believers into a concentration camp. Yeah, could. But the government doesn’t, hasn’t, doesn’t give much indication that it’s on the horizon. Let’s play reality, not fantasy. Fantasy drains us of too much energy.
After the sinking of the Titanic, newspapers discovered a strange trend: there were individuals who were stepping up, claiming to be Titanic survivors, going so far as to tell details of which lifeboat they were in and what clothes they wore and how the ship looked when it went under the sea. But when investigated, some of them had not been on the ship, or were nowhere near the sea at the time, and some had never crossed the ocean at all. Some of these fakers were looking for money and fame; but others seem to have been swept up in their own fantasies, creating a story about their survival that became part of their personality. In the same way, at least one person claimed to have escaped the WTC attack on 9-11 and that her beloved fiancé had been killed when the other tower fell. She became a celebrity survivor – until it was discovered she was not in New York at the time, but in Spain. Her story is told in the fascinating documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There.” An even grosser example of this phenomenon is now called “stolen valor,” where people make bold – and false – claims about their military exploits in order to gain admiration.
There is a scene from the movie “Jaws” that perfectly illustrates my point. Shark-chasers Quint and Hooper swap stories of how they were bitten by sharks or got other wounds. Sheriff Brody (in the center) is about to show off his appendix scar and then thinks better about it. Brody has the sense to keep quiet and listen; he provides American Christians with an example of balance.
Please: Christians in other countries who have gone to prison in reality, not in their dreams. My wish is that people in the US would not imagine that they are under the same kind of persecution that others face every day in East Africa, China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia. I don’t want to hear martyrdom fantasies from people who ride home to nice houses in big cars. If we’re so keen to suffer for the Lord, then let’s do what the gospel says – and I direct this to myself equally: sell our nice homes and go to a place where we’ll be at real, not imagined risk for speaking the gospel.
* Note: I take these numbers for purposes of illustration from organizations who support the martyrs; some think the actual numbers are lower. They may not be scientifically verifiable and I do not necessarily vouch for them.
“Persecution is NOT good for what ails the church.”
“Martyrdom Fantasty Camp,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica