I recently read an article (which I can’t retrieve) in which a bishop described Christianity as having been almost entirely eroded from public life. It seemed the irony of these words being written by one of 26 Anglican leaders who sit in the second house of government was lost on him. This was a man with national influence, a powerful voice to power, using it to suggest his disenfranchisement. A man who works for an organisation with the Queen as its head complaining that he had no access to society.
Even more recently (as it is a daily experience) I have read the replies and comments on various shared articles on my newsfeed. Some are political, some are Christianity focussed. I can always guarantee that within a few moments I will spot the P word. Persecution. Often this is someone saying something in this form: Because they (whoever they may be) get/are doing ‘X’ I am being persecuted. Alternatively, I can’t do ‘X’ so I’m being persecuted.
More often than not the X in the first form is something that the average mainstream Christian already enjoys, being enjoyed by another person or group. Examples? A Muslim/Sikh/Hindu place of worship being built or multi faith chaplaincy in a hospital. Sharing space does not equal persecution. Others gaining the blessings and freedoms that Christians enjoy does not undermine or denigrate the Christians’ freedoms. If one person has an apple and then another gets a different apple, the first person has only lost their uniqueness not their apple. There are plenty of apples to go round.
In the second form the X is often something like, ‘share my faith at work,’ or ‘pray in public spaces.’ In a slightly different version it is about no longer being able to exclude other festivals from council run programmes and solely mentioning Christmas. More often than not though, it seems it means, ‘I can’t say offensive things to those who don’t believe what I believe.’
Now don’t get me wrong, there are examples of people in western countries being treated incredibly unfairly for their beliefs. People with stories of true persecution but most of what I read doesn’t fit that description at all. Most of what I read seems to be the misdirected anxiety of no longer being the dominant, or sometimes the only, voice on an issue.
When you’ve been the sole major player for a long time and suddenly you have to share space, it can feel like losing ground but in reality, religious freedom isn’t a pie to be sliced and shared; I don’t lose mine for you to gain yours. It seems that many of us are confusing the loss of dominance with persecution, whilst simultaneously being the most free people on earth.
Western Christians are amongst the most free people in the world. We are not just free, we are privileged. Churches and Christian charities benefit from legal protections and tax relief. Christian leaders have the ears of world leaders and access to power. Christian movements own property worth hundreds of millions in which they can gather freely and celebrate and practice their faith.
Christianity in the west is far from under persecution and the growing voice that it is being persecuted baffles me. The outrage, when a joke at our expense is aired on television, coupled with the tried and tested, ‘they wouldn’t say that about Islam’ line, astounds me. If you can’t see that everyone is fair game on television you’re suffering from confirmation bias, all are mocked, even the neo-atheists You don’t even have to pay attention to notice.
When Jesus talks about persecution in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, it comes after a long list of things that Christians are called to be and do; comfort the mourning, meekness, make peace, be merciful. These are the things of righteousness that Jesus is saying we may be persecuted for. He isn’t talking about crucifix necklaces and protests against musicals.
Persecution would be the denial of freedom to practice the essentials of our faith. Persecution is when we are abused for practicing the Christian faith, when we are stopped from doing the works of Jesus in the world. When we are halted from serving the poor, binding up the broken hearted and lifting up the oppressed.
We are incredibly free, more than many Christians in the world who suffer harsh treatment for their faith; physical and mental anguish. We should be celebrating our freedom by freely living out the things of Jesus with kind words and actions, not complaining about losing or sharing privileges that we didn’t need in the first place.
We may not always be this free, let’s not waste it on claiming that we aren’t but use it to leave beautiful marks on the world. Marks of freedom, healing, reconciliation, hope and love. Let’s live these things loudly and if we suffer for those then we are blessed, as we are suffering for Him, the one who first suffered for us.