Why aren't We Persecuted for Being Christians?
From Sunday June 2 until The Feast of Christ the King (November 24), my congregation is going to focus our attention on The Acts of the Apostles in Sunday worship and in three different opportunities for Bible Study.
Why Acts? Probably sometime between 70—100 CE, an early Christian, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke, wrote Acts in order to tell the astonishing story of the early church. Some scholars believe it was written at a time when the early church was losing its initial fervor and needed to reconnect with its generative roots. What better way to inspire these struggling churches than to share with a new generation the story of what God had done to give birth to this “Jesus movement” and the “bold and unhindered (Acts 28: 31)” way they carried out God’s mission. The situation is no different for the church today. Acts invites us to connect with our roots and allow the Spirit to inspire us to bold and unhindered mission today.
In preparation for the upcoming focus on Acts, I recently finished a slow deliberate reading of Acts, constantly asking what this early account of the church has to say to us. Reading Acts raises several important questions for the church today. Perhaps the one I ask myself the most is this: Why is my church not under assault like the church in Acts?
The story of Acts—and much of the New Testament for that matter—depicts a movement that was constantly persecuted. For, example: Not long after Pentecost, Peter and John are arrested for healing someone. Soon after that apparently all the Apostles are arrested and put in prison. Not long after that, Stephen is stoned to death and the persecution of Christians in general is well on its way. And, of course, when Paul begins his missionary work, the ongoing pattern is for Paul and his companions to go into a town, preach Good News, and promptly get beat up and arrested. Paul spends a good deal of time in prison and ends up in Rome under house arrest before (not reported in Acts) he was martyred. So why am I and the disciples in my congregation—let alone the broader church in our diocese—not under similar assault? I am not visiting members who have been thrown into prison. My congregation has been in existence for over 60 years and we still don’t have even one martyr. New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright put it this way: “I often mention, when lecturing, the Bishop who complained that everywhere Paul went there was a riot, but everywhere he went they served tea.”
I have two answers to my own question that may seem contradictory:
On the one hand Christians in the Unites States aren’t under attack because we have accommodated ourselves to the dominant culture. We too often view the church as more of a chaplain to the dominant culture rather than a witness to an alternative way. Indeed, when Christians do live in a counter-cultural way, they end up in trouble. Christians in the civil rights movement were arrested and put in jail. Some, like Episcopalian Jonathan Daniels, were killed. Members of the Ploughshares anti-nuclear weapons movement received prison sentences for their resistance. When Christians today resist the administration’s cruel immigration policies, some end up in trouble.
On the other hand resisting the dominant culture may not get you arrested, but that doesn’t mean that following Jesus isn’t under attack in our society. For example, one of the most anti-Gospel aspects of our culture is endless busy-ness. The religion of the consumer society makes no allowance for rest. Try observing the sabbath for a whole day sometime and you will experience the push back by a society that can’t afford to rest. Another example: Take a moment to examine how you feel about your body image. When you do so, I bet you will be attacked by all the air-brushed super models and hunks that populate magazine covers. Or notice how you feel next time you are at a cocktail party where everyone is bragging about their life. In such a space, it is hard to remember that you are made in the image of God.
The story of the church in Acts is a story of an odd group of people whose lives had been changed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They suffered for their alternative way of life, but they discovered the life that really is life. May their witness inspire us.
One footnote: We should be careful not to conflate the experience of Christians in the Unite States with Christians worldwide. In fact, I am somewhat embarrassed to have even mentioned in the same breath the above mentioned challenges Christians face in the United States with those that Christians face in other parts of our world. According to the advocacy organization Open Doors USA, “approximately 245 million Christians are at risk of ‘high”, “very high’, or ‘extreme levels of persecution in 2019,” which represents an increase of 30 million more individuals at risk than in 2018. Unfortunately, Vice President Mike Pence conflated the two in his recent Liberty University commencement address, when he referred to “the lack of tolerance for traditional Christians beliefs” in our society, having just t mentioned that “Christians suffer more persecution around the world than any other religion.” Whatever challenges we face pale in comparison to Christians in places lie North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria.
(Originally posted on May 16, 2019. This blog was edited on May 17, 2019.)