“Persecution is the societal marginalization of believers with a view to eliminating their voice and influence.” Paul Nyquist
In this series, we’ve seen that the church is at an historical turning point, having lost its favoured status that it held for about 1,700 years. This makes it just as counter-cultural as it was in its first few centuries. We’ve also seen that people of the Christian faith are, metaphorically speaking, living in exile as a minority.
Being a counter-cultural minority puts us in a precarious position. It is particularly problematic for Christians because what makes us counter-cultural is not some minor ‘Christian thing’ related to society’s peripheral values, but something central to Christianity that is at odds with the two highest priority values that now dominate Canadian society: individual autonomy and tolerance. These are now referred to as “Canadian values” and some people use them as a litmus test for whether or not you are a good Canadian.
What a change from the Canadian values I grew up with, which were peace, order, and good government. For more than a century, these community values clearly distinguished Canadians from Americans, who championed individual values.
We must not, however, make this an either/or scenario. Champions of individual autonomy care about community welfare as well, and the same is true in reverse for champions of community welfare. The conflict is over which value outranks the other when they clash. Currently in Canada, individualism trumps community.
The reason Christians are counter-cultural stems from our belief that God is the creator of everything. This has two major implications that set us at odds with the dominant values of our society:
- We believe we are not the highest authority in our lives, God is. Our modern society believes we should each be the highest authority for our own lives.
- Although we highly value individuals, because each one, whether a Christian or not, is made in God’s image, we value community even more highly because the God in whose image we are made is himself a community of three persons. Community therefore is crucial to our self-understanding. The whole point of Christianity is to be in fellowship with God and with each other. Community allows us to express God’s love, selfless giving and other attributes. Secularists believe God had nothing to do with creation. Humanity is nothing but the result of random elements mixing together. Survival of the fittest is the process that got us to where we are today, and this belief leads directly to competitive individualism. For individualists, teamwork and community, rather than being the goal, are merely tools to help them reach their goals.
Christians support personal freedom and tolerance, but not as values that trump all other values.
A great example of what I mean by the clash of values is the Sunday shopping debate that took place in Ontario (the province I live in). In 1963, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the Lord’s Day Act based on the Canadian Bill of Rights, which was then in force. The Supreme Court acknowledged that Canada was an overwhelmingly Christian country that had accepted Sunday closings for years.
However, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was passed in 1982, and in 1985 the Supreme Court ruled that the Lord’s Day Act was unconstitutional because of its religious basis. Sunday closings were still okay as long as the rationale was not religious. The Retail Business Holidays Act did just that by justifying closings based on having a common pause day. However, public pressure led to wide open Sunday shopping in Ontario in 1992.
Here’s where we see the clash of values based on differing hierarchies. People who wanted the ability to work or shop seven days a week placed a higher value on personal autonomy than on community welfare. According to them, I should be able to work and shop any day I want. Christians and others who supported a common pause day placed a higher value on the ability of family and friends to have a day in which they could all be together as a community. It also served as public recognition that commerce has its place in society, but doesn’t trump the welfare of family and social relationships. Perhaps you have experienced what I have – family occasions at which at least one person wasn’t able to attend because of work commitments.
From the secular perspective, a different set of priorities makes us dangerously different and a threat (or at least a voice of oppositional conscience) to those who want individual wants and rights to override what might be best from community and social structure perspectives. Those who influence culture (who otherwise think of themselves as paragons of tolerance) are showing that they will not tolerate those who do not agree with them. The first time I heard a radio host say that people who have a limit to their tolerance for personal rights are unCanadian, a shiver went down my spine! I heard another radio host say just this week that someone like this should be punished by losing their job! The leader of a Canadian federal party said in an interview two years ago that evangelicals are “completely against Canadian values.” These are scary and very intimidating words!!
Hatred for differences
“I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” John 15:19
Jesus told us that the world would hate us. Paul Nyquist, in his book Prepare: Living Your Faith in an Increasingly Hostile Culture, says the world refers not to people but to ungodly systems (economic, social, etc.). This is a somewhat doubtful interpretation, as it is only people who can hate, not systems, but it is helpful nevertheless. It reminds us that those who hate us only do so because they have bought into a different system of thinking. It’s a fine distinction, but one that prevents us from hating those who hate us, and that is a very good thing.
Persecution and suffering
Conflict over the clash of values is more and more affecting the daily lives of Christians because governments, courts and tribunals, and socially active employers are all pronouncing on values. As a harbinger of things to come, the language of those opposed to the Christian perspective is getting increasingly vitriolic and bolder as time progresses.
The fact is, living faithfully will become more difficult and we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Jesus told us to expect suffering and persecution.
Don’t provoke needless persecution
But we don’t want to suffer unnecessarily. Ministries should assess their activities and strategic statements to be sure they do not cause needless provocation. John wrote that Jesus’ glory was full of “grace and truth” and that “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1: 14, 17). Our words need to be truthful, but they should also be full of grace, not anger.
And it’s not just what we say that we have to be mindful of. Actions speak louder than words, so doing anything that plays to the ugly stereotype some people have of Christians is detrimental to our cause. Don’t do it. We have enough on our plate. We don’t need to create any more obstacles to our own mission success.
Responses to persecution
We haven’t ever had to seriously consider what our response to persecution in Canada would be. Life-threatening persecution is hard to imagine, but more subtle forms of persecution are already in evidence, mostly with respect to efforts to eliminate our voice in the public sphere.
So here is some food for thought. Paul Nyquist says in his book Prepare, that there are three legitimate responses to persecution, and one that we must avoid.
The good responses are:
- Flee as Paul did in Acts 9 and 14, and as Jesus did in Matthew 12. Jesus also advised his disciples to flee in Matthew 10:22. This is the correct option when persecution would prevent your mission from being accomplished.
- Nyquist says that fleeing to avoid pain is not an acceptable option because persecution is integral to following Christ and a powerful way by which God shapes up into Christ’s image.
- I understand what he is saying, but it seems a waste of life and its future potential to needlessly stay and suffer, risking life and limb. If you can flee without compromising the cause of Christ, you should do so unless you know, as Jesus and Paul knew at the appropriate times, that your purpose is to stay and suffer.
- Defend yourself using legal means as Paul did in Acts 16 and 22.
- We live in a country which provides us with certain rights and freedoms, and it provides the means to defend ourselves when those are threatened. Freedom of religion is still taken very seriously at the Supreme Court of Canada. If we have legal ways to defend ourselves, it is only good stewardship that we do so (unless God directs otherwise). This is why CCCC intervenes in court cases that affect the rights of Christian ministries. If we lost the right to freedom of religion because we chose not to defend an attack against it, it’s our fault and we shouldn’t feel victimized.
- Stand firm as Paul did in Acts 14, 17 and 19, and as Jesus did in the Garden.
- In the first few centuries, there were people who went out of their way to be martyrs. This was wrong. Martyrdom is something imposed on you by external forces as you fulfill your mission.
- If you are called to make a stand that could end badly for you, God will be very clear that this is what you are called to suffer. Jesus and Paul both knew that what they were doing would lead to their deaths and both knew it would fulfill their purposes.
The one bad response? Fear! Nyquist says fear isn’t an option. While there are natural fears of physical and emotional harm, we must not fear persecutors because God is sovereign and our hope is in him. This gives us the courage to stand firm when it is God’s will that we stand firm. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” 2 Cor 4:18.
We never know in advance how well we will cope with suffering. We might quake in fear at the thought of severe persecution, and yet find ourselves able to bear it when it comes. There was a time in my life when, if I had known in advance how bad it would get, I would have been too afraid to proceed. However, in ignorance of what the future held, I proceeded and I’m glad I did. I got through the hard time and came out a much better and stronger Christian. I would have said beforehand that I wouldn’t be able to endure it. But when it happened, God gave me the stamina I needed.
Beyond Nyquist’s list of responses, another inappropriate response to persecution I will add is to assume that God is punishing you. God may be allowing and using a situation to teach you something (think of Jonah), or redeeming a situation or tragedy that occurred because people are evil, but God’s punishment? When Christ has covered your sins? You might be experiencing the natural consequences of something you’ve done, but it wouldn’t be God’s punishment.
This is a sobering topic, and there will be a few more sobering posts. But the point is to address reality and find a way to move forward. This series will transition to positive ideas for thriving and flourishing in our new world.
As we journey on, we are simply acknowledging that there may be suffering on the road ahead. Don’t be frightened. Don’t cave in. Stand firm and stay focused on your mission. Do what God called you to do the very best you can and remember what Jesus said in John 16:33:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.