I’ve recently heard a couple of sermons based on passages in the New Testament talking about persecution. The most recent was just this Sunday, based on Revelation 2:8-11 – the letter to “the angel of the church in Smyrna”. The Lord, speaking through John, says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the Devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Unlike most of the book of Revelation, the meaning here is unambiguous. They will suffer a severe official persecution, and they should stand firm (ie not renounce their faith) even on pain of death. The same message is repeated in other New Testament passages.
Preachers these days struggle to make these passages relevant to their hearers, and with good reason. In Western societies Christians haven’t experienced this kind of persecution for a long time (although they do in other societies!) What the preachers I’ve listened to over the last couple of years have done is relate the passages to the sorts of interpersonal difficulties we face in living out our faith – we may be teased, face disappointment or misunderstanding from our families and friends, be urged or pressured to do things which go against our beliefs, and so on.
This really grates with me, for a number of reasons. It downplays the fear and horror of genuine persecution. It creates in us a siege mentality, a feeling that we live in a hostile world which is out to destroy our faith. We can feel that if we are not experiencing persecution there is something wrong with us, we are not living faithfully enough. This eggs us on to seek conflict, to provoke persecution by being more outspoken and controversial in our faith.
Instead of this let me give you another way of looking at persecution. There are basically three ways for a society to view religion. These overlap to a considerable extent in practice, and I just present them as a way of looking at the issue.
In the first, religion is seen as integral to a society – the society and the religion are one. To be a member of the society you have to follow a particular religion, and divergence from this religion is seen as a crime akin to treason. While not always implemented in practice, this was the position to some extent in the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries, where the emperor was seen as a god and participation in his cult an act of patriotism. The emperor was only one god among many, but refusal to acknowledge his divinity could be dangerous, particularly in times when the emperors felt insecure – such as the reign of Nero, and that of Domitian which was probably the background to the Book of Revelation. This position has also been held by regimes as various as the Reformation-era European nation-states which persecuted rival Christian belief systems, and 20th century Communist states which enforced (with more or less vigour) atheist materialism at the expense of any religion.
In the second view, religion is a matter of community and heritage – so within a society there may be a number of religions, and you may be born into any one of them. One of these religions may be dominant and the ruling class will be drawn from this religion, but the practice of other religions is tolerated and even encouraged within the context of their own community. In this situation, it is not dangerous to practice your own religion, but it could be dangerous to attempt to convert others from different religions, particularly for a minority religion to attempt to evangelise members of the dominant faith. It can also be dangerous to invent a new religion, since this upsets the established pattern of socio-religious relationships.
This view was, in fact, the one usually practiced in the Roman Empire, and the Christians suffered as much for being a new religion as for their refusal to worship the emperor – the Jews’ right to refuse emperor worship was well established and they did not suffer the same persecution as the Christians. In most such societies in more recent times Christianity is accepted as a traditional belief. This is the most common Islamic view - for instance, the Islamic Ottoman Empire licensed Christian and Jewish communities to practice their own faith, but only followers of Islam could hold public positions. The same principle applied in Britain from the late 17th century – people were free to follow whatever faith they wished but the Church of England held a privileged position, with only its communicants able to hold public office. Modern examples of this principle are many – Malaysia is one that springs to mind, where religious toleration is generally practiced but from time to time zealous missionaries are imprisoned for attempting to convert Muslims.
Australia as a nation adheres to a third view, which grew out of the spread of European liberalism from the late 17th century onwards. In this view, religion and the State are completely separate. A person’s religion is entirely their own choice, and the State has no right to interfere in it or to prefer one religion over another. People are free to follow any religion, change religion as often as they like, or invent their own religion. This principle is written into the Australian constitution. However, this religious freedom is not total. The practice of one persons’ religion must not infringe on the rights of another person to do likewise, and religions are not permitted to override basic human rights in the name of their faith – so child sacrifice is forbidden, no matter what your religion says!
Because this political situation is so fundamentally different to that faced by Christians in the first century, the New Testament passages like the letter to Smyrna do not apply directly to us – although they do to Christians in other contemporary societies. This does not mean that there are not some tensions around the practice of religion in liberal societies, since it is not always clear what the boundaries of people’s rights are. For instance in Australia there is a current debate about the boundary line between the legitimate use of free speech to discuss religious differences, and religious vilification. In Europe, there is an ongoing controversy about the wearing of religious symbols in public – for instance crucifixes and Islamic head-dress. However, these are not persecution. People are not being litigated for following Christ, but for particular acts which are seen as infringing on the rights or wellbeing of others.
Pressure from family and friends is another issue altogether. Our faith often makes people uncomfortable. Sometimes this is because it touches their own consciences – they sense themselves being judged, even if we don’t intend that, and defend themselves by criticising us. At other times people are uncomfortable because we practice our faith clumsily and cause unnecessary offence. We are particularly prone to this early in our journey of faith, when our zeal often outstrips our spiritual maturity. Later on we may learn to be more subtle and discerning and can heal the damage done to relationships by our early blunders. However, as time passes we may lose some of our own enthusiasm, and make compromises in our faith which weaken it and let ourselves and others down.
This has nothing to do with persecution but everything to do with the fundamentals of Christian life – how to both love God, and love one another. What does it mean to love others in a godly way? When is it appropriate to diplomatically avoid certain issues, or compromise on certain beliefs, in the name of love for someone? And when is it appropriate to give offence, both out of fidelity to God and out of love (“tough love”, maybe) to the person we are confronting? Such choices are an enduring part of Christian life, and there are no easy answers. Presenting them as examples of persecution confuses the issue, and makes us more likely to blunder than to make wise, loving choices.