Why does religious persecution exist?

The question is more than academic, for the answer can help us grasp the larger meaning of the stories of oppression we hear from Egypt, China, Eastern Europe, or scores of other countries. And getting a fix on the “why” can guide us as we work on the “how” of making a difference.

We must understand at the outset that religious repression is ultimately rooted in our fallen nature, in original sin. Religious intolerance and harassment seem to come naturally to humankind. Persecution grows out of the ancient enmity that God promised the serpent “between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gen. 3:15). Those who hate God will hate those who love him. No constitution, United Nations declaration, or powerful army can completely protect believers from this enmity.

While we rejoice over positive trends in parts of the world then, we also remember that Scripture is clear that religious persecution will continue. Jesus warned, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). Second Timothy 3:12 puts the matter bluntly: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Of Prejudice And Power

It would be simplistic, of course, to argue that the causes of religious persecution are purely spiritual. Cultural and political aspects intertwine with the spiritual roots in complex ways. Any effective response to religious persecution must take into account that religious persecution stems from two sinful impulses with cultural and political components: prejudice and the will to power.

Prejudice is rooted in the fear of “the other.” In this, religious prejudice is similar to other prejudices, whether racial, ethnic, or nationalistic. The prejudiced ...

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