Anti-Christian hostility is on the minds of many American Christians these days. Each new legal challenge to religious liberty at the state and federal levels raises the issue afresh. It seems that today, Christians must think through their cultural position more carefully than at any other point in US history.
Still, given the terrible persecution of Christians overseas, I wonder whether it’s accurate to say that American Christians are “under persecution.” When I discuss the rise in anti-Christian hostility in the States, I avoid the “p word,” and I don’t make comparisons to other parts of the world.
But listen to a Middle Eastern underground house church leader: “Persecution is easier to understand when it’s physical: torture, death, imprisonment....American persecution is like an advanced stage of cancer; it eats away at you, yet you cannot feel it. This is the worst kind of persecution.”
A Syrian remaining in the region to assist Christians and Muslims cautions, “It wasn’t only ISIS who laid waste to the church; our cultural compromises with the government and our divisions against each other brewed for a long time. We are Damascus, the seat of Christianity; what happened to us can happen to you. Be careful.”
When persecuted Christian leaders overseas warn about how seriously US Christians are marginalized, it’s time to listen.
Of course, persecution in countries like India and China looks different than it does in Vietnam or Nigeria; the methods of oppressors and survivors vary dramatically. Often, other religious minorities suffer as well. In some regions, the disdain is cultural; elsewhere, hostility manifests itself in legislation. In places like Pakistan and North Korea, believers experience both.
In America, we see two groups: hostility deniers and hostility seekers.
Hostility deniers believe the church has been the greatest agent of oppression in history, making no distinction between faithful Christians and those who exploit the Bible for selfish gain. To them, Christians are not being persecuted but rather getting what they deserve.
Hostility seekers see persecution as a mark of “true Christianity,” as if it holds salvific value—usually expressed as, “If you’re not persecuted, you’re not being a faithful Christian.” They exaggerate threats in order to keep the “persecution industry” alive. They forget that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, not by suffering.
Christ rebukes these believers by modeling how to resist suffering, from his prayer in Gethsemane to submitting to his Father’s will at Golgotha. In Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand reminds us that “the true martyr seeks nothing for himself—not even the glory of martyrdom.”
Today, a third group is emerging. Hostility realists understand that anything is possible. Rarely does a nation move from freedom to oppression overnight. Realists understand that while the US Constitution promises inalienable rights to all citizens, those rights are not always guaranteed for the church.
As an African American, I understand this well. In the early 1600s, Africans arrived in the New World on equal footing with other settlers.
By the century’s end, though, freedoms had been steadily chipped away, race-based slavery established, and the worship, speech, and activities of black churches and gatherings were repressed. Still, the persecuted black church remained active underground, meeting in secret “hush harbors” of slaves and among free, believing abolitionists.
Today, cultural disdain toward Christianity is increasingly palpable. Whether we are talking about a group of nuns providing services for the marginalized, an educational institution that wishes to maintain faith-based standards for faculty and students, or a medical provider exercising conscience in right-to-life decisions, I believe we will continue to see more constrictions for people of faith.
This is not a cause for despair. We may never experience what the global church faces, but it teaches us that the culture cannot despise us more than we can love its people. While religious liberty is worth protecting, it is not our ultimate goal. Our true goal is perseverance and faithfulness in showing forth the kingdom of God.
K. A. Ellis is an ambassador for International Christian Response and a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
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