Do Christians Have a “Persecution Complex”?
If we care about truth, sometimes we must speak against conventional wisdom, regardless of how one this may result in one being subjected to ridicule in some circles. Those who have not shared an experience are often quick to dismiss it, but their quickness often stems from their ignorance of others’ genuine experiences.
Just Because You Haven’t Experienced It …
While some people may indeed have a “persecution complex,” many others have experiences of persecution or prejudice that others dismiss simply because it is not their own experience. This observation applies to various issues.
When in the late 1980s and in the 1990s I learned from my African-American friends the continuing and serious reality of racism, it necessarily changed the orientation of my life. Speaking out cost me some relationships, but truth and justice are not negotiable. When I wrote about extremists slaughtering Christians and moderate Muslims in northern Nigeria, I was accused by even a Nigerian journalist of Christian bias (within a few years, however, Boko Haram became widely known). When I wrote about miracles and (still more controversially) reported experiences with hostile spirits, I was sticking my neck out, recognizing that many fellow academics would scoff. Nevertheless, I was readier to value experiences of actual witnesses—including on some points myself—over arrogant voices of inexperience.
In many parts of the world, Christians are facing life-threatening persecution and serious prejudice. This is true for most religious minorities, and perhaps partly because Christianity is a religious minority in many countries, it is true for large numbers of Christians. To deny this would be simply irresponsible; the BBC and other media outlets have many reports. For some compiled reports from Christian sources, survey the content of some of the following works:
- Hefley, James, and Marti Hefley. By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
- I am n: Inspiring Stories of Christians Facing Islamic Extremists. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2016.
- Marshall, Paul A. Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians Who Are Dying for Their Faith. Dallas: Word, 1997.
- Shortt, Rupert. Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. Doyle, Tom, with Greg Webster. Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where It’s Not Safe to Believe. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
And especially these well-researched works:
- Marshall, Paul, and Nina Shea. Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Marshall, Paul, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians. Foreword by Eric Metaxas; afterword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Prejudice in the United States?
But what about in the United States? Certainly what Christians face here is nothing compared to what Christians face in Iran, northern Sudan or especially North Korea. Nor is there government-sanctioned religious prejudice, despite local cases of hostility toward various faiths, including against Christian groups. To define any prejudice as persecution may trivialize the meaning of persecution. At the same time, those who are too quick to deny all claims of prejudice trivialize others’ genuine experiences.
In response to films such as “God’s Not Dead II,” some critics have been decrying a Christian “persecution complex.” Some Christians may be too sensitive about matters that are not such, but their critics are often too insensitive—in ways that they would never be if it were some different group experiencing the prejudice. Simply because the critics have not experienced a given prejudice—whether religious, ethnic, or some other kind—does not mean that nobody is experiencing it.
Of course, not everything that some Christians claim as persecution really is such. Not being granted special privileges is certainly not persecution. Nor is not being allowed to set policy for the state—so long as the state is not allowed to set policy for the church and Christian organizations. Nor is respectful disagreement, provided (and this is sometimes an issue) Christians and other people of faith are also welcome to express their own convictions. That is, being treated equally with others is not discrimination.
Nevertheless, genuine prejudices and individual and local acts of discrimination exist, and it trivializes such prejudices to decry them as a “persecution complex,” whatever their object. I was shocked to hear my African-American friends’ stories of encounters with racism, though the majority of accounts did not include reports of physical violence or death. Yet I was forced to recognize that simply because I was not a victim of racism did not mean that no one was. I had not experienced it simply because I was white and, to that point in my life, had only rarely been a racial minority in other settings.
Those who dismiss others’ reported experiences of prejudice are insensitive, whatever the reported prejudice. One can trivialize the prejudice by claiming, “It’s not as bad as what some other group experiences.” Yet almost any prejudice could be so dismissed—and by some people is so dismissed—by being placed against harsher realities such as genocides. Nor does belonging to a group that constitutes a majority in society—as statistical Christians are even though very-seriously-practicing Christians are not—prevent one from experiencing prejudice in particular settings in which one is a minority.
Some Early Encounters with Prejudice
Because my own experiences are the ones to which I can testify firsthand, these are the primary ones that I recount here, although the early experiences are much less significant than those I will recount afterward.
Here are a few examples; others might easily supply much more serious ones. I was in high school when I was converted from unchurched atheism to Christianity. (For those who think high school is too young to make major life decisions, keep in mind that I was reading Homer at twelve and Plato at thirteen.) Some of my peers did indeed ridicule my newfound faith—though I did not find that experience surprising or very bothersome, since I had faced ridicule from some different peers when I was an atheist. (I was probably more strong-headed in high school and college than any time before or after.)
At least in those days, some elementary and middle school kids, and to some extent high schoolers, made fun of peers for anything—for what they wore, for who their friends were, for their weight, for their names (in elementary school I was a “keener wiener”), and so forth. But because one group is not alone in facing some others’ hostility does not make it any less real or painful to many of those who experience it.
Today we have become more sensitive about some of these matters, rightly considering our young people’s feelings on some points. Yet peer pressure and ridicule remain, often including peers’ faiths (or non-faiths). This may be more true for some faiths than for others, particularly more in some parts of the country than in others, but it is especially hard on young people who have to spend much time among their peers.
One benefit of feeling marginalized at times is that one can become more sensitive to others who experience such marginalization. Thus I soon befriended a Jehovah’s Witness who experienced far more marginalization than I did; our faiths differed, but we understood each other. More influentially in my life long-term, shared commitment to faith regularly transcended traditional ethnic boundaries. But I have written more on these experiences elsewhere (including in Médine’s and my book Impossible Love).
Although some teachers felt no constraints about addressing religion (including negatively) if a student raised the topic, I had much more freedom to speak as a student than teachers generally would. I would give examples of a couple teachers’ fears already in the mid-1970s, even outside school, but I promised to focus here on my own experiences. I mention their concerns in passing simply to illustrate that ambiguities surrounding religious practice have been generating anxieties for some time.
More Substantive Encounters
Although ridicule did not bother me too much at that stage, and mere teasing bothered me even less, some of my experiences soon proved more substantial.
As a fairly young Christian I was sometimes beaten for sharing my faith—for as little as saying, “Jesus loves you.” Now you might retort, “It’s your own fault for not keeping your faith to yourself.” But if you were to respond that way, I would be tempted to respond that you are not treating faith the same way that you would treat someone speaking about something else they cared about. If someone beat you up for voicing a political perspective as a Democrat or a Republican, wouldn’t you say that they were violating your right to free speech? Or if someone pummeled you because you blissfully shared about someone you were in love with, wouldn’t you find this abuse offensive?
Years later, one fast-food restaurant where I applied for a job interviewed me briefly, and, discovering that I had attended a Bible college, immediately dismissed my application. “We don’t want any preaching here.” Surely it reflected some prejudice to assume that I would be preaching (especially as a cook, with a primary audience of hamburgers)? Admittedly, in another setting, where a different restaurant owner had more positive experiences with Christian college students, the same background probably counted in my favor.
Even today, with laws against religious discrimination, we cannot know all the intangibles in people’s past experiences that affect their perceptions and consequent decisions. We can only work to counter prejudice—an increasingly difficult exercise in a polarized public sphere where dueling media outlets highlight either the best or worst examples of groups (such as evangelicals, Catholics or Muslims) depending on their supposed political connections.
Prejudices in Academia
Despite traditions valuing objectivity (or attempts at objectivity) in the academy, prejudice happens there too. Not always— for example, I had a wonderfully healthy relationship with one of my French professors who was an atheist. One day, he asked me, concerned, if Christians really wanted to eradicate secular humanists. I laughed and explained that some Christians warned that secular humanists wanted to eradicate Christians. The danger of such polarizing propaganda is that it can fulfill itself by mobilizing constituencies against one another. Most of my professors treated me fairly.
Yet hostility does exist. One professor thought that any professor who publicly admitted belief in God should be fired. I have been in public settings where relatively little-published scholars dismissed me from counting as a scholar because they knew of my personal faith, even though I had not introduced it into our discussion or my work in question. I used abundant historical data as a control on my argument to reduce bias; although my critics had neglected such controls, they denied having any biases.
Aside from my personal faith, sometimes I have observed visible disdain from academicians in some other disciplines who do not consider biblical studies genuinely academic. (Never mind the 45,000 ancient extrabiblical references in my Acts commentary, culled from years working in the historical context. For them, my very field of study precludes me from being very smart.)
Moving from personal anecdote to a broader sociological survey, Elaine Howard Ecklund, in her 2010 study published by Oxford University Press (Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think), found that over one third of science professors at elite universities envisioned no “positive role for religious people, institutions, and ideas on their campuses” (p. 91; happily, 42 percent did allow for a positive role, 110). Despite the religious roots of many western universities and divinity schools at their own universities, some professors even maintain that the existence of divinity schools is dangerous, tantamount to endorsing religion and undermining science (97).
Such contempt does not amount to persecution, but it is clear that some critics are openly hostile to faith and that people of faith encountering them will likely have experiences of prejudice.
While avidly anti-religious voices in elite research universities account for only 5 percent of the interviewees in Ecklund’s research study, they constituted a very vocal minority (105-6). Happily, a subsequent study appears to suggest that this tendency is less pronounced at many other colleges. And the majority of my own friends who did advanced degrees in physics and other sciences did not report experiencing mistreatment based on their faith or other factors. There have been, however, some exceptions.
Unfair polemic characterizes the internet, however, from some dogmatic new atheists, dogmatic Muslims, dogmatic conservative Christians, etc. This is not persecution, but such misrepresentation can readily set the stage for such, as various anxious constituencies recognize. One generation’s rhetorical target practice can easily become the next generation’s casualties, as Jewish thinkers rightly remind us. (Indeed, Hitler planned to abolish Christian denominations once he had eliminated Europe’s Jewish community, if he won the war by 1945.)
Being aware that prejudice and caricaturization can, under the right circumstances, morph into persecution, is not a persecution complex. It is an observation about history. Yes, many fears are generated by political propaganda to mobilize constituencies; some, however, are recognitions of where such polarization could lead—toward any group that does not hold power—if public discourse continues to degenerate.
Dismissing People’s Experiences that You Don’t Understand
Of course, whatever you are, some people will not like it, whether they feel free to verbalize that dislike or not. (At least back in the early 1980s, some people explicitly disrespected me simply because of my bushy beard. Eventually I did give in to such complaints and trimmed it …) And Christians cannot really complain when some people don’t like us for our faith. After all, Jesus warned his followers to be ready for much worse suffering than public ridicule; that was one reason that over the years I often decided to simply shrug it off.
Nevertheless, critics who dismiss Christian experiences of prejudice and sometimes discrimination as a mere “persecution complex” speak too glibly based on their own lack of such experiences. Granted, most religious groups face prejudices from some groups of people; atheists often face this also. (And friendly Christians, Muslims, atheists and others often get stereotyped based on the loudest and most fundamentalistic members of their groups.)
But just as it’s insensitive to dismiss Jewish or African-American or Ahmadiyya or other groups’ reports of their experiences (I deliberately mix both ethnic and religious categories here), it’s also insensitive to dismiss the experiences of Christian individuals or groups. Those of us who’ve experienced prejudice know its reality firsthand. If you haven’t experienced it, I’m happy for you. But don’t dismiss others’ lived reality as a “persecution complex”—or we may be tempted to call you out for your hypocrisy. By being insensitive to others’ experiences of prejudice and discrimination, you simply prove their point.