“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of
heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil
against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for
in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
--Matthew 5:10-12 NRSV
When most American Christians speak of being persecuted for their faith, I can only roll my eyes and guffaw. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been Christians persecuted for their faith and that persecution still happens today in many countries, but rarely does it happen in America. When it does happen in our country, it’s not for the reasons most American Christians claim.
American Christianity, especially its Evangelical varieties, has a persecution complex. Why? People who claim to take the Bible literally (a false claim by anyone foolish enough to make it) can find plenty of verses in the Christian scriptures equating being a good Christian with undergoing persecution. The final Beatitude couplet in Matthew 5:10-12 is a case in point. When scriptures are seen this way, one can’t be a righteous Christian unless one is persecuted. Yet in a pluralistic democratic republic where most of the population claims at least to be nominally Christian there is no persecution of Christians, at least not persecution like Christians in the first century experienced or Christians in a country like China experience today.
The New Testament writings came about in the midst of religious conflict first with the Judaism out of which they originated and then with the wider Greco-Roman world. When a religious movement is a small minority, they experience persecution, but when they are the overwhelming majority, they more often become the ones carrying out persecution. The latter is certainly the case in America today. So, without actual persecution, American Christians look for ways they can claim victimhood, because otherwise how can they be good believers?
Usually claims of persecution involve one of a number of key social sins involving gender, reproduction and sexuality.
“See how the world hates us, because we consider homosexuality to be a sin!”
“See the persecution we face for protecting the lives of the unborn!”
“See how they condemn us, because we will not ordain women as ministers and declare men are the head of the household!”
The problem with such claims is that nobody in America is stopping them from believing such things or even going through lawful political channels to change laws, but in a nation where everyone’s religious beliefs (or lack of) must be protected, no one religious group, even a very vocal religious group, gets things their way all the time. Such disputes were easier once upon a time, when the only people who had power were largely White people of European descent who claimed to be Christian, but America is thankfully changing. The freedom to believe certain things in a religious community and the power to impose those beliefs on everyone else are two very different things.
The problem with most American Christians who cry persecution is that what society is pushing back against is not their religious beliefs but rather their hatred, judgment and seeking to control other people’s most intimate relationships and behavior. In such cases, I find it hard to believe Jesus would be on the side of the religious people spewing condemnation and mourning because they don’t get their way all the time. The kind of persecution Jesus is talking about is not privileged people claiming victimhood while they actively victimize others.
The kind of persecution Jesus declares blessed is the kind one undergoes “for righteousness’ sake.” While many American Christians claim they are being righteous, in reality they are living out the kind of self-righteous religiosity Jesus roundly condemns. The “righteousness” Jesus describes in his life and ministry involves caring for those whom society considers “the least of these.”
We can see what Jesus means by righteousness by what he is criticized for doing.
Jesus is criticized for his relationships with prostitutes, tax collectors and other sinners. Today, too often it is the Christians with the loudest megaphones who condemn equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their particular understandings of gender and sexuality.
Jesus is criticized for his relationships with women, some of whom take active roles in his ministry. Today, too often it is Christian churches and advocacy groups that wish to control and limit what women can do and not do.
Jesus is criticized for opposing those who use religion to manipulate and exploit people who are poor. Today, too often the most visible Christians are the ones leading the charge against those with the least power in our society, such as immigrants, people living in poverty and low-wage workers.
The only Christians I am aware of who face any kind of persecution in our society are ones who stand with the powerless. Churches that offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation lose members and face community opposition. Churches that affirm LGBTQ people are kicked out of their denominations. Churches that stand with low income residents fighting against policies and laws that unfairly affect poor people find themselves declared “soft on crime” or “against law and order.” Churches that declare their allegiance is to the Kingdom Heaven above their allegiance to the United States and question our nation’s use of violence around the world are labelled “unpatriotic” and “un-American” or charged with “not supporting the troops.” In fact, one of the few ways I can think of for American Christians to actually be persecuted is when they are willing to stand with people that don’t have well-stocked political action committees and lobbying groups. If you want to make both Democrats and Republicans mad at you, then just treat people who are powerless and penniless as if they are equal in the sight of God. Pretty soon, people of all political stripes will want you to quit causing them trouble.
In Matthew 25 31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus presents the startling idea that the “sheep” who are considered “righteous” do not even know they are serving Christ himself.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?’” NRSV
This means that the folks caring for people who are condemned and ignored by the Christians claiming to be persecuted may be the “sheep” in contemporary America. This also means that the kind of Christians who claim to be persecuted for their beliefs may end up being the “goats” condemned for their unrighteousness. The “righteousness” Jesus says his followers should be persecuted for stands in stark contrast to the self-righteousness displayed by the many American Christians who claim to be persecuted.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851