A recent Pew study found that white American evangelical Christians think they experience more discrimination than blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, atheists or Jews.
Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S. Many kinds of legally ensconced religious privileges are on the rise including the right to woo converts in public grade schools, speculate in real estate tax-free, repair religious facilities with public dollars, or opt out of civil rights laws and civic responsibilities that otherwise apply to all. By contrast atheists are less electable than even philanderers, weed smokers or gays; Hispanics and Muslims are being told to leave; Jews get accused of everything from secret economic cabals to destroying America’s military; and unarmed black youth continue to die at the hands of vigilantes.
Given the reality of other people’s lives, a widespread evangelical perception of their group as mass victims reveals a lack of empathy that should give thoughtful believers reason to cringe. And indeed, Alan Nobel, managing editor of Christ and Pop Culture, and a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote a thoughtful, pained analysis this summer of what he called "evangelical persecution complex." Nobel contrasted the privileged position of American Christians with the real and serious persecution Christian minorities experience under ISIS, for example, and he examined the ways in which victimization can become a part of Christian identity and culture to the detriment of Christians and outsiders alike. What he neglected to spell out clearly was the extent to which the Bible itself sets up this problem.
Christianity, born in the harsh desert cultures of the Middle East, got its start by defining itself in opposition to both Judaism and the surrounding pagan religions of the Roman empire. Consequently, from the get-go teachings emerged that helped believers deal with the inevitable conflict by both predicting and glorifying suffering at the hands of outsiders. Indeed, persecution was framed as making believers more righteous, more like their suffering savior. Long before the Catholic Church made saints out of martyrs, a myriad of texts encouraged believers to embrace suffering or persecution, or even to bring it on.
This sample from a much longer list of New Testament verses about persecution (over 100), gives a sense of how endemic persecution is to the biblical world view.
- I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. Matthew 10:16-17
- Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Matthew 10:21-23
- You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. Mark 13:9
- Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Luke 6:22
- If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. John 15:19-20
- Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. Acts 4:27
- Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail....They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Acts 5:17-18,40
- On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Acts 8:1
- Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Romans 8:35
- That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10
- For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. Philippians1:29
- Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24
- For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15
- In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 2 Timothy 3:12
- Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:3
- But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 1 Peter 3:14
- Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 1 Peter 4:12-14
- Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 1 John 3:13
- 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 life as your victor’s crown.Revelation 2:10
- I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. Revelation 20:4
As any squabbling pair of siblings can tell you, claiming to be a victim is powerful stuff, even if you actually struck first. He started it! yells one kid. No, she started it! yells the other. Parental resolve waivers in the face of uncertainty, and both kids get an exasperated lecture.
When I was in college, I had a friend who grew up in a rough, low-income neighborhood. One day we were talking about car accidents and he said, “My father told me that if you ever get in an accident, you should immediately get out and start yelling at the other driver. Even if it was your fault, it will put them on the defensive and keep them from making wild claims. And maybe the police will believe you.” Amoral, perhaps but brilliant.
If claiming to be a victim is powerful, believing you are a victim is far more so, again regardless of the actual facts—which, at any rate, we all are prone to interpret through a self-serving lens. Have you ever noticed that when your friends tell you about conflict with co-workers or lovers, you almost always feel like they were wronged? What are the odds, really? Seeing ourselves and our tribe as innocent victims draws sympathy and support and protects self- esteem.
But at a price.
Because when we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see.
In the case of Christianity, the theology of persecution serves to give the faithful hope. It inspires persistence in the face of hardship, including the many hardships that life brings all of us through no fault of our own. But it has also blinded generations of believers to the possibility that sometimes the hardships they face are due not to their faith or outsiders hating Jesus, but to the fact that they hit first. And sometimes the bewildering hostility they perceive may simply be something the theology of persecution has set them up to expect, whether it is there or not.