“I need to share some hard news,” Jim, a senior vice president, begins, as the staff stares back with dread.
At a normal workplace, “hard news” from an executive at a staff meeting almost surely means layoffs. At a global ministry, the news can sometimes be much worse.
Jim’s ever-present jovial smile fades, and he tells us that multiple families were killed the night before, butchered for no other reason than their faith in Christ.
On more than one occasion, I’ve met an international co-worker who serves in a dangerous region only to be left with the sinking feeling that the new friend I just made could do 30 years in prison without a trial or have their head cut off with a machete in the public square.
My first week on the job, I met a photographer who had been held arrested for evangelizing in Cuba. The only reason he’s free today is because U.S. citizenship comes with a lot of perks, including a nation that can flex massive military and financial muscle to secure the release of a person held in a hostile country. In my line of work, persecution isn’t something we read about in a news story.
That’s why I was baffled by a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute from last month that white evangelicals in America believe they endure more discrimination than Muslims. In June 2016, the same research institute found that “almost half of Americans say discrimination against Christians is as big of a problem as discrimination against other groups, including blacks and minorities. Three-quarters of Republicans and Trump supporters said this, and so did nearly eight out of 10 white evangelical Protestants.”
I’ll show my hand here. I’m a white Republican evangelical who hunts, holds a concealed handgun permit, listens to country music and watches cage fighting. The group of Christians who believe they’re being persecuted are “my people,” ethnically, theologically, culturally.
Which is why I’m in a unique position to call out attitudes and behaviors, rooted in a false persecution complex, that damages Christianity both in the U.S. and abroad.
A TOXIC MIX OF BAD THEOLOGY AND Politically correct CULTURE
It’s impossible to understand the white evangelical attitude around persecution without unpacking Dominion Theology. This fringe movement was started by R.J. Rushdoony. That’s not a household name, but Rushdoony’s ideology has had a profound effect on both the American Church and political structures.
In the 1950s Rushdoony, a divorced, failed missionary to Native Americans in Nevada found a new career as a contributor to Faith and Freedom, a Christian libertarian magazine that claimed to be based around an “anti-tax, non-interventionist, anti-statist economic model.”
For all practical intents and purposes, the publication formed to stand in opposition to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rushdoony initially made a name for himself by claiming government support made Native Americans “socially and personally irresponsible.”
Rushdoony was heavily influenced by Cornelius Van Til, a 19th century Dutch philosopher who argued that sin inhibits a person’s ability to reason, and therefore the only truly sane people on earth were (Protestant) Christians.
In the 1960s, Rushdoony used his increasingly large platform to push his followers (mainly white Protestants) to avoid the “secularism” of public schools through homeschooling. In 1973, he published The Institutes of Biblical Law, a massive 890-page volume calling for a Christian Theocracy (“a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God”) in the United States.
Although Rushdoony passed away in 2001, the ideology lives on with his son-in-law Gary North at the helm. In 1982, North called for believers to “get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.” Today, the “Hard Christian Dominion Theology” still calls for the U.S. Constitution with biblical law.
It’s a vision that’s frighteningly close to the jihadist goal of enacting Sharia law.
If your starting point for the Christian faith is that members of other faiths have no rights and non-Christians are technically insane and that you have a God-given duty to control government, media and society-at-large, then yeah, anything less than that probably feels like “persecution.”
The irony is that this viewpoint draws heavily from what’s often referred to as college campus “snowflake culture.”
This relatively recent campus phenomenon is characterized by students demanding potentially controversial curriculum be labeled with “trigger warnings” and that “safe spaces,” physical refuges from potentially scary ideas, be provided by the institution.
Snowflake culture is equally unpopular on the political left and right. Conservative pundits regularly mock the whole system and President Obama openly took the idea to task in 2015.
Although adherents to Dominion Theology would no doubt be infuriated by the comparison, it’s easy to draw a line straight to the “snowflake movement.” Both ideologies desire to control the choices and behavior of others and to use force to do it.
A KINGDOM NOT OF THIS WORLD
When the New Testament mentions Zealots, it’s easy to put the group in the same mental box as Pharisees, hyper-legalists who get in the way of a true relationship with God. But first century Zealots were not the ancient version of John Lithgow in Footloose, but a political movement similar to the Taliban.
Zealots, and an even more extreme offshoot, the Sicarii, didn’t just fight back against their Roman oppressors. They targeted Greek and Roman civilians for execution and the Sicarii even murdered fellow Jews who were not considered to be pious enough. The sects eventually triggered war with Rome in 66 A.D.
Many first century Jews, including at least some of Jesus’ own disciples, expected Him to lead a political revolution. Instead, Jesus hardly mentions the Roman Empire during His ministry. In John 18:36, Jesus tells Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
To put the government of United States of America at the center of the gospel story, and then to feel psychological pain when that vision doesn’t come true, is simply a modernization of the Zealot movement, which Jesus rejected.
TURNING OUR BACKS ON OUR NEIGHBORS AND FELLOW BELIEVERS
The other problem with the “white Protestant persecution complex” is that there’s just no evidence to back it up. Persecution is not someone saying something negative to you, being forced to attend school or work with a person of an opposing viewpoint or a general anti-religious sentiment. Persecution is real, tangible harm inflicted on a person or group, and white Protestants seem to be holding a permanent hall pass.
In the history of the United States, no white church has ever been burned as a hate crime. In the last 10 years, nine black churches have been terrorized or burned. Only one time has an American on U.S. soil been killed for the Christianity (Cassie Bernall at the Columbine High School attack, and eye-witness accounts are conflicted on whether or not she was questioned about her faith). On a single day in 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans due to their race and faith in Christ.
When white evangelicals become obsessed with controlling the government, there isn’t much room left for sharing Christ. And there’s even less chance that non-believers will want to hear from Christians who are openly trying to dominate and control behavior through force.
And when our collective attention is turned to an American flag draped over a cross, it’s likely we will ignore the actual genocide and oppression believers around the world face. In 2016, 90,000 people around the globe were killed for believing in Christ and 600 million more were prevented from practicing their faith “through intimidation, forced conversions, bodily harm or even death.”
Simply put, we cannot feign persecution and effectively reach our neighbor at home. Nor can we properly understand the horrors fellow believers face around the world.