Theologian Michael Jensen, writing in the Australian Bible Society’s Eternity magazine, asked whether Christians in Australia were being persecuted. His arguments apply equally to Christians throughout the West. His article is republished here with permission.
In 2010, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George made this prediction: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”
This alarming prophecy was made as a reaction to the rise of the strident secularism which seems determined to expunge all traces of religious faith from public discussion in the West.
When secularism manages to co-opt the media and the law for its own purposes — as it frequently seems to do — then the prospect of an Archbishop being punished simply for his adherence and advocacy of Christian views seems not so fanciful.
It is most overt in somewhere like France, where freedom from religion seems to be the goal of the government. The wearing of all religious symbols was banned from French schools in 2004. In the UK, there have been a series of cases in which anti-discrimination legislation was used against the Christian point of view.
The most famous case concerned a Christian couple Hazelmary and Peter Bull, the owners of a guesthouse in Cornwall. The Bulls refused two gay men a double room in 2008. The gay couple took the Bulls to court and won damages. Despite appeals to the Supreme Court, the original decision was upheld. The judges made it very clear that the right to expression of sexual orientation trumped the right to freedom to express one’s religious opinions.
Was this ‘persecution’? And is it headed our way in Australia?
I think we should be very careful here: persecution of Christians is a terrible reality across the globe. In northern Nigeria, Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos reported to me that more Christian lives have been lost under the fearful assaults of Muslim renegades in the last decade than were lost on 9/11. Christians in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and North Korea are dying for their faith, or having to flee. In Indonesia and in Malaysia, Christianity is carefully confined along ethnic lines, and evangelism restricted.
Bible Society bookstores in Assiut and Minia, Egypt, were destroyed by local Muslim fundamentalists on August 14th, 2013 – a first in the Bible Society of Egypt’s 129 year history.
Photo Credit: Bible Society Australia
Bible Society Bookstores in Assiut and Minia, Egypt were destroyed by local Muslim fundamentalists on August 14th, 2013 – a first in the Bible Society of Egypt’s 129 year history.
Even Prince Charles was recently reported saying: “It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are increasingly being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants.”
The form that this wave of persecution takes is frequently violent. It is sometimes undertaken by terrorist groups, but often has the force of law. John Allen’s book The Global War on Christians shows just how widespread and nasty the attack on Christianity has become.
What compounds it is the way in which Western media reports out-and-out persecution of Christians as ‘religious violence’. This of course suits the secular narrative about religion: that religious people are all basically possessed by a form of madness which means they will always be fighting one another. Western journalists seem uninterested in who is attacking whom. To them it is all ‘religious’.
But this ignorance, apathy and arrogance does not make for the kind of systemic persecution of Christians that we see in Pakistan or Nigeria. Persecution of Christians in Australia is at present isolated, occasional and relatively minor.
Now, I don’t want to deny that individual Christians experience persecution, and that it is on occasion severe — but it is not on the same scale as what we see elsewhere. All persecution for the sake of the gospel has the nature of a spiritual attack; but the scale and form of the persecution can vary enormously.
With that in mind, I think Aussie Christians need to remember three things about their current situation.
First: criticism, even severe criticism, is not ‘persecution’. The public square is hotly contested space. Anyone who enters it will have their words disputed, whoever they are. The internet has intensified this, massively so. If I write a piece for the secular media, I make it a point not to read the comments because they are usually so venomous. But I don’t think that is unusual, or ‘persecution’: it comes with public discussion of any issue people feel deeply about.
Sometimes, criticism of Christians is actually deserved because Christians behave like jerks. Being criticised for being a jerk is not persecution.
Second, secularism actually invites us to see ourselves as victims. A group which can point to a history of victimisation is a group that deserves special treatment from the state in order to redress the balances of history. Christians have usually been cast in the role of the oppressive majority. The temptation for us is, however, to see ourselves as an oppressed minority because we know that’s how to portray ourselves in order to get a hearing in secular society.
Can you see the irony? It is buying in to the language of ‘rights’.
There’s a huge danger here. It’s this: that we will become exactly what secularisers want us to be. They want us to be a clearly definable group that depends on the approval of the secular state for its existence.
But I would argue that the ambitions of Christians are much bigger than simply claiming the right to exist. We are interested in proclaiming a power that is mightier even than secular democracy — and a power to whom secular liberal democrats will one day bend the knee!
Thirdly: secular democracy is forever having to engage in the imperfect business of allocating measures of freedom to different claimants. It can never do this perfectly, or even well. But in a lot of cases, it is to be applauded for trying because the outcomes are more just than before. That Christians lose on occasion shouldn’t always be seen as persecution, or as a trend towards persecution. The tension that exists between sexual liberties and religious freedom is not an easy puzzle to solve and can actually exacerbate tensions between groups. The rights of Christians seem to be inevitably pitted against the rights of homosexuals at the moment. Still, I am sure that members of both groups would rather live under Australian democracy than in Saudi Arabia or northern Nigeria.
What is the way forward for Australian Christians, then?
Firstly, we have to insist on the truth. There has to be truth-telling about the situation of Christians overseas. We have to challenge the lazy reporting of persecution, and we have to speak loudly in support of our sisters and brothers in other lands. We have to make a comfortable home for them in Australia if we can. We have to pray for those suffering that they would stand fast under the terrible trials they are experiencing and know the love of Christ and the witness of the Spirit. But we also have to be careful not to call persecution on things that are not. A persecution complex is a most ugly thing.
Secondly, we have to be indispensable, loyal and blameless citizens of our own nation, so that if the question of discrimination or persecution arises we will have such a good reputation with outsiders that it just seems inconceivable.
That was the advice of the New Testament authors to the first Christians. The contribution of churches and Christian organisations to the social fabric of Australia is such that a programme of active anti-Christian discrimination by any government would be completely suicidal. Governments in Australia already know that this is the case.
Thirdly, we need to tidy up our own act by being willing to repent. The great evil of child abuse has been the cause of great discredit to the churches of Australia, and rightly so. This has not been persecution, but it has given great impetus to those who would like to see Christianity disappear from Australian life. We cannot expect the free pass we get with tax and anti-discrimination laws to last if we do not maintain justice within our own gates.
Fourthly, we need to argue our case! We need to commend the gospel and advocate, strongly but peaceably, for our point of view amongst those who do not share our presuppositions. In theory at least, secular society invites us to do just that. We should take them at their word. The ‘secular’ ideal of course originates with a Protestant Christian commitment to exactly this freedom of speech. Use it, or lose it.
Fifth, we have to remember that our task is to testify to Jesus Christ, not to seek persecution as some kind of validation. The world’s reaction to Jesus tells us that we are not in a popularity contest. As followers of a crucified Lord, we should not expect anything else. After all, as Jesus said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). Paul wrote to Timothy that, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12)
But being persecuted is not the goal: the goal is to proclaim Christ and to obey him. The rest is in the hands of the Sovereign Lord. Sometimes in history that has meant persecution for Christians. Sometimes it hasn’t. Whatever may happen — and I pray we are spared the ravages of a systemic persecution — we should never tire of holding out the gospel of Jesus Christ to our nation.
That is our calling.
Michael Jensen is a theologian and author from Sydney, Australia, and is currently the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church Darling Point. His recent books include Forgiveness Really Free? and Pieces of Eternity.
This article first appeared in Eternity Magazine published by the Australian Bible Society.