Thursday, January 17, 2013

Are Christians Persecuted in America?

I was recently involved in a conversation where I made a point which implied that Christian persecution was not the issue we need to be worried about, and was asked [to paraphrase] "you don't think Christians are persecuted in America?"  I would like to answer this, and I didn't want to waste keystrokes as I think this is a valuable discussion to have with anyone who calls themselves a Christian. 

First, let's start with some facts that I'd like you to chew on: a recent Gallup poll conducted in 2011 concluded that 78% of American adults identify with a form of Christianity.  Furthermore, it found that out of those who identified themselves in the poll with some form of religion, 95% of them identify themselves as Christians.

Now, while you chew on that, I'd like to tell you about a hero of mine.  This hero lived approximately 2,000 years ago in a land known as Israel, whose people were known as Jews.  During the time that he lived in, his people lived in a state where their land had been invaded and taken over violently by an oppressive regime.  The government of this regime believed, quite literally, that their emperor was a son of a god and thus was to be worshipped as a god himself.  The Jews believed there was only one God, and only He was the only one they should worship.  Another one of their sacred beliefs held that it was wrong to eat pork.  So the enforcers of this oppressive regime, in order to flush out "Judaizers", would often force the Jews to sacrifice or even eat the meat of pigs publicly - and if they did not, they would be killed.  This government was clearly oppressive, and its beliefs were clearly in conflict with the beliefs of the Jews.

So the question was - how would they respond to this situation?  There were three main responses that the Jews had to their situation.  The Zealots' response was to revolt.  They believed in resisting the government, and even overthrowing it by any means, including violence.  The Essenes' response was to withdraw.  They believed that the world they lived in had become so corrupt that the only response was to withdraw completely and devote themselves to a life of purity.  And the Sadducees decided to assimilate.  They often worked as tax collectors and paid allegiance to the emperor.

Now, the hero in my story had some radical teachings that were strange and unusual to...well, everyone in his time.  He taught that humility was a virtue, and that his followers were to act as servants to those they encountered - this was strange and unusual as in his day, as one of the marks of the heroes of legend was their pride and another was the strength exhibited in how they vanquished their enemies.  My hero taught to love your neighbors as yourself, and when asked what the definition of "neighbor" was, he told a story where a man whose religion rivaled the Jewish religion helped a Jewish man who had been robbed, beaten, and left to die, and then this hero posed the question "which man acted as a neighbor?" right back to those who had questioned him.  To put it in today's terms, imagine the man who had been beaten and robbed was a Southern Baptist and the man who helped him was Muslim.

This hero even went so far as to teach the Jews to love their enemies, something which was unheard of. He demonstrated his teaching on loving enemies in a way that frightened the Jews - at one point, a crowd so big had gathered to hear this hero speak that he had to get in a boat and have his companions row him out into a lake to teach.  And after he was finished teaching, he said "take me to the other side."  The other side was a land that Israel had been in many battles and wars with.  They practiced a religion that involved using prostitutes as an act of worship towards their gods, drunken orgies, and even child sacrifices.  One of the men in the boat with this hero was so afraid that he begged to be allowed to go home and get his affairs in order before they crossed over.  On the other side was a man who was an outcast because of his insane rages - he had been possessed by an evil spirit.  The hero asked the spirit's name, and it identified itself as "Legion", which was a loaded name, as the oppressive regime that Israel was subject to called their groups of soldiers by the same name.  The hero commanded the spirit to leave the man and go into a herd of pigs - also somewhat loaded imagery.  This hero's authority had been demonstrated in this event, as the spirit listened and obeyed.  Later on, some of the other people of this enemy territory saw the hero talking to this man, and that the formerly possessed man was coherent.  When they heard the story, they begged the hero to leave because they were afraid of his power.  The formerly possessed man asked to be allowed to accompany the hero.  But the hero told the formerly possessed man to stay and tell his people the story of what happened to him.  Later on, this hero returned to this enemy territory and was greeted by one of the largest crowds that had ever greeted him, and it was a dramatic event as many people were healed by his power that day, many just from touching him.

This hero addressed all three of the main responses to the oppressive regime that I outlined.  At one point, one of the commanders in the army of the oppressive regime asked this hero for help with a sick servant who was like a son to him.  The hero told the commander to lead the way to his home, but the commander replied:
"Say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." 
After hearing this, the hero's reply was that he had "not found anyone in Israel with such great faith."  Imagine the Zealots' reaction to this - the hero just implied that none of them had faith like this man who was one of their sworn enemies.  The hero taught that "if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles" - this directly referenced a practice by the oppressive regime where their soldiers had the right to force citizens to carry their heavy packs for a mile.  This was not a popular teaching for the Zealots.

This hero healed lepers and socialized with prostitutes, people of other religions, tax collectors, and all manner of sinners.  He ignored common conceptions of purity.  This was not popular with the Essenes.

One day, someone tried to entrap the hero and make him say something that would enrage those he taught by asking a loaded question: "we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to [the emperor] or not?"  When this hero was a boy, a man named Judas of Galilee had led a revolt about this various issue, and had been executed with about two thousand of his followers.  Also, it should be noted that on the face of the coins of the oppressive regime was a phrase that is translated "[the emperor] is lord".  If the hero had responded "yes" to this question, it would outrage many Jews.  If he answered "no", he would likely be executed by the oppressive regime.  But the hero said "show me the coin used to pay this tax."  He did not carry one of his own.  He did not assimilate like the Sadducees.  Then the hero asked "Whose picture and title are stamped on [this coin]?"  They had to reply that it was the emperor's.  So the hero said "give back to [the emperor] what is [the emperor's], and to God what is God's."  This not only reinforced the hero's disagreement with the Zealots, but it introduced a new idea - there are some things which do not belong to the governmental leaders.

This hero also had a group of close friends known as his disciples.  Among his disciples was a man named Simon, who was known as Simon the Zealot: he despised the oppressive regime and anyone who collaborated with them, such as tax collectors.  Another one of the disciples was Matthew, who was a tax collector.  This hero had a new strategy that none of the three groups had thought of.  It was to love everyone, regardless of their social status, position, politics, race, or vocation.  His response to those who oppressed his people was to say "I love you and I'm inviting you to join me in loving others."  One of the hero's disciples picked up on the fact that the instruction to love your enemies meant that you had to forgive them.  This disciple asked the hero "how many times should I forgive?  7 times?"  He thought 7 was generous.  The hero answered "not 7 times.  70 times 7."  The hero knew that no one was going to count that high.

The unnamed hero in my story is Jesus, and he is the One that I follow.  He was called Christ, and this is where the moniker "Christian" came from.  And somehow, with all I've just laid out for you in mind, I feel like the question "are Christians persecuted in America?" is irrelevant.  Somehow, I feel like it's not even the right question to ask, and if one is asking it they are distracting, and are distracted from, the message of my hero.  And, strangely enough, it seems that often the people who constantly shout about Christian persecution seem to be persecuting others.  But I want to move on - I don't feel it necessary to pose this question because there are so many more important questions I'd like to ask.  Because I believe that the one I follow taught a different way of dealing with the troubles of this world.  I believe he taught me that if I am being persecuted, I ought to respond with love, and love does not demand its own way, and it keeps no record of wrong.

Now, for a more humorous take on the answer to this question....

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
In the Name of the Fodder
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The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
GOP - Special Victims Unit
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