I’ve been frustrated at people on the Internet lately. I know, that’s shocking and new, but try to contain your surprise and stay with me. Some of them are friends. Some of them are colleagues. Some of them are random strangers that I theoretically share a belief system with. This post
may will probably offend them. They may even call it persecution from within. That would certainly fit with the rhetoric that I see floating around.
There was a great post on cracked.com (home of tremendously well-written and researched articles that people are tricked into reading by dick jokes and cussing) recently about 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters (or Underdogs if you visited before the title was changed). There’s some really interesting stuff about how the majority is made to feel like a threatened and oppressed minority. It really resonated with me because that’s the way a lot of North American Christians are feeling. The rhetoric floating around the Christian Right is calling it persecution.
I have trouble with that, because (to me) it belittles a lot of things. Sure if you really want it to, it may be massaged to fit a dictionary definition of persecution in that treatment of Christians in North America can at some points be annoying or cause someone to suffer, but I believe that’s because North American Christians have a VERY low threshold for suffering. That’s what happens when we’ve lived in coddled privilege for generations, holding the stick for so long we’ve come to feel that it’s part of our hands. Persecution, like suffering, is a loaded word. When I think about persecution, I think about people losing jobs or being beaten or being sent to prison or killed because of what they believe or who they are. Historically in North America, that’s been how many “Christians,” or at least our “Christian society,” has treated people like blacks, gays, and women.
That’s a hard thing to hear, because no one likes to think of themselves as persecutors. That was what used to happen. It’s not us. At least, it can’t be us because we’re not that bad anymore, right?In the face of damning evidence, one of the easiest ways to make ourselves feel better is to simply call ourselves the persecuted. After all, Christians are being persecuted around the world, so how are we any different? It must be true, because we see it in the news. We’re “persecuted” when:
1. People Vote With Their Wallets
There are Christian businesses that are losing money because people choose not to frequent those establishments. Those people don’t want to give their commerce to people who they perceive as being bigoted and intolerant. Forget for a second that this happens infrequently enough on a major scale that it’s major news when it happens, it’s REVERSE BIGOTRY!
2. People Are Jerks on the Internet
Nothing makes a person happier than being superior on the Internet. There are whole websites devoted to the “triumph of reason” and articles shared around about how profoundly dumb it is to believe in God like a bunch of sheeple. Blah blah blah flying teapot spaghetti monster. How dare they poke at our insecurity to make themselves feel better! Of course, it’s not actually directed at YOU, but it’s adjacent to you and that sucks. It’s not like you’d ever make blanket statements about a whole group of people.
3. We Lose Privileges
Did you know that churches may lose their tax-exempt charitable status if they preach against homosexuality or refuse to perform gay marriages!?! It’s all over the Internet. How is that possibly fair? We’re entitled to special treatment! We must be—we’ve had it forever. So what if by doing weddings we’re acting as agents of the state? They have no business changing their policy to something we disagree with. And taking away preferential treatment to reduce us to the same status as any other group? Preferential treatment is our right! What a hateful mess.
4. We Get Made Fun Of
It’s often said in youth group circles that the worst that can happen if you share your faith with someone is that they’ll laugh at you. Really, though, that’s bad enough, isn’t it? Who wants to be mocked or made fun of for their beliefs? Christians never do that.
5. Ezra Levant Rants About Something
The “rebel commander” and his offense du jour give wonderful self-pity breaks for Canadian Christians. I’m sure the US has their own equivalent (Fox News?). There’s nothing like taking isolated incidents and painting a broad brush conspiracy to marginalize or attack all Christians, to make us feel appropriately threatened and justified in defending ourselves. We should be grateful to people like him for pointing out how persecuted we are, when we otherwise might not have noticed.
6. We Are Held Accountable For What The Bible Says
The Bible says things that people disagree with. That is because they are sweaty heathen sinners who don’t know better. Sometimes that means that our beliefs require that say things or we have to live in ways that they find offensive. Since our beliefs are the right ones and their beliefs are wrong, if their beliefs require them to say or do things that make us uncomfortable or feel “attacked,” that shouldn’t be allowed. We’re the only ones who can do that.
Yes, there was a sneer on my face as I wrote those things. And yes, I actually feel bad about that. I struggle with posting this, because I feel like anyone who agrees with me already knows, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me isn’t going to be swayed by it. Sometimes the Internet is great for venting though, so at least there’s that.
If you’re still reading this far and haven’t shut the tab or jumped to the comments, the takeaway I want to leave is this: There is a difference between Christians being persecuted and A Christian being persecuted and YOU being persecuted. Beyond that, I want to say there’s a difference between things being mildly inconvenient and uncomfortable for you in a distant way and being persecuted. However you want to work your own definition, I can tell you that it’s wrong.
The reason that I know that is this: The persecuted Church grows. Always. It can’t be stopped, and when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake,” it witnesses to the world in a way that draws them to Christ. If we’re persecuted for being jerks, that’s not the same thing.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a debate that was happening in schools and bars and social media move into governments and courts. Right now, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments about whether or not individual states should have a right to legislate whether they will allow same-sex couples to get married, or whether it should be a federally protected right. You may have heard about it. Some people have opinions. Many of them are loud.
The popular perception is that Christians want to keep the world firmly ensconced in an idealized version of the 1950s by keeping all the marriage for themselves, while people with functioning brains want to be nice to people. The other (somewhat less popular) popular perception is that Christians want to save the world from a toboggan ride to hell, while sweaty heathens want to steal marriage so that they can have sex with everything and not pay taxes. The unpopular perception is that even within the Christian community, there’s a pretty sharp split between those in support and those against, and they might be even angrier with each other than the rest of the internet is.
My name is Aaron, and I’m a Christian moderate. That’s not an easy thing to be, especially when debates get heated. There’s a lot of hurt flying around on all sides, particularly from people who seem to think there’s only two of them. Once again, as a Christian moderate, I’m catching my fair share because—
1. Some people believe there’s no such thing
In Revelation 3:16, God says that, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” and a lot of people seem to think that means that if your theology doesn’t go to the logical extreme, you don’t care about God. They see moderate Christians as being wishy-washy or apathetic. They think that if you aren’t at one end of the spectrum or another, you just haven’t bothered to think through your faith. Most of the time, though, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most Christian moderates and moderate denominations place a very high priority on scripture and applying it passionately to life. The difference is that they see that application in the middle of the two extremes. I am a passionately hot and cold middle-ground believer, because that’s where I see the Bible leading. I have very strong opinions on it, and right now it leads to arguments because—
2. Liberals think that that you hate gay people
I can’t do the exegetical (critical interpretation of religious text) and hermeneutical (art and science that shapes biblical interpretation) back-flips that let them say that God is giving a thumbs-up to same-gender sexual relationships. I’ve dug in and tried, because I want to and it would be much easier for me to hold that position in so many ways, but I can’t. That conviction means that when I’m asked, I have to say that I believe that homosexual practice is sinful. I can’t endorse it because I don’t believe that the creator of sexuality endorses it. As a pastor, I can’t conduct a wedding of a same-sex couple. I also don’t believe that people should be forced to participate in the event under threat of losing their business, either, through everything from flowers to food to photography. If they believe that their participation amounts to support and/or endorsement of something they believe is wrong, they should have the right not to. This position has led to a lot of people on the internet being very angry with me. Despite that—
3. Conservatives think that you throw out the Bible
I believe that same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under secular law, and when I say that, conservative Christians seem to think I’m possessed by the devil. They see it as a betrayal as scripture and a governmental endorsement of sin. The problem is that they can’t separate the moral/religious implications from the legal/secular ones. They also can’t seem to see the way the argument demeans and belittles real people with real feelings who don’t share their beliefs. I’ll talk to Christians about God’s intent for human sexuality, but applying that to people who don’t believe in God is ridiculous. I can’t make a religious argument in a legal debate, and I don’t believe that the state has any compelling interest in discriminating against homosexuals. I’m honestly not sure that Christians have any place entering into the conversation and saying so. When I make that argument—
4. You realize that half the problem is that everyone is speaking different languages with the same words
Everyone looks at me like I have two heads. I feel like whenever I’m talking to someone about it, I’m arguing someone else’s position. I think that it would be a lot easier to come together on this if we could just replace the word marriage with the word sandwich. It’s probably descriptive enough, and is far enough outside the norm that people would actually have to think about what each other was saying rather than slapping their own interpretation on it. Using the word marriage means carrying very different assumptions into the conversation. When a Christian says marriage, they usually mean Holy Matrimony. Christianity is unique (to the best of my knowledge) among the major religions, as it views marriage as a sacramental union, through which God binds a man and a woman together in reflection of his relationship with humanity and not a civil process. When someone outside the church says marriage, they usually mean a legally formalized permanent romantic relationship between two people. Given that, it makes perfect sense that conservative Christians would be utterly confused when someone says that homosexuals can have a marriage and secularists would be baffled by anyone who says they can’t. Sometimes I feel like if everyone could understand that, we could all stop ALL CAPSing at each other, but—
5. You know that’s not the half that matters
It’s really less about faith than it is about fear. I get that. I’m afraid too. Not the way some conservatives seem to be—that everything will turn into a slippery slope that’s slippery because of all the sweaty, hedonistic sex people are having on it, and not in the way that liberals seem to be—that people will be ground beneath the pointy boot of conservative discrimination, but that people are going to come after me and the church I love. I’m afraid that I will be legally penalized for believing what I believe. More than that, though, it’s about pain. Pain and deprecation. On one side, you have people who passionately love God and love the Bible and people are telling them that they’re stupid and ignorant and bigoted—the God they love doesn’t exist and the Bible they love is a fabrication. Of course they’re going to come out with guns blazing. On the other side, you have people who believe their sexual identity is intrinsic to who they are and people are telling them that who they are is evil and they should be relegated to second-class citizenry. Very few people make the arguments in those extreme words, but those are the words that are heard. Most of the arguments on both sides have gone well beyond reason and into stupid, illogical, personal attack, and I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that.
Anyone who’s actually made it this far without jumping straight to the comment section might be wondering what my moderate position is. Here you go: To be honest, I think that the church has absolutely no business legally solemnizing any union, heterosexual or otherwise. Let us handle unions spiritually according to our own beliefs and let the government handle legal unions secularly. If someone wants both, they should do both. My moderate opinion is that same sex couples should absolutely be afforded the same rights under the law as opposite gender couples. Under God is a different story. Nothing the church says is going to change the one, and nothing the court says is going to change the other.
You’re free to disagree.