According to legend, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. One of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food to widows in the community, he was full of grace and power, and a compelling speaker. He was arrested for blasphemy, brought before the Sanhedrin, and stoned.((Acts 6:1-7:60)) And that’s an important story. The early Christians faced real persecution at the hands of the political and religious authorities of Judea and Rome. People died. More than that, people were killed by the machinery of power.
In some parts of the world, modern Christians face similar threats. According to a report from Aid to the Church in Need, Christians in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey faced serious oppression and persecution. This ranged from church buildings being torn down and congregations being forced to disband, to Christians being targeted by extremist groups like Daesh, to government crackdowns on Christians. And, of course, as a Christian I find this persecution horrific. But — and I want to be very clear about this — I am not against this persecution because the victims are Christian. I am against it because the victims are victims. As a Christian, I am called to be against persecution and oppression no matter who the victims are and no matter who the perpetrators are.
There are a lot of countries that aren’t on the list provided by Aid the Church in Need. One of them is the United States. And that’s because Christians in the United States simply are not persecuted or oppressed. Yes, there are individual cases of people being mistreated because they are Christian. But there is simply no systematic persecution or oppression of Christians in the United States.
MacKinnon begins his column with a question: “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”
And he ends it with a series of rhetorical questions that he believes evoke Christian persecution in ancient Rome:
Will we soon have to meet with fellow Christians in secret? Will we have to whisper our beliefs from the shadows? Will those Christians with “traditional” beliefs lose their jobs and livelihoods if discovered?
As more and more of the mainstream media, entertainment, academia and the hi-tech world continue to purge or discriminate against Christians, what future job fields will be open to young Christians?
Will those Christian children eventually be forced to renounce or deny their faith in order to get a job and provide for their families?
In between, he tries to convince readers that, in the United States, Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, and attacked by liberals, social justice warriors, and other people who “worship at the altar of political correctness.” And he has examples that range from being brow-beaten for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ridiculed for a vision he claims to have had, to a teacher who was fired for giving a Bible to a student and a Marine who was discharged for refusing to remove a Bible verse from her work space. Of course, he fails to mention that the teacher was later rehired and that the Marine never raised the issue of religious freedom during her original court martial. More importantly, he tries to equate these inconveniences — as unjust as they may be — with the life-and-death struggles that Christians face in other parts of the world.
It is absolutely true that it is not okay to make fun of someone, or vandalize handouts, or otherwise harm someone because of their religious beliefs. But it is also true that American Christians — and, especially, American evangelicals — have a long history of serving as examples of the adage that to someone who is privileged, equality feels like oppression. What Christians like MacKinnon do not like is that Christians are not as shielded from ridicule as we once were (though, of course, we are still shielded).
The fact is that there is no statistically significant risk of the church I serve being shut down. Or of my livelihood being made illegal. Or of people who believe what I believe being attacked in the streets. Or of people who believe what I believe being denied entry into the United States. Or of a government agency observing the worship services I lead. But all of these are real risks faced by Christians in other parts of the world. And most of them are risks faced by members of religious minorities here in the United States.
Of course, there is a risk that someone somewhere — and maybe even someone on television or in a movie — will make fun of my religion. Or tear down a flyer that I’ve put up in a public place. Or suggest that my beliefs are wrong or misguided or irrational or dangerous. There is, in short, a risk that I will be treated slightly worse than mainline and evangelical Christians were treated in the United States a generation or two ago. And that I will still be treated significantly better than members of religious minorities in the United States have been treated for decades if not generations. In short, there is a risk that I will enjoy significant privilege without enjoying all of the privileges that Christians in the United States have grown accustomed to.
And that’s not really a problem… except insofar that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be enjoying those privileges at all. “Woe to you when all speak well of you,” writes Luke, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”((Luke 6:26))
MacKinnon’s questions don’t point to the persecution of American Christians. They point to our weakness. MacKinnon will be allowed to remain a Christian as long as he wants to. He will continue to be able to meet with his fellow Christians in public spaces. He will continue to be able to share his beliefs through mass media. There will continue to be government sponsored chaplains and prayer breakfasts and red masses. He will continue to have political and social power, privilege, and prestige.
And here’s the thing. If the threat of the possibility of losing that power, privilege, and prestige is enough to cause him to question whether or not he will be allowed to remain a Christian, then I’m not sure whether he can share that name with people half a world away who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior even under the very real threat of death. I am certain that he has no right to invoke them in the cause of protecting his own — and my own — privilege.