Are American Christians Persecuted? It’s Complicated. (a book review)

I was a pastor in Florida at the time the Supreme Court passed the Marriage Equality Act. At a nearby megachurch, the pastor there launched into a series on how the Christian faith was under assault. The recent Supreme Court decision was only the most recent example. Political Correctness sought to silence good Christians, atheists like Richard Dawkins were trying to make them appear evil,  the Muslims were seeking to bring Sharia law to our country, there was no prayer in schools, and abortion on demand was the law of the land. I know some of my own parishioners wanted me to describe, in similar terms, the persecution we as a church were facing. Only I didn’t actually believe it. We were free to worship God, voice our convictions and talk to our neighbors about Jesus. Congress had made no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Us evangelicals had lost some of our cultural influence and clout, but we were in no way persecuted.

51v9d3s6ncl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Jason Wiedel lives in Surry, Virgina where he directs Habitat For Humanity and works to extend the influence of Christ beyond the walls of the church. In Persecution Complex (2014), Weidel takes aim at the ways this persecution narrative and the accompanying culture wars have poisoned our public witness.  The current situation may be slightly different today from when Wiedel first published this book in the late Obama years. President Trump has sought to curry favor with evangelicals, and the ways in which conservative (white) Christians have felt unheard. There is a way in which the evangelicals who feel persecuted may now feel less under fire, though suspicion against liberal elites remain, and inevitably the pendulum will swing.

Part 1 of Persecution Complex describes the Christian persecution narrative. Wiedel describes the persecution narrative as a reaction to the wider cultural drift away from certain biblical commands, and a reaction to the alleged ‘anti-Christian forces’ who seek to minimize Christian faith in the public sphere (e.g. taking prayer out of schools, and assaulting cherished Christian beliefs through legalizing abortion and marriage equality)(5-6). These ‘anti-Christian forces’ “seek to distract us from important spiritual and moral issues by focusing society’s attention on climate change, scientific research, civil rights, income inequality, prison reform, drug legalization, education, gender equality, and universal healthcare” and seek to marginalize Christian voices as much as possible (7). Wiedel questions the fundamental basis of this narrative, asserting that the loss of some cultural influence of the church in American culture, is not persecution. As counter evidence, he reproduces Sam Killermann’s 30+ Examples of  Christian Privilege (57-59)

In Part 2, Wiedel describes the appeal of the persecution narrative (e.g. how it creates community and rallies people to action, ‘legitimizes our cause’ (we’re the victim!), and gives us someone else to blame. In part 3, Wiedel outlines six dangers inherent to the persecution narrative:

  1. We feel and act superior to others (111-113).
  2. We justify antagonism (113-114).
  3. We dehumanize others (115-116).
  4. We eliminate conversation and debate (117-118).
  5. We become immune to criticism (118-121).
  6. We ignore the suffering of others (121-123).

Part 4 offers some strategies for breaking away from our persecution narrative through showing interest in others, speaking prophetically against systems of violence and advocating on behalf of the poor, fighting injustice (instead of ‘persecution’), loving our enemies, and following Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice.

Wiedel does offer a good analysis of the culture war mentality and our alleged persecution. But while Wiedel is right, he may overstate his case slightly. Christian’s in America are not the victims of persecution, but there is something to there being an anti-Christian bias, in some settings. I think of Carolyn Webber’s excellent memoirs Holy is the Day (IVP, 2013) and Surprised By Oxford (Thomas Nelson, 2011) which describe the challenges of trying to be a faithful Christian in the world of academia (in her case, as a grad student, and then as  professor of literature), or sociologist George Yancey’s Hostility (IVP 2015) which describes, through qualitative research, the phenomenon of anti-Christian bias (again, especially in academia).  Neither of these authors is involved in the sort of culture war that Wiedel is critiquing, and neither would cry persecution (Yancey would also acknowledge that Christians are somewhat to blame for the bias they experience), but anti-Christian bias does affect some Christians in America, in some spheres, some of the time.

None of this detracts from Wiedel’s larger point, critiquing the use of a narrative of persecution to justify our bad behavior and our culture war offensives. Unfortunately, me reading this book, makes Wiedel ‘preach to the choir.’ I am soooo done with American Christian’s persecution complex (and the ways that claiming persecution here diminishes the actual suffering of the world church). My question is, would the people who actually need this book, read this book? I’m not sure they would with how entrenched our current political discourse is. Important points, but how to get Wiedel’s message into the right hands? I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.W

Standing with the World Church through persecution: a book review

Outside the West, Christians endure daily persecution for their faith. Sometimes this is through discrimination–Christians are denied certain positions and rights in society. At other times, this means torture, rape or even death. Todd Johnson of Gorden-Conwell estimates that one-hundred-thousand Christians are killed per year (between 2000-2010) for their faith (Kindle location: 133). This amounts to eleven Christians killed every hour over the last decade. In The  Global War on Christians: Dispatches From the Front of Anti-Christian Persecution, Vatican Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen, Jr., examines the problem of persecution in the world wide church. Among the startling statistics and stories he shares, is that 80% of religious persecution is directed at Christians.

In part one, Allen examines the reality of Christian persecution across the world. He examines in brief, Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe and the peculiar shape Christian persecution takes in these settings. In part two, he exposes five myths about Christian persecution: (1) Christians are only at risk where they are minority; (2) no one saw Christian persecution coming; (3) Only Islam is responsible for Christian persecution; (4) Only religious motives make it ‘persecution;’ and anti-Christian persecution is a political issue. Allen dismantles these myths by illustrating the exact shape of Christian persecution and the places where the horror of it defies our expectations. Part three is a call to action. Allen examines the political and social fall out, the effects and spiritual fruit that results from persecution and he calls us to stand with the global church through prayer and advocacy.

I read this book on the strong recommendation of a friend. I am glad I did, though the heaviness of the subject matter means this is a far cry from the ‘feel good read of the year.’ This is a book that will make you sad and angry. In my life, I have not known real persecution. When I was ten years old, a kid one year younger than me through stones at me because he ‘didn’t like Christians.’ But the stones were tossed in a non-committed manner and my life was not in danger. Those in Asia, Africa, the Middle East or the Eastern Block, know a different sort of persecution. Their very lives are on the line for holding to Christian faith. Their stories are both inspiring and humbling.

There were a few surprises in this book. I wasn’t naive about world Christian persecution but the severity and scope of it took me off guard. I was also surprised by the violence of some Buddhist priests against Christianity. I guess I tend to view Buddhism with Dalai-Lama-tinted-glasses. Not all Buddhists are so friendly, ecumenical or peace loving. I  appreciated how evenhandedly Allen examined the issue of Christian persecution. This is not a partisan treatment. Allen calls to task  both Israeli discrimination of Christians and anti-Christian Hamas in Palestine. He is not interested in bolstering a ‘right wing agenda’ or the idealism of the left. This is an exposé of a real problem.

I learned a lot from thist book and it has guided me on how to better pray for the world church. In North America, we live an easy existence where overt religious persecution is rare and unexpected. Allen alerts us to the real problems our brothers and sisters around the globe face and makes suggestions on how we American Christians can stand in solidarity with the Church Universal. This is an important book. I give this book  four stars and recommend it to all my fellow Christians. It will aid in helping us stand in solidarity with the World church through prayer and advocacy.

Thank you to the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.