There has been a ridiculously long discussion on a post from a while back on persecution, specifically on whether or not Christians in the West should be considered as a persecuted group. This opens up the question what it is that really constitutes persecution. Is persecution just any curtailment of our ability as Christians to do whatever we want in a given society? And what is the relationship between persecution and the lack of impingement upon our freedoms? Is impingement of freedom the same thing as persecution? What, other than a preoccupation with Enlightenment notions of freedom would even lead us to equate the two? And what sort of compulsion is it that leads us to equate marginalization or disestablishment with persecution? What is it that drives the evangelical desire to be able to say “I am persecuted”?
I for one am wary of equating persecution with the sort of inconveniences that Christians face in the West regarding how they are allowed to influence public policy, what sort of on-campus groups they can sponsor in public schools, and the like. I do not think that we can disentangle the discourse of persecution in the New Testament from the early Christian experience of martyrdom. It seems to me that a lot of the rhetoric of persecution that obtains in conservative evangelical circles often functions as a way to name ourselves among the persecuted without ever having to contemplate or face the realities of martyrdom that attend the daily existence of truly persecuted Christians throughout the world.
This is not to say that its no big deal when Christians in contemporary liberal societies find it hard to get things done, or find an intellectual climate that is not friendly to the Christian faith. However, lets not cheapen the language of persecution to satiate our angst about feeling disestablished in the West. Being disestablished as the church is hardly the same thing as persecution; frankly I see no reason to view it as anything other than an opportunity for the church to rediscover herself as a distinctive body within the world. Recovering a healthy sense of ecclesial homelessness within the realities of the Western empire represents the opening up of a space in which great faithfulness and authentic witness is again become possible for the church in a way that was stifled under the sort of cultural Constantinianism that has been part of the whole ethos of America specifically, and the West more generally. The sort of evangelical paranoia that attends the way in which the conservative discourse of persecution takes shape today seems to be based on little more than the a longing to live in control rather than out of control. This sort of desperation for legitimization and influence cannot be a good thing for the church. Indeed, only when the church rejects this sort of compulsiveness of purpose can she rest securely in the gospel of the resurrection which promises us that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Freedom from desperation based on fear allows us to name persecution truthfully. We are no longer driven to self-legitimation by nominating ourselves among the persecuted. Rather we are freed to find our identity as Christians and as the church outside ourselves in the crucified and resurrected Christ who de-possesses us from our frenzied desire to be validated, to have control, and to be in charge.