“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” -Matthew 5:11
Persecution can be a twisted badge of pride. Rather than being a comfort to one facing systemic, targeted hostility, the verse quoted above has become certification that one is a true believer. Since we in America don’t face the obvious persecution of so many Christian brothers and sisters around the world we have to go looking for it. And because we are looking for it, and because we may even want to find it to assure ourselves that we are blessed, we find persecution everywhere. Any act of anger. Any unfair ruling by the courts. Any push-back about Christian values. These negative experiences reassure us that we are among the righteous.
It’s no secret Christianity’s role in society is changing. Influence is being lost as our voice is no longer the dominating voice shaping social morality. We are now one voice among many, and increasingly, a quiet voice among louder voices. It might be fair to say that we are a voice asked to be quiet. What does it mean that the values we once helped shape are now being rejected? How should we interpret the increasing marginalization?
Admittedly, saying our pizza parlors and bakers and values are experiencing persecution does bring us comfort. Persecution is evidence of being in the right, and therefore, those who are doing the persecuting being in the wrong. It does make us feel like we are doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing as Christians. After all, Jesus promised that if we would follow him there would be persecution. Unfortunately, what Christians are experiencing as the culture shifts is not only explained by persecution.
There is another way to interpret the quieting of Christians in society, but it is the road less traveled. It is the road that may require more humility than we are comfortable with.
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we find the famous words of Jesus telling his followers that they are the salt of the earth. But then he gives a warning. “If salt loses its saltiness it is good for nothing and will be thrown out and trampled by men.” Paul reiterates this idea 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that if we have the truth and are uber-spiritual but we don’t have love we will be like a clanging gong. An annoying, loud, obnoxious noise that no one wants to listen to.
This begs the question: Persecution or clanging gong? What if Christians aren’t being persecuted? What if our loss of influence in culture is because we lost our saltiness? What if people are trying to get us to be quiet because we have become a loud, obnoxious, noisy gong? What if the pushback, marginalization, and ridicule we experience is brought about because we have failed to love and, instead, we’ve treated the world with arrogance, insensitivity, and self-righteousness? What if we are reaping what we sowed?
It’s much easier to cry persecution than it is to confess sin. It’s easier to blame others than to accept responsibility. And when you claim to have the truth, as Christians rightly do, it’s hard to admit you’ve been in the wrong. But that’s exactly what we as a people who preach the importance of confession may need to do. It may be time to confess that we haven’t loved others well. We may need to confess that we have been more interested in being right than doing right. Let’s be clear, we do not need to apologize for being Christian, or having beliefs, or even for our beliefs. But we may need to apologize for the way we have approached and interacted with the world around us.
Confession and a change of posture isn’t a guarantee we will suddenly be accepted by the world. Jesus was rejected despite the fact that he loved perfectly. Looking at how Jesus loved people actually encourages us to rethink how we have been living. Jesus wasn’t hated because he was so holy. He wasn’t killed because of his moral code. People weren’t hostile towards Jesus because he beat them up with the Bible. Jesus was killed because the way he loved people was scandalous. He ate with sinners. A woman of ill-repute washed his feet with her hair. In public. Lavishly wasting expensive perfume. People hated Jesus because he went to Zacchaeus’ house and not a more dignified religious leader’s house. He was mocked as a drunkard because he was with a lot of drunkards a lot. Jesus was killed because he reoriented holiness away from a moral code and centered it on being like God and sacrificially serving others.
If we are loving like that and people are still mocking, ridiculing, marginalizing, and being hostile towards us, then it probably is persecution. Until then, let’s make sure we aren’t a loud annoying cymbal crashing over and over and over and over….