Social Issues, Theology

American Christians and “Persecution Envy”


Some Christians complain about having to experience any discomfort at all. Others seem unable to get enough of it – or they’ve experienced so little genuine suffering that they have to create it.

I can’t help but think of Kim Davis: the county clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky, who in 2015 refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Consequently, she was found in contempt of court, and jailed for five days. To some conservative Christians, she’s a modern-day martyr. I’m wondering why she even applied for a job that would require her to deny services to a significant portion of her customers.

I hold the same logic regarding Christian bakers who refuse to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples, and Catholic pharmacists who refuse to issue birth control: it’s not the beliefs themselves that bother me (much as I disagree with them), but why people who hold them would chose a profession that requires regular denial of the services they were hired to do. Maybe, if you want to simultaneously be good at your job and adhere to your values, you should find a different line of work?

To me, it seems obvious that the issue at stake is separation of church and state, not discrimination against the Christian faith. Remember, I grew up Jewish: I saw Christianity everywhere, almost to a point of conspiracy. I remember feeling threatened by my math teacher who wore a gold cross that shimmered against her blouse as she explained the Algebra lesson; I remember the perceived mockery I felt when the school bus drove past a house that had a lit-up sign proclaiming JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON the entire month of December.

Everywhere I went, I saw signs that seemed to tell me this was Christian Country, and my presence as a Jew was merely tolerated (for the full story of how I became an Episcopalian, read my memoir, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter). I didn’t deal with much in the way of anti-semitism, but I did deal with ignorance on a regular basis from my peers about Jewish holidays and what Judaism even is. I had to educate more than one public school teacher on what Yom Kippur was, so I could have my absence excused. No Christian I know has ever had to do that for their holidays.

And yet, somehow, Persecution Envy is a real thing among American Christians. It has to be, or else film companies like PureFlix wouldn’t make bank on franchises like God’s Not Dead, in which ordinary Christians find themselves in such laughably unrealistic situations of oppression that entire legal trials are devoted to “proving” that God is dead, and Jesus is a literary fiction. The Christian protagonists are so saccharine their dialogue gives you cavities, and the non-Christian characters are so one-dimensionally evil, they would be laughable if you didn’t know that church groups were packing the theaters by the busload, earnestly believing they were watching themselves onscreen.

I know not all Christians are like this. But enough of them are that I can’t do justice to the topic of suffering for the gospel without acknowledging that, in our sincere desire to be faithful, sometimes we go overboard. Meanwhile, actual minorities – people of color, Jews, the LGBT community – are watching. This is causing great damage to our witness.

The origins of this persecution complex can be traced all the way back to Scripture, in 1 Peter 2:20: “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if, when you do what is right and suffer for it, you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.” Perhaps our intentions started out well enough. But in our desire to imitate Christ, we forget that these words were written at a time when Christianity was illegal – an act of rebellion against the Roman emperor – and punishable by death. Perhaps we mistakenly read these words as prescriptive, rather than descriptive.

Another possible cause of Persecution Envy could be that Christians are just too bored in America. With no systemic oppression to rally against, the only solution is to look for conspiracies. But the real opportunities for harsh judgment as a result of our faith are right in front of us – we just need to shrink our scale a bit.

Christians are odd enough on their own, without having to make strawmen of atheists or the ACLU. Generally speaking, we believe in abstinence until marriage, which made dating in college (and dating in general) really difficult for some of us. We believe in serving the needs of the poor, which makes some politicians think we support handouts for little to no hard work. We believe in radical forgiveness, which makes us freaks; we believe that even Hitler and Stalin could be redeemed if they genuinely repented, which makes us insane. We’re not interested in defining ourselves by our wealth, our achievements, or our possessions, which makes most of pop culture completely irrelevant to us.

We worship a man who didn’t inquire about pre-existing conditions before he healed people; that makes us the natural enemy of insurance companies. We are also the nemeses of white supremacists, corrupt billionaires, dictators, and sex traffickers. At least, we should be living in a way that says we are.

So as you can see, we don’t need to invent outlandish persecution fantasies. Two thousand years after the fall of Rome, we may not have to worry about being publicly executed anymore, but we shouldn’t have to worry about our ability to still raise eyebrows and roll the eyeballs of society. Jesus made sure of that.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash


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4 thoughts on “American Christians and “Persecution Envy””

  1. Hi Beth We read your article again and enjoyed it even more.You are all over this.We have been home for some R and R from Iraq and we have been visiting family/friends in “trump country” in Southern, rural Illinois.Your identification of “Persecution envy” is 100% correct.We hear so much nonsense and bad theology it is really hard.Especially with Beth’s work with women and girls in the mid east who are muslim and are truly persecuted.For a woman in a refugee camp, even a walk to the bathroom is dangerous.
    We appreciate you are getting a lot of flack for your honesty but please keep it up.These times desperately need clear thinking and sound theology.I think C.S Lewis would love your work.

    Elizabeth and Robert


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