–Daniel S. Ferguson
Last month, two house churches were raided in Shenzhen, Guangdong, the southern province of China. The possessions of one of those churches were seized. Twenty members of the other, Olive Church, were arrested and detained. Just last year, that same church was raided, resulting in the arrest of thirty church members and, again, the seizing of its possessions.
The churches persist.
While these raids are nothing like the infamous imprisonments and torture of the 1980s (Johnstone, Patrick, Operation World. London: Paternoster. p. 168), they represent a religious reality totally foreign to Americans. In China, for example, it is effectively illegal to be Catholic because being so would mean submitting to a foreign authority (the Pope).
Today, there are only three legal church organizations inside China, all highly regulated by the Chinese government, including a law that all members be registered. There is no semblance of any kind of right to private religious expression. Anyone who disagrees with these churches theologically, or wants a different kind of practice, or who just doesn’t want to register their faith, isn’t permitted dissent.
Their best option is an unregistered house church, which are illegal and regularly targeted for raids in order to steal their possessions. One church’s pastor’s wife was even buried alive just last year in Zhumadian, Henan, China, after a government-backed company attempted to bulldoze the church’s building down in order to steal its valuable property.
“Bury them alive for me,” one demolitioner said. “I will be responsible for their lives.”
That’s what religious persecution looks like. Persecution doesn’t, however, look like professional bakers not having the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. Persecution doesn’t look like states getting boycotted by the NCAA for their bathroom bills. Persecution doesn’t look like a county clerk in Kentucky getting national scorn for not doing her job. Persecution doesn’t look like employers being sued for not letting their employees make their own healthcare choices. Persecution doesn’t look like having your favorite chicken place boycotted because of its owner’s opinions on gay rights.
That’s not persecution. That’s the natural result of laws and free society. No one was hurt; no one was killed; and no churches were raided. Christian churches stand free. And by and large, Christian companies have gained business as a result of their stances, Chick-Fil-A in particular, whose sales soared 12 percent in 2012, in no small part due to conservative Christian support for it after its owner opined on the issue of gay marriage.
American Christians seem to have this idea that non-Christians fighting for their rights is the same as Christians being persecuted. That’s not what persecution means, and when we say things like that, the non-Christians around us think we look like idiots, often bigoted idiots at that. They’ve seen pictures of what ISIS and the Taliban do to people because of their religious expression, and when they hear us use the same word to describe being named in a civil lawsuit where everyone wears suits and no one gets acid thrown in their faces, they think we’re mewling, petty children.
So why do American Christians so often lament that they’re being persecuted? Why do we, for all our serious concern about persecution around the world, so colossally lie about the definition of that word when it applies here at home? I can’t say with certainty. But it’s a card we play often. I suspect it has a lot to do with a play on public perception.
Hardly any votes or dollars are gained when someone politely disagrees with something. But if you can paint yourself as the victim of something; if you can convince people that you’re the one being oppressed instead of, say, that “other” over there; if you can use the word persecution persuasively just once in the conversation. Well then you’ve got money and votes to spare.
In the short run.
In the long run, you’ll wind up like Governor Mike Huckabee (R-Ark), who made national news with both the Kim Davis and Chick-Fil-A events. He was on every headline for a few weeks, but eventually his play on the heartstrings of America faded. And he became, in a word, irrelevant. He was simply no longer relevant to the argument at hand because the emotions ran out and logic took over.
And the logic here is pretty clear. American Christians are not being persecuted, not by any standard definition of that word. Some Christian organizations and businesses are being sued or boycotted for a handful of reasons, but that’s not persecution. That’s how a free nation of laws and commerce works.
I have this sneaking suspicion that every time a national story is made of those lawsuits or boycotts, more people leave the church forever because they don’t want even to be associated with this nonsense. I know it’s tempted me to leave several times.
So the next time you hear someone talking about Christian oppression in the United States, please point them to what that really looks like. It’s actually happening all over the world, and it’s definitely NOT happening here.
Try to be nice, though. That matters.