Some American Christians say they fear a coming persecution. When they start working across denominational lines I’ll think they mean it. If you think you have the luxury to ignore or demean Christians outside your particular tradition, you’re not as afraid of persecution as you say you are.
My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?
But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.
It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.
Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you. And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:
Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.
A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well. So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?
That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)
Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him?
Christians are still persecuted but nowadays not usually overtly on the ground that they are Christians. They are persecuted because they do not hold the approved political views; or one church is recognized and controlled, and those Christians are persecuted who belong to the wrong church; or being Christians, they are denounced for having collaborated with the Germans during the war, or perhaps with the British or the Americans after it. In the West these things do not yet happen. But persecution is only the extreme limit of discrimination. People prefer to associate with the like-minded to themselves; those who rise to power tend to favor and to promote those who resemble themselves; and when a man who is not a Christian has an appointment to make, or a favor to bestow, he may genuinely believe that the candidate who is of his own kidney is more worthy than another candidate who is a Christian.
Thus the profession of Christianity might become, if not exactly dangerous, at least disadvantageous; and it is sometimes harder to endure disadvantage than to face danger, harder to live meanly than to die as a martyr. Already, we say, we are a minority. We cannot impose our standards upon that majority when it explicitly rejects them; too often, mingling with that majority, we fail to observe them ourselves. Like every minority, we compound with necessity, learning to speak the language of the dominant culture because those whose language it is will not speak ours; and in speaking their language, we are always in danger of thinking their thoughts and behaving according to their code. In this perpetual compromise, we are seldom in a position to pass judgment on other Christians, in their peculiar individual temptations: it is hard enough, reviewing our own behavior, to be sure when we have done the right or the wrong thing. But we can and should be severe in our judgment of ourselves.
For most of us the occasion of the great betrayal on the clear issue will never come: what I fear for myself is the constant, daily, petty pusillanimity. I shall no doubt do and say the wrong thing again and again; but the important thing is to be conscious of the error or weakness and of its nature, and then to be sorry about it. For penitence and humility, as is suitable to remember at Mid-Lent, are the foundation of the Christian life.
“When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” [Rowan Williams] said. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.”
True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”.
Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.
— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.