The Good Christian Persecution Complex

Hey there bloggerati! It’s been a while. I’m afraid this months blogging effort has lapsed far behind others but I’m telling myself there’s a good reason for that. I’ve finished the first major redraft of a book I’m ghostwriting. I got a short-notice request for a coffee-table book of layman-friendly research articles that ate through a week, and in between, there has been man-flu, 2-year old molars and various kinds of growth spurts to hit Casa-Kennedy. In amongst this, something has been burning in my mind: the good Christian Persecution Complex. I want to take a moment to talk about it.

The truth is, it has been on my mind because we’ve been covering my least favourite book of the Bible at church recently: The Book of Revelation.

I hate it. I think I was put off it when I viewed a Kirk Douglas rapture film of some description when I was a touch too young, and thus my yearning for writings regarding apocalyptic prophecy died then and there. But there’s no denying it. Revelation exists. The powers that be saw fit to put it in the final cut of the Bible. So we’ve got to look at it, right? Nestled in Revelation chapter 2 is a reference to the church of Smyrna: the persecuted church. In his letter to the Smyrnaans, John encourages them not to fear prison, tribulation, poverty, or blasphemy, and promises they will overcome “the second death” and be given the crown of life. (Rev 2:12ff). Now, this is a beautiful note of encouragement to the persecuted church. But here is my strong feeling on it: we can’t call any opposition we might experience ‘persecution’. And perhaps not for the reasons you think.

Discomfort and bullying vs. persecution proper

Persecution is defined as “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs; oppression.”  Among its synonyms are victimization, maltreatment, abuse, tyrannisation, torture, torment, discrimination and other such terms. Over the course of the last five or so years, I’ve observed a lot of good Christians cry “persecution” when someone challenges their ideals on Facebook (which, oddly, seems to be where ‘real-life’ plays out these days. Weird.). While I do concede that cyberbullying is very real and also agree that for some, it takes real guts and incites real anxiety when they put their faith out there for the world to judge, I do have to offer up a caution: we can’t claim the martyrs crown because someone disagreed with our belief system.

Society is becoming increasingly pluralistic if you ask me. We don’t have one faith that everyone needs to subscribe to anymore and thus we can expect a bit more pushback when we say things like “Because the Bible says so.” Even if we look at Christianity alone, there are increasingly diverse ways of looking at our individual and collective efforts at following Christ. Two people who are well-educated, well-read and genuinely searching for the best way to live a Christian life can arrive at two very different conclusions. This means a lot of people can disagree with us, and even within the Christian faith alone, a lot of us can disagree with each other.

The results can often mean conflict, even nasty conflict. But here in this complicated and uncomfortable zone lies a truth we need to acknowledge: Discomfort, bullying and persecution aren’t the same things.

For clarity, I’ll offer up a qualification here: bullying is bad! I’m not a fan of bullying! Don’t do it. Don’t take part it in. Don’t stay silent if you witness it and can safely speak up and help the target. But don’t equate it with persecution. There may be overlap, but it is not the same thing. Persecution is often systematic and wide-spread. Bullying is more often one on one. Persecution involves large groups or power structures bearing down on minorities or marginalised people. Bullying is more targetted and nuanced. Persecution may involve bullying, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

And then there is discomfort. Discomfort is good sometimes. I’ve heard countless motivational speakers remind us that no growth happens inside our comfort zone, and I have to agree! We shouldn’t fear discomfort. It is part of life and sometimes good things come out of it! Persecution, however, is crushing, life-altering, and in so many cases, life-threatening. Open Doors USA, an organisation that exists for persecuted Christians, has this to say on the matter:  “While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Jesus Christ. From Sudan to Russia, from Nigeria to North Korea, from Colombia to India, followers of Christianity are targeted for their faith. They are attacked; they are discriminated against at work and at school; they risk sexual violence, torture, arrest and much more.

In just the last year*, there have been:

  • Over 245 million Christians living in places where they experience high levels of persecution
  • 4,305 Christians killed for their faith
  • 1,847 churches and other Christian buildings attacked.
  • 3,150 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned.”

These numbers are mind-boggling. But a further look into them (which came from the 2019 World Watch List) is this: Saudi Arabia didn’t even crack the top ten in terms of persecution against Christians. China didn’t crack the top twenty.  The  United Arab Emirates sat at number 45. Open Doors only carried the top 50 countries in terms of persecution on their list: The United States of America, Australia, and Great Britain did not make the list. Yet, at least from my observation, there is a growing idea that Evangelical Christians are being persecuted, and we seem to buy into this rhetoric all too easily.

The idea that we, in our privilege as some of the richest nations on earth, with our human rights advancements, our employment anti-discrimination laws, and our religious freedom acts, might be persecuted ignores the very real systematic targeting of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries like North Korea, Somalia and Afghanistan – places where confessing Jesus as your saviour may cost you your life or your safety and livelihood.

The worst I will face here, in my white Judeo-Christian privilege, is someone calling me names on the internet. Bullying or harassment, but not high-level stuff that makes me legitimately fear for my safety. Not systematic torture, displacement and even murder of my people. I feel for those who face bullying because of the effects it has on them. I pray for them because that hurt is real. But it isn’t necessarily persecution and its unhelpful to confuse the two.

I have to make another distinction here: there may be many of us who have faced a bit of harassment, especially online, because of a “Christian” argument. This could be taken as a lesser form of persecution, and perhaps it is, but if you don’t have to worry that someone will even find out that you are a Christian (regardless of your thoughts on certain doctrines or current events), the odds are you aren’t being persecuted. I used to get called a “churchy” at work. I learned to take it in good humour. Later on, there was a swear jar at work put up for people who swore around me (because their assumption was that I would be offended. If only they hung around me now!) It made me a bit awkward in the beginning but then I took part in the game. I’ve been involved in my share of debates, but when I changed my posture from one of dogma to one of debate (with a particular bent towards connection and understanding rather than making the other person wrong), I found the world was a much softer place than I originally thought.

Why am I pointing it out? For a couple of reasons. One is that it is sometimes the abrasiveness in the delivery of our message that gets peoples backs up. People sense when someone is trying to make them wrong, and automatically defend their status quo. But the second reason is one that I find gravely concerning – There is a difference between persecution and the persecution complex. Both are harmful, one unspeakably so. But the persecution complex is something that can isolate and divide unnecessarily, especially if a person believes they are suffering persecution when they aren’t.

As I said a few paragraphs up, I’ve seen Christians cry persecution over Facebook stoushes they willingly waded into. I’ve seen mindboggling claims that the President of the United States is being persecuted (i.e. victimized on an international scale). Like…wow! While repeated efforts at convincing an unwilling world of an unpopular opinion (especially on social media) may reap repeated disagreements or arguments that certainly have a negative effect on a person’s state of mind, it is not necessarily persecution.  Nor do I think you can claim persecution when you are the most powerful man in the free world. Holding that position of privilege is the antithesis of persecution.

Of late, I’ve started listening a little harder to my friends who are people of colour, or who belong to the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve been confronted by something I noticed here: we straight, white, cis-gendered, Judeo-Christian, middle-class westerners can be blissfully unaware of our own profound privilege and, by virtue of this, confuse the loss of that privilege with persecution. A better word for what we are feeling would be, I don’t know, crestfallen? Uncomfortable? But systematically victimized and oppressed, not so much. We might find ourselves needing to learn resilience a bit more, but the answer to this problem is compassion and self-development not fear.

Alan Noble, in an article for The Atlanticpointed out some very real flaws in the evangelical tendency to buy into the persecution complex. He said: “Persecution has an allure for many evangelicals. In the Bible, Christians are promised by Saint Paul that they will suffer for Christ, if they love Him (Second Timothy 3:12). But especially in contemporary America, it is not clear what shape that suffering will take. Narratives of political, cultural, and theological oppression are popular in evangelical communities, but these are sometimes fiction or deeply exaggerated non-fiction—and only rarely accurate. This is problematic: If evangelicals want to have a persuasive voice in a pluralist society, a voice that can defend Christians from serious persecution, then we must be able to discern accurately when we are truly victims of oppression—and when this victimization is only imagined.”

But the last thing I want readers of this article to do is mock those who are suffering from a persecution complex. Here’s why:

The Persecution Complex is a Worrying Mental Delusion

The Merriam-Webster Complex Medical Dictionary calls it “the feeling of being persecuted especially without basis in reality.” In individuals, the persecution complex may be called a persecutory delusion and fall within a range of “delusional disorders’ in the DSM V (the diagnostic handbook of the psychological profession). In groups though, it is an interesting and perhaps dangerous phenomenon.  I found a study resource online that helpfully described a persecution complex in the following way: “A persecution complex is a type of delusion. A delusion is a fixed, irrational belief that one is convinced is true despite evidence to the contrary. In the case of people suffering with delusions of persecution, the fixed irrational belief is that others are plotting against and/or following them. Signs that someone may be struggling with a persecution delusion include:

  • Increased isolation.
  • Paranoid behaviors
  • Verbal statements that make little sense or are not rational.
  • An increase in angry outbursts.”

If we were to witness this in a friend, we would have the right to be very concerned. But with the rise of cultural and political discourse in the public sphere (i.e. media), it isn’t uncommon for people to face off against a strong or emotive and opposing viewpoint. When this hit to the ego (and we all have an ego, or a sense of self) is combined with a persecution complex, things can get ugly.

So what happens when a group of people holds to the same ideals and experiences similar opposition? You have the potential for a group persecution complex to develop. You have the potential for the group to isolate itself, to believe society is against it, to develop an “us versus them” mentality, and for verbal statements rooted in the persecution delusion to be met with confirmation bias and thus become part of groups’ folklore. My fear is that this can then become the narrative of their lived experience and entrench the persecutory delusion even further.

Let me be real here: this is a terrible situation. Imagine believing society is against you, and the only people who truly understand you are part of a particular group. Imagine constantly thinking everything people write online is geared at you. Imagine the mental and emotional toll that would take. I could unpack this a lot further but I hope the case is clear: Even if the persecution is imagined, the effects of the persecution complex can be very, very real.

What do we do about it? I can’t give you all the answers, because I’m certainly not the authority on this issue. I write this for awareness and reflection more than anything. But I can say this: start with compassion. Regardless of whether someone is going through persecution proper or experiencing a persecution complex, something is going down here. You can’t fix the former easily. You can pray, and donate to good causes. You can be part of organisations working to end persecution. But if a friend of yours is experiencing a persecution complex, you can’t tell them they’re idiots and should get over it. That may just reinforce the delusion.

There could be something a lot deeper going on. The persecution complex isn’t uncommon in cults. It can also be part of mental illness. It may simply be a way of externalising some deep internal unrest. Either way, its tough stuff. It might require professional help to shift.

Approach it with care. But know this: we can’t fix a problem if we can’t accurately diagnose it. If it isn’t persecution, if its a persecution complex, then the system isn’t the problem. The problem is a lot closer to home.

Just some thoughts! Hopefully thats writer’s block out of the way! lol. I’ll return next week friends!

 

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