WHY ARE CHRISTIANS PERSECUTED IN THE WEST?
For Christians in all parts of the world, opposition and persecution are a fact of life. The Church is under constant attack, physical and political. The Gospel message seldom goes forth freely. Those who belong to Christ face darkness and difficulty – in this world they have trouble (John 16:33).
When we read of persecution we should be shocked, but never surprised. The Bible is clear that persecution will come upon the Church, and that the Lord’s people will suffer for being identified with Christ. Those who follow Christ are told that others will “insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you” (Matthew 5:11).
The ultimate reason why the world persecutes the Church is because the world hates Christ. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” says the Lord Jesus to His disciples. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also ... They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18, 20b-21).
There are also secondary reasons why the Church is opposed. Persecution takes place in particular cultural, political, ideological and religious contexts. Governments, terrorists, or just ordinary members of communities – including the families and friends of Christians – will have their own personal reasons for hating Christianity, while their actions may also be shaped by factors of which they themselves are not fully aware.
In this series we will examine some of these reasons, focusing on the particular contexts of several countries or world regions in which the Church faces opposition and persecution.
Persecution in the West does exist
It may seem strange to begin with the West. The Western world – including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, the UK and western Europe – is the region of the world where Christians enjoy the most freedom and peace.
The Western Church has enjoyed unprecedented freedom to worship and practise the Christian faith over the last two centuries, to the extent that some will deny that persecution in the West is a reality. Certainly, persecution in the West is overall as nothing compared to that endured by believers in the Islamic world, under communist rule, or in other contexts where religious nationalism has the upper hand. But that does not mean that persecution does not exist.
In December 2019 street preacher David McConnell was arrested in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK for “a hate-related public order offence” and held in police custody for around six hours, simply for sharing the Gospel. Passers-by had falsely accused him of making hateful and deliberately offensive remarks. Thankfully McConnell was released without charge, and West Yorkshire Police admitted that they had acted unlawfully.1
In another country, McConnell may not have been released. The authorities certainly would not have admitted liability. In North Korea or Eritrea, McConnell would still be in prison. Put bluntly, he might well be dead. Yet can anyone say that his experience was not a form of anti-Christian persecution?
The post-Christendom West
It is common for Christians around the world – as well as the opponents of Christianity – to think of the West as a Christian civilisation, or of particular Western nation states as Christian nations.
We should not, however, be too quick to assume that the Western world is purely Christian. We need to take into account the non-Christian philosophies and concepts that have shaped Western culture, and – in a process that has its roots in the Enlightenment – are transforming the West into a post-Christendom context.
These philosophies and concepts include: secularism, progressivism, individualism and materialism.
Secularism sets the stage for persecution
A secular society, according to the UK’s National Secular Society, is one that does not privilege religion or religious points of view. This includes not having any established religion or church, nor viewing religious voices as any more worthwhile than non-religious. A secular society provides – in theory – freedom of belief and equal treatment for both religious and non-religious.
Western society is largely secular. Religion usually does not – despite the protestations of humanists and atheists – have a privileged position when it comes to policy-making or agenda-setting, even in the United States where the influence of Christianity remains strong, or in Denmark, Norway or the UK where there remain established churches rather than any constitutional separation of church and state. Some countries, such as France, self-consciously repudiate any role for religion in public life.
There are elements of secularism with which some Christians would agree – perhaps, for example, equal standing before the law regardless of a person’s religious belief.
Yet secularism’s claim to create a value-free public space is deeply flawed. Consider, for example, recent US Congressional hearings where appointees with conservative Christian views were not treated with neutrality but with overt hostility. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, for instance, was told by Senate Judiciary Committee leader Dianne Feinstein, “The dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”2
Secularism might aim at a religiously neutral public space, but it tends towards a public space actively hostile towards religion in general and Christianity in particular, especially as public discourse and policy-making comes to be possessed by the West’s new dominant ideology: progressivism.
Progressivism seeks to dismantle Christian ethics and beliefs
Progressivism is a very broad term that encompasses a number of theories, ideologies and beliefs, including liberal views on marriage and sexuality, gender identity and medical ethics. Those who hold to these views tend to oppose religion in general, and Christianity in particular, for what they would see as its outdated views on these matters.
In a secular West it is progressive ideas that proliferate. As Barnabas Fund International Director Patrick Sookhdeo argues, “Behaviours that are contrary to God’s laws and Christian values are at first permitted, and then celebrated.”3
Theologian and historian Carl R Trueman demonstrates that progressive movements seek to overthrow Christian ethics, because such ethics represent “repressive sexual codes” that destroy individual freedom and – crucially – individual identity.4 Put simply, the progressive view is that individuals can only be free when Christianity is dismantled.
Progressivism thus goes further in its stated aims than secularism alone. In a purely secular model, a street preacher such as David McConnell should be allowed to present the Gospel in public – but because his perspective should not be privileged, others should also be allowed to criticise his beliefs and present their own. Progressivism, however, will denounce McConnell as an oppressor, accusing him of hate speech and calling upon the authorities to lock him away. “Christians who hold conservative views,” says Sookhdeo, “are seen as dangerous to society.”5
Tolerance, argues Trueman, is no longer held to be sufficient. A Christian may hold the personal view, for example, that homosexuality is sinful, but genuinely feel no animosity towards gay people, nor wish to criminalise their behaviour. Yet such a stance is nowhere near good enough for today’s progressives. “The politics of sexual identity [has] become so ferocious that any dissent from the latest orthodoxy is greeted with scorn and sometimes legal action.”6
As such, progressives conclude that Christian ethics and beliefs must not only be pushed into the private sphere, but eliminated altogether. Only in this way can “oppression” be stopped.
Individualism, materialism and the modern “self”
The definition of oppression has come to be broadened to include simply the fact that there are people who disagree with your beliefs or your behaviour. This is because of the importance that our modern age attaches to identity – particularly sexual orientation or gender – and one’s sense of self.
Believing, for example, that Christianity is true and other religions or philosophies false isn’t just to disagree with another person’s belief – in progressive ideology it is to deny their personhood, to consider them less than human.
An example of this is that, increasingly, Christians who oppose abortion are accused of doing so because they do not believe that women are fully human beings. An opinion piece in the New Republic, for example, asserted that the anti-abortion activists are in no way concerned about unborn children, but rather treating women as non-persons. Abortion, it is argued, should be freely available because “a woman is a person”.7
The modern sense of self is derived in large part from the values of the Enlightenment – the eighteenth century turn towards rationalism, materialism and liberalism – and in particular the individualism that dominates Western thought.
The Western commitment to the value of the individual is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, in part it is derived from a Christian ethic, particularly the Protestant view of the individual having communion with God through Christ without any earthly mediator. Christians who would wish to return to pre-Enlightenment days would do well to dwell on the denial of individual worth that underpinned both the slave-holding and feudal societies that preceded it.
Yet while as Christians we affirm the value of each individual, regardless of their lifestyle or belief (after all, we are all sinners) individualism itself is not always healthy. The Western view – in both left-wing and right-wing thought – is too often that the individual should be utterly free to do what pleases himself or herself.
In progressive ideology this morally autonomous individual is, as Trueman puts it, the “modern self” – an individual who is oppressed if not allowed to live according to his or her own truth, his or her subjective judgement or feelings about what sort of self to be. “With the focus on self,” argues Sookhdeo, “comes the worship of self”8 – and progressives view any disruption of this self-worship as, again, an act of oppression.
The Bible, however, denies that the subjective “truth” of the self is in fact the truth. A person cannot simply choose his or her own lifestyle and have it acknowledged as good and right. He or she is obligated to obey God and commanded to repent of failing to do so.
The Western worldview is also shaped by a materialism explicit in Marxist theory – and in today’s progressivism, derived in part from Marx – as well as implicit in the free-market theories associated with neo-liberalism and libertarianism. This world is all that there is. Without any acknowledgement of a law-giver or source of morality that transcends the created world, what is there to prevent us judging right and wrong by our bodily sensations, or by which course of action helps an individual make the most money?
French political theorist Chantal Delsol explains, “Our Western contemporaries no longer believe in a beyond or in a transcendence. The meaning of life must therefore be found in this life itself, and not above it, where there is nothing.”9 This, she argues, is a reversal of the process by which Christianity replaced paganism as the source of norms and values in the West and a reversal of fortunes in which paganism is once again ascendant.
Persecution set to increase
On current trends persecution of the Church in the Western world is set to increase. The Gospel is in permanent opposition to the worldly values of any time and place, but it is clear that there is a significant rupture between the Christian message and the prevailing ethic of the West. “The West,” says Sookhdeo, “is not merely passively post-Christian and indifferent to Christianity; it is now actively anti-Christian and profoundly intolerant of the Christian faith.”10
Secularism, progressivism, radical individualism and atheistic materialism combine to ensure that Christianity will always be cast in the role of hate-filled oppressor, damaging the self-worth and self-esteem of those who – so it is argued – are only trying to live according to their own truth and their own identity.
Christianity is returning to the situation of the early Church in the Roman Empire. Believers will be required to, figuratively speaking, make their sacrifice of incense to the Emperor and the pagan gods, or face the consequences if they do not. Secularism marks the return of the Roman situation in which the state was the arbiter of morality and religion a purely private matter. Progressivism goes further, aiming at the elimination of Christianity and anything else deemed oppressive of the modern self. Christians will be a persecuted minority who either sadly capitulate or remain at odds with the prevailing culture.
Christians must remember five things:
1. Respond with grace. Without Christ we are no less sinful and no more discerning than anybody else.
2. Beware taking sides in a Western culture war. The errors of the Left should not push us carelessly to embrace the values of the political Right, or vice-versa.
3. Before we rush to criticise governments and cultures across the world, we need to remember the fallacious nonsense prevalent in own culture.
4. Be prepared to sacrifice possessions, money, safety and even our lives for the cause of Christ – as our brothers and sisters are called to do around the world. Have we forgotten that Christians are called to take up their cross daily (Luke 9:23)? Are we in danger of being conformed to this world (Romans 12:2)?
5. While the West might be slipping away from Christian influence, it is not our home. “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14, ESV).
The Church in the West, and across the world, may decline or even disappear from view. Yet the Kingdom of Christ will continue, and all the world will be brought under His authority and rule.
Patrick Sookhdeo’s The New Civic Religion (2016) and The Death of Western Christianity (2017) are available from our online bookshop www.barnabasfund.org/resources/books
1 “David McConnell”, Christian Institute, https://www.christian.org.uk/case/david-mcconnell/