Back when I was taking Ethics in college, my professor laid before us various situations of various stickiness, things that had different opinions and perspectives interacting in them, and asked us to make judgments of right and wrong. I remember one of them concerned a man who was evangelizing aggressively at work, praying loudly and pushing pamphlets and tracts on people. His coworkers were complaining and his boss threatened to fire him. The man claimed freedom of speech and that he was being persecuted for his faith. When my group had read out the scenario, there were a few moments of uncomfortable silence, and then we all agreed. The man was wrong. Our justification was simple: we believed that God has called us to evangelize, but he has not called us to be jerks.
Recently I read that the folks at Westboro Baptist Church are going to be protesting Comic Con, the absolutely massive geek convention in San Diego, on the grounds that geeks by definition are worshiping false idols.
Now, I’m not even going to bother with that argument. Anything can be an idol if it takes over some part of your life where it doesn’t belong. But I know exactly how things are going to go. The Westboro people are going to stand outside Comic Con bearing signs and t-shirts with hateful slogans, shouting insults and vitriol. The geeks, many of whom are friendly and well-adjusted but deeply snarky, are going to mock the Westboro people mercilessly. It will create even more of a media spectacle than would’ve happened anyway, heaping more slander on Christians as a whole. But that’s not everything: the Westboro people are going to feel even more proud and self-righteous because they are being persecuted.
And I am going to wish that I could possibly get it through one of their heads that they are not being persecuted because of what they believe, not entirely. They’re being persecuted because they are being jerks.
I have noticed this attitude among more moderate (and sane) Christians. I have also heard it expressed by liberals, by libertarians, by gays, by socialists, by pacifists, by people of really every possible ideological stripe. They get aggressive with their beliefs, and when someone gets angry at them, for any reason whatsoever, whether it has to do with the belief itself or the way it’s presented, the person pushing it swells up with happiness and accomplishment and says, “I’m being persecuted!” As if it is the greatest seal of approval possible. And, well, I know where people on my own side of the fence get the idea that this is not just good, but downright desirable.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James 1:2-3, ESV
All joy! Who wouldn’t want that? The Christian faith holds that such trials are the refinery of the soul, where we will be made pure and perfect for the glory of God.
Which is true. Hardship does that to a person; I’ve been through enough of it myself to get a glimpse of what that means, and I’m not about to contradict the Scripture I base my faith on. When these things come, I believe that I can face them with hope and peace, knowing that God believes me up to the challenge and capable of learning something positive from the ordeal.
And we’re warned that there will be hatred. We’re warned that we should not be surprised if the world hates us, because it hated Jesus first. And again, it’s not just Christians who think this way. Lots of people have pointed out that the great and the good in the world have often been hated and insulted and persecuted.
But we should keep in mind: most people hate jerks, too.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18, ESV
And I find myself wondering if we’ve forgotten to consign persecution with all those other things Christians should think positively about, but should never seek. Like death. “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” said the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians. He was not advocating suicide.
Now, we know Paul wasn’t exactly a shy individual. I kind of love the part in Acts when he walks into a court full of Jewish leaders who intend to condemn him to death and sics the two sides on each other with one sentence. He caused problems wherever he went, and was persecuted by all kinds of people. Yet he is the one who wrote the above Romans verse.
Whatever beliefs we hold are going to be offensive to someone. Whatever opinions we express are going to make someone mad. This is a given: we don’t all think alike and we don’t all have the same experiences. If we are in the minority, we’re going to hear it even more. This shouldn’t discourage us, and it shouldn’t make us upset. But we need to be careful. Persecution in itself is not proof of rightness, anymore than it is proof of wrongness.
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” 1 Peter 2:20, ESV
Persecution is not an end in itself. If it is inevitable, that’s because people don’t like change, because they are comfortable where they are, and they don’t want to be challenged. People already have enough reasons to suspect and dislike us. The governments of the world have enough reason to try to control us. As far as it is possible with us, we should make sure that what’s inviting the persecution is the message alone, not the delivery.
Paul knew this. The guy who spent the second half of his life disrupting Jews and Greeks alike understood this. When he brought the message, he did it in ways people understood: he went to the synagogues and spoke. He went to the forums and defended himself. He knew what he had to say was weird and shocking, that people were going to have a hard enough time with it as it was, so he followed the rules and respected where he was.
Persecution should never be our aim. If we’re being told to expect persecution, to face it knowing good can come from it, that’s not an argument but a counter-argument. The Jews thought persecution only came from sin, after all. The Greeks just didn’t know what was going on or how to deal with it. Both of them had to be told that being arrested and beaten and so on isn’t necessarily God’s judgment. It can happen anytime you stick to what you believe. But to go looking for it hurts our own witness. People might start thinking we’re more interested in being famous than saying anything important or lasting.
We should not be afraid of ticking people off when we say what we believe. But we should be reasonably sure that it’s the content that’s making them mad, not the way it’s said.