Thoughts on Persecution

Reading: Acts 4:1-20

When I first was thinking about what to say today, I chose the title of “Resurrection”, because Peter and John were preaching the Resurrection at every opportunity they were given, including those opportunities that nobody wants. This passage has them preaching Resurrection, being commanded by the authorities not to preach Resurrection, and openly defying those authorities.

Yesterday, as you likely know, there was a shooting at a San Diego synagogue. You likely also know that currently, officials strongly suspect that this is a hate crime — and, that rest of us who don’t need to convince a jury are less cautious with our speech. We know that this shooter chose Passover as when to attack; there is something about holiday attacks that make it clear that the attacker is viciously deliberate.

Last week, Easter Sunday, a number of churches throughout the island of Sri Lanka were bombed, over 250 people were killed, and an additional 500 people were injured. In this case, we know that a terrorist organization, the Islamic State, took credit for the attack.

In the weeks before that, 3 historically “black” churches in Louisiana were burned down by a 21 year old man who is now facing charges for a hate crime, and an Australian man went into a New Zealand Mosque and murdered the people worshiping there, and if we go back 6 months, we go back to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

If we go back about 100 years into our own church history, somebody dynamited the old meetinghouse one night to make a political statement; nobody was there and nobody was hurt but was that extreme vandalism persecution?

When we talk about the persecution of the Church, it is good to have an idea what people mean when they say that the church is persecuted. Do these events, the arson, the shootings by extremists, and the terrorist attacks count as persecution? Karla and I talked about this for a bit, and we agreed that these don’t count, because the government response to these attacks was to show sympathy for the communities that were attacked, and to take legal action against the attacker.

Moving to a bit of a gray area, I don’t know if any of you have heard of the term “price tag attacks?” This is a term for some attacks against a disadvantaged minority in a certain near Eastern country. Churches are vandalized, Christians are randomly attacked, and the government often does noting and, in the name of security, the government harasses the entire minority population, whether Christian or Muslim. Are these price tag attacks persecution? They are technically illegal, and some who have committed them have been arrested, but the government also has policies to harass and enforces the laws unevenly. Is this persecution? Lets just say that it is a politically volatile question to ask whether an closely allied government persecutes Christians — and American Christians very sharply disagree about the answer.

We could also ask about warlords who are not heads of recognized governments — but, you have to recognize that they hold land and function, at the time, as the local government. This is something that stands out when you talk about ISIS killing Christians in the part of Libya and Syria that they controlled, or Boko Haram killing and kidnapping in Nigeria, on a number of other incidents over the centuries.

We could also discuss the number of people burned or drowned for their faith in Europe at the time of the reformation, and over a century following, we could look at incidents in the new world such as the hanging of Friends Mary Dyer, Marmaduke Stephenson, and William Robinson in Boston for the crime of being Quakers in a Congregationalist colony. Quakers were not singled out — going to the wrong church could get one exiled on pain of death, tithes were enforced and collected, and neglecting attendance could be punished. Was what happened when Christians were killing each other over which church they should go to persecution? Books such as Martyr’s Mirror and Foxes book of Martyrs say so, and most of us agree.

The point is that persecution is part of our story. Christianity was born into a world that persecuted it; as soon as the good news that Christ is risen was preached, those who preached this gospel were arrested by the same powers that put Jesus on the cross. Christian persecution got worse as it became more than just local authorities and the Empire turned their attention to Christianity. If we have a Western European heritage, our own churches suffered greatly in wars where people were killed for belonging to a different church than the one supported by those in power at the time, whether we identify as Catholic, part of the Magisterial Reformation, or in the case of Friends as part of the Radical Reformation, we look back to the 16th and 17th centuries as a time of suffering. Persecution is part of our story — both in the birth of our religion as a whole, and for most people, it is a significant experience in their own denomination — and, while I remember ancestors who were persecuted in the 17th century, we know people in refugee churches who remember personally remember being part of a persecuted community.

When I read the New Testament, I am reading a book written by and for illegal people — people who face arrest and execution for living out their Christian faith. When I read books written by reformers, I am reading books by people who have found themselves imprisoned or exiled, though, to be fair if I am reading Luther or Calvin, I am also reading books by men who found themselves advisers to princes and who personally encouraged prosecution of those who worshiped differently than they did. Very often the people who taught us, and who’s words spoke to our hearts and shape our view of faith knew nothing but persecution. We don’t know what to do in the world we live in.

I say this, because in about half a year, people will start talking about how Christians in America are persecuted. Somebody will offer some flier that says something about a “Holiday Sale” as evidence that there is a war on Christmas — as somebody who has worked retail, both at the cash register and in a fulfillment center, I can tell you, retail is not waging a war on Christmas, and will not as long as Christmas drives sales. I guess it makes people feel connected with persecution by imagining that they suffer from the words “Holiday Sale”, but any suffering is self inflicted, and even the worst example people can come up with cannot be compared to 1650’s England when Oliver Cromwell’s government outlawed Christmas, forbidding people to take that day off, prepare festive food to celebrate Christmas, or for Churches to hold a Christmas service.

Persecution is part of our story — but unlike recent refugees and those still living under persecution, we don’t know what it is like to be persecuted. Even the non-Christians in our government are concerned with how a policy will be received by Christians. Sundays are still for many people a day off. When Politicians speak, many quote Christian Scripture. Congress has a Christian chaplain who opens every day with a word of prayer. The day the president is sworn into office, there is a prayer service that he is expected to attend at an Episcopalian cathedral in Washington DC. We are officially a secular nation, but our nation has many traditions that are dear to us, and are not secular, but tied to Christianity.

I know this is a tangent — as I said before I originally intended to speak explicitly about the Resurrection — but, the synagogue shooting yesterday changed the direction of my thoughts; but as I said on Easter Sunday — every sermon is about Resurrection; the Resurrection is a very central point of our faith.

What happened when the Apostles were arrested for preaching the resurrection? They preached the Resurrection again at their trial. What happened when they were put in prison? They preached the Resurrection to those who shared prison cells with them. The apostles remained faithful to Christ, and they did not bow to the ways of the world. If we skip forward in Acts, Paul says to the governor Felix, “I wish you were the same as I, except these chains”; the apostles forgave their persecutors and worked and prayed for the salvation of those who persecuted them.

The good news here is that if death cannot keep Jesus in the grave, and if we hold onto the promise that we will also be raised from the dead, then those who can do no worse than kill have no power over us. The persecutors were fighting a losing battle — and, Christianity spread in the prisons, it spread through slaves, and eventually it spread all the way up to the Imperial palace. No amount of persecution can kill the Truth, because the persecutors are not more powerful than Christ.

The hard part is that we must hear this gospel and obey Christ teachings. Jesus told a persecuted and illegal people how to live. Forgiveness is hard. Faith that Jesus is compassionate and with us even when we suffer can be hard. It is all to easy to lose faith and give into fear — but, again we have good news, that faith casts out all fear.  May Christ grant us this faith that casts out fear and the ability to forgive just as we are forgiven.


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Pastor at Raysville Friends Church

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