Are Christians Prepared for Persecution?JAMES HITCHCOCK
The single greatest enemy of a vibrant Christianity in the United States is not its proclaimed opponents but the deep, seemingly ineradicable complacency of its own adherents.
Authentic religion, precisely because it penetrates so deeply into the being of its adherents, has the capacity to inspire either great love and devotion or great hatred, sometimes one transforming itself into the other. At certain times in history that suppressed hatred bursts out violently, in systematic and frenzied attempts to, as Voltaire is supposed to have urged, “Crush the infamous thing.” Such was the French Revolution the triumph of Communism in Russia, and other episodes.
While particular justifications are offered for this frenzy of annihilation — the privileges of the clergy, ecclesiastical wealth — beneath it all is something which no degree of “reform,” nor attempts by Christians to be accommodating, could ever expunge — hatred of a system of beliefs which calls each man's life into question at every moment, which reminds people of the infinite God who judges their every action. It is this which finally is intolerable to a certain kind of mind, which senses that it will not be at peace with itself until every vestige of this transcendent claim has been eradicated.
The often sadistic violence of the French Revolution seemingly betrayed the cool rationality which the Enlightenment proposed. But not the least of the Enlightenment's inadequacies was that it did not understand the irrational forces which it was helping to unleash. Today the tradition of the Enlightenment appears to have reached its end in the murky half-light of “post-modernism.” However, classical Enlightenment critiques of Christianity — that it is superstitious and repressive — are now invoked with more effect than at any time in the past two hundred years, and with the same potential for irrational violence.
Among the numerous “stories” which the media ignore are the acts of vandalism directed at churches occurrences which seem to have become so common as to be treated almost routinely. To date this is about as far as the enemies of religion have gone in inflicting physical harm.
But the frenzied symbolic assaults on religion are numerous and frightening, revealing as they do the barely suppressed violence which its enemies harbor and which, it is fair to judge, they would eagerly act out in life if given the opportunity.
The hateful blasphemies of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco are merely one example. Frenzied blasphemy — the mocking of sacred symbols, the association of those symbols with the sickest kind of pornography — reveals the depth of the violent hatred because it represents an assault in some ways worse than the desire to do bodily harm. It aims to annihilate the sacred core of the believer's very being. It is a mentality in which the actual killing of individuals would be almost an anti-climax.
It is one of the supreme ironies of an age awash in ironies that it is Christians who are now routinely accused of being hateful, of fomenting violence, even as the guardians of public opinion carefully conceal from view the true mentality of the anti-Christians. (Thus the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are presented merely as a group of merry pranksters who do what they do in order to raise money for charity.)
One of the results of the style of episcopal leadership which has prevailed in America for three decades is that much, although not all, of this hatred has been diverted away from the Catholic Church and towards those Protestants who can be called Fundamentalists. It is now treated as merely self-evident that the latter are hate-filled and intolerant, while the Catholic Church is assessed in each particular situation, showing promise of change in some areas, intransigent in others. More than one bishop has probably prayed quietly, “Thank God for Pat Robertson. Let them pick on him rather than me.”
How is it possible that anti-Christian bigotry is so strong in a society which is apparently the most religious in the Western world? In part the answer is that the very strength of religion inevitably provokes hatred; where it is weak it is simply ignored. On the other hand Christianity, and perhaps especially the Catholic Church, is also not perceived as truly powerful. Thus religion is hated for its alleged oppressiveness but at the same time is not feared, the classic predicament of those Western monarchies where revolution occurred (England in the 1640's, France in the 1790's, Russia in 1917).
The single greatest enemy of a vibrant Christianity in the United States is not its proclaimed opponents but the deep, seemingly ineradicable complacency of its own adherents, a complacency which is to a great extent abetted, even actively fostered, by the clergy themselves. Most American Christians, including some who are ostensibly orthodox, live by the assumption that one espouses a religion in order to make one's life richer and more satisfying. The ultimate test is whether, like everything in the culture is supposed to do, it makes the individual “feel good about himself.”
Most professed believers cannot conceive of why it should ever be necessary to make sacrifices for their religion, which is why there is almost total indifference to the fate of persecuted believers during one of the great ages of religious persecution in the history of the world.
Christians are now completely on the defensive in Western society in terms of their beliefs. Public discussion of religion is often casually hostile, and those who profess to believe are often apologetic in the popular sense of that word. As the events at Littleton, Colorado showed, public agencies like schools are tolerant of all kinds of deviant behavior, even as they are increasingly vigilant against the “intrusion” of religion into the public square. While there may be no systematic pattern of discrimination in employment, it would be a brave (or foolish) person who would talk openly in a job interview about deeply held religious beliefs. In the academy, including institutions which are nominally Catholic, such discrimination is often taken for granted.
This is merely the beginning of a process which is likely to get worse. Looking at the situation through purely human eyes, it is likely that, as the reality of this hostility finally begins to dawn on comfortable Christians, and the price of their faith keeps getting higher, most will simply fall away, abandoning a faith which has become a handicap instead of a support.
In an important sense the real battle now is not between believers and overt secularists but between orthodox and liberal Christians, a reality which is at its starkest in Protestantism but which is also present in the Catholic Church. Because the Fundamentalists remind them of what they once were, and perhaps ought still to be, liberal Protestant leadership regards their orthodox fellow Christians as the single greatest enemy of the human race. People who boast of their ability to “reach out” towards the despised and rejected have been the most effective soldiers in the war to demonize and marginalize orthodox believers, to the point where the National Council of Churches is a public apologist for religious persecution throughout the world. Liberal Christianity is finally at the point of abandoning any claim about the unique importance of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation, and this will merely intensify its view of orthodoxy as dangerous.
Especially in view of the nation's apparent indifference (if not worse) to the scandalous behavior of its president, some orthodox believers are in a state of discouragement, to the point of urging withdrawal from the public square into a kind of monasticism which will try to keep the faith alive for a better day. But in this atmosphere it is well to recall the Catholic wisdom that not all are called to the monastic life and that the degree to which the monks of the Dark Ages simply huddled in their monasteries has been exaggerated. Many of them were missionaries, bishops, even royal officials.
One major argument for believers remaining active in the public sphere is the explanation excuse?) which Evelyn Waugh gave for his seemingly un-Christian behavior — how much worse it would be if there were no active Christian presence. Those who know the truth have an obligation in justice to, for example, the unborn, which they are not free to abandon.
Those who advocate a strategy of quasi-monastic withdrawal also underestimate the strength of the enemy. Jerry Falwell said all that needs to be said on the subject when he explained that Evangelicals began entering politics because the government would not let them alone. There is no place in the modern world where anyone can hide.
Thus Christians are obligated to continue the public struggle, no matter how much obloquy it continues to bring down on them, even as they are obligated to storm heaven with their prayers. A major need is preparing Christians to live in an environment of hostility, increasing discrimination, possibly even of persecution. But this is perhaps the most severe of the many pastoral tasks presently being neglected.
Hitchock, James. “Are Christians Prepared for Persecution?” Catholic Dossier 5 no. 3 (May-June 1999): 52-54.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.
James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
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