Several years ago, English academic and theologian Candida Moss wrote The Myth of Christian Persecution. Her premise is that early Christianity invented a narrative of systemic persecution during the first three centuries following the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. This persecution, the inventive Christians claimed, was only reversed after the conversion of Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century, which was followed by the legalisation of Christianity.
Moss argues that Christians have promoted a narrative in which Christians were systematically hunted for three hundred years by the evil Roman Empire. She seeks to demonstrate that this narrative is pure fiction. Some Christians, she argues, may have been killed, but that was because they chose to disobey the law rather than because the Romans were actively hunting Christians for being Christian.
As an example of Christians being executed for law-breaking, she reminds us it was required of inhabitants of the Roman Empire to pledge allegiance to the emperor and thereby to the empire. While most religious persons did not bat an eyelid at this, Christians could not in good conscience pledge that “Caesar is lord” when they knew that Jesus Christ alone is Lord. As the Romans saw it, their refusal to bow to Caesar threatened the political stability of the empire and therefore Christians who refused to do so—or anyone who refused to do so, regardless of religious affiliation—were strongly prosecuted.
Moss argues, however, that prosecution should not be confused with persecution. When Christians were killed, they were killed for breaking the law, not for their faith. Had they simply towed the political line, they would have avoided prosecution. It was their stubborn unwillingness to follow political and cultural norms that got them into trouble. The following quote summarises her thesis:
Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution. A persecutor targets representatives of a specific group for undeserved punishment merely because of their participation in that group. An individual is prosecuted because that person has broken a law…. There is something different about being prosecuted under a law—however unjust—that is not designed to target or rout out any particular group. It may be unfortunate, it may be unfair, but it is not persecution.
Moss’s interest is not only historical. She wants to demonstrate that the same stubbornness that often got Christians into trouble in the early centuries continues to get them into trouble today. To her, this is a deliberate ploy in Christian majority nations. “Martyrdom is easily adapted by the powerful as a way of casting themselves as victims and justifying their polemical and vitriolic attacks on others.” The perpetuating of the persecution myth serves the purposes of the Christian majority. “It creates a world in which Christians are under attack; it endorses political warfare rather than encouraging political discourse; and it legitimizes seeing those who disagree with us as our enemies.”
She acknowledges that there are isolated instances throughout history in which Christians were targeted simply for being Christian, but the narrative of persistent Christian persecution is nothing more than a long-standing myth.
Moss’s narrative has been embraced by others, who refuse to acknowledge anything that remotely looks like Christian persecution. Take, for example, recent tweets from former US President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. After the Christchurch mosque attacks, Obama tweeted: “Michelle and I send our condolences to the people of New Zealand. We grieve with you and the Muslim community. All of us must stand against hatred in all its forms.” Clinton added her voice: “My heart breaks for New Zealand and the global Muslim community. We must continue to fight the perpetuation and normalization of Islamophobia and racism in all its forms. White supremacist terrorists must be condemned by leaders everywhere. Their murderous hatred must be stopped.”
While both Obama and Clinton did not hesitate to recognise the Christchurch attacks as being against “the (global) Muslim community,” consider their responses to the Easter Sunday church bombings in Sri Lanka. Obama tweeted: “The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.” Clinton added: “On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand against hatred and violence. I’m praying for everyone affected by today’s horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.” Note the deliberate avoidance of any reference to “Christians” in these tweets. Both politicians appear to be almost stumbling over themselves to avoid perpetuating the narrative of Christian persecution.
There may be a degree of truth to the myth narrative. I suspect that a good many Christians assume they are being persecuted when in fact people are just disagreeing with them. For example, a Christian politician who comes under fire from the public for a policy he holds may not be suffering persecution as a Christian, even if his policy is governed by Christian principles. Politicians are public figures and their words and ideas are, by definition, up for public scrutiny and discussion.
Sometimes, Christians are opposed because of their own foolishness rather than for Christian principle. Solomon wrote, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30). Wisdom is displayed in our winsomeness (“captures souls”) toward others. There is a winsome way to stand for truth, and it is wise to do that. There is also a decidedly non-winsome way to stand for truth. It is foolish to do that, and the trouble that it invites is of our own making.
With all the above having been said, part of the problem here is definitions. Moss defines persecution as systemic attempts to silence an entire people group simply because of what they believe. If the motivation of the opposition is not decidedly religious, and not universal in practice, it should not be considered persecution. The Bible, however, offers a slightly different definition of persecution.
God spoke of foreign nations who “persecute” Israel in Deuteronomy 30:7. No doubt, many of Israel’s enemies were politically motivated, but because the Bible recognises an underlying spiritual warfare at play, it describes this opposition as persecution. Job accused God of persecuting him because of the much misfortune that befell him (Job 30:21). Though he was wrong in his assessment, he nevertheless recognised spiritual realities at play behind what he was physically experiencing. David considered those who opposed him as God’s leader to be persecutors (Psalms 31:15; 69:26). Jesus spoke much of individual Christians facing persecution (Matthew 5:10–12, 44) and warned his disciples of the persecution that awaited them in their gospel ministry (Matthew 10:23; 23:34). Jesus was persecuted by his enemies (John 5:16) and warned his disciples that they would face the same fate (John 15:20). Paul faced the reality of this persecution in ministry (Galatians 5:11). In each of these cases, the human motivation for the persecution may have been something other than religious censure, and the action may have been limited in scope, but the Bible recognises it as persecution.
As the Bible defines things, Christians who face strong opposition because of their commitment to gospel truth are being persecuted. This persecution can, and often does, take the form of physical harm or death, but Jesus also recognised slander and insult for the sake of the gospel is also a form of persecution (Matthew 5:10–12).
In Sri Lanka, Christian churches were deliberately targeted for terrorist attacks because it was known that those churches would be filled with Christians on the holiest Sunday in the Christian calendar. It was not merely “Easter worshippers” who were killed, but Christians who were targeted because they were Christian. That is the very definition of persecution, and we should not be ashamed to call it what it is.