Persecution Not What It’s Often Claimed to Be

Are you being persecuted? Probably not. 

Until we understand what persecution is and isn’t, we risk falsely applying this tragic term in self-serving ways — and doing a disservice to those who genuinely suffer wrongly for their convictions.

Religious persecution has been defined as “the systematic mistreatment of an individual or a group of individuals as a response to their religious beliefs or affiliations or their lack thereof.” 

Persecution is not a matter of mere disagreement or inconvenience — or being exposed to ideas that do not align with one’s own.

Someone is not being persecuted just because others resist their attempts to have majority religious beliefs and practices imposed on them.

False claims of persecution — or justifications for persecution — are often tied to historical misrepresentations.

Social media and agenda-driven “news” channels selectively shape and widely advance various revisionary and romanticized descriptions of the past that often ignore reality. 

Whether it be the emergence of America’s constitutional guarantee of religious liberty for all — or the clear reason behind the American Civil War — one only has to log onto social media or listen to certain talking heads on TV to discover wildly fabricated tales being presented as truth.

These intentional misrepresentations are formed to justify misguided attitudes and actions.

While I’ve been unable to trace their origins, there are two assessments of misapplied persecution that ring quite true.

One: “When you’re accustomed to privilegeequality feels like oppression.”

Growing up in a majority culture can lead one to expect to have outsized influence over those who look, think or live differently. Any challenge to that familiar and controlling power is threatening — and too often misrepresented as persecution.  

 Two: “Accountability feels like persecution to those who have never been held accountable.” 

This statement relates to power-holding as well — and is particularly timely..

Today we are watching numerous persons being held accountable who have behaved as if they are beyond accountability due to social status or other justifications.  

The “p-word” gets employed to express outrage at mere accountability that has long been applied to others.

“They’ve persecuted these people,” a former U.S. president said of the Department of Justice for holding accountable those whose unlawful and violent siege of the Capitol building he instigated on Jan. 6, 2021.

However, accountability — or as church people say, having your sins found out — is not persecution.

True persecution is executed by those in power toward those who lack such social, political and economic standing. 

In many places around the world, people are experiencing the harshness of such persecution. We do a disservice to them when making false claims of our own.

History is a good teacher for understanding persecution — as is looking at those places in the world where people genuinely suffer for their beliefs.

The late-17th-century atrocities in colonial Massachusetts — known as the Salem Witch Trials — are tragic reminders of how religiously zealous people can be the purveyors of persecution.

It is sobering to stand over the memorials in Salem — dedicated in 1992 by Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel — and read the names of the victims and the descriptions of their unwarranted deaths. 

“The trials have become a metaphor for hysterical persecution, unfounded accusations, and confessions that have no reasonable explanation,” writes Elizabeth Reis in Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (1997, Cornell University Press).

Hysteria is the familiar descriptor of what led to this ugly chapter in American history. 

It was built on ignorance, religiously-fueled hostility, devilish doctrines and fear-based violence — with those same factors often at play in ensuing acts of persecution.

Using unbridled power to impose one’s religious beliefs and practices is highly dangerous — and often leads to persecution by those who tend to claim persecution for themselves. 

Actual persecution is often a means of scapegoating or vengeance.

“Witchcraft accusations often emerged out of the context of personal disputes, with one of the parties attributing some personal adversity to the diabolically supported malevolence of the other,” writes Carol F. Karlsen in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1998, Norton).  

The lessons from history are plentiful — as are the ways Americanized Christians so often aggressively reject having their ideological priorities that are at odds with following Jesus pointed out to them. 

So they, again, claim persecution.

Benjamin Cremer, posting on the former Twitter, notes: “Sadly, some of us Christians are unable to tell the difference between being ‘persecuted’ for our commitment to Jesus and simply being held accountable for mistreating others while claiming to follow Jesus.”

Those who actually experience persecution are doubly harmed when those who are merely inconvenienced or rightly held accountable make that claim.

Note: A deeper look at the Salem tragedies and their application for today will appear in the next issue of Nurturing Faith Journal.

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