American Christianity has a persecution complex, several recent commentators have claimed. While Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are experiencing real persecution, having their homes burned to the ground, being forced to flee, being thrown into prison, and being executed, American Christians cry persecution when religious tax exemptions are challenged or a lawsuit is filed to remove the Ten Commandments from a courtroom. The moral of the story, for these writers, is that Christians in the West should spend less time complaining about insignificant problems and more time protesting real persecution elsewhere.
Though they accurately diagnose Christian fixation on persecution, this means of argumentation is impractical and hypocritical. It’s the adult equivalent of being told to eat your peas because children in Africa are starving. Is it true? Yes. Does the child ever think, “Wow. You’re right. Now I’m going to shut up and enjoy my peas.” No. If anything, it further reinforces a feeling of unfairness. The critique is made from the position of an outsider that has no stake in the game. Further, it’s not a principle anyone in the West can ever consistently apply to their own lives. On any sort of spectrum, be it religious, economic, social, or political, one can argue that those of us in the West are worlds better off than those elsewhere. The Christian religious perspective makes it easier to critique because it plays the persecution card more readily, but any of us could be accused of focusing on small issues when we set our problems on a global scale. Critiques that Western Christians are unfairly weighting domestic issues would have to be accompanied with an explanation of why consistency is more important in the religious sphere than in the economic or political ones, ones in which the levels of hypocrisy are just as far reaching.
So, where does the critique come from? It’s a matter of outsiders turning a professed religious solidarity against Christians. “If you all are part of the same group,” it asks, “why don’t you care about foreign Christians as much as your own?” It’s hypocritical because it criticizes Christians for not exercising preference for all Christians equally, yet when Christians exercise preference for their own vis-à-vis other Americans, these same commentators would cry foul. We could make plenty of other comparisons. I run the tap water for two minutes because it’s too cold for my hands while people elsewhere die from diseases contracted from polluted water. I live free from day-to-day fear for my life, while people (regardless of religious background) elsewhere live with a constant threat of being collateral damage in the “war on terror.” However, I still feel slighted from time to time, or treated unfairly, and having those feelings invalidated generally doesn’t motivate me to positive action.
None of this means that the martyr complex charge made against Christianity is incorrect. In psychoanalysis, a complex is “a related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partially repressed and that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.” Less formally, it just means disproportionate concern or anxiety. Christianity’s triumph, its path to becoming the state-sponsored religion, was built upon an ideology of persecution, one that never had more than a tenuous connection to the numbers of those killed. (This of course begs the question of what constitutes persecution; though few would claim it is only limited to deaths, that is the only way the numbers are tallied. How many deaths would equal legitimate persecution? It seems distasteful to even ask, and both sides exploit this ambiguity.) Theologically and psychologically though, persecution was critical to Christian growth. Although the average Christian likely would grossly overestimate the amount of Christians martyred in the early centuries (and perhaps even in the present), the actual numbers are largely irrelevant when placed on a supernatural scale. When battles are being waged against an “Adversary”—the Devil, demons, the Prince of Darkness, Evil, etc.— it doesn’t matter if you are in the apparent majority, because you are still battling a formidable force.
The abandonment of this persecution ideology would be the abandonment of Christian eschatology, of the Great Commission, of Christ’s return. It would be tantamount to acceptance of the world as it is, that God either approves of the existing world or is powerless or unwilling to change it. Faced with the alternative, many would prefer to cry persecution and await or try to bring about a Divine reckoning. So the answer, as usual, is much more complicated than just “stop complaining about being persecuted.” It would mean abandoning Christian identity. Some argue that would be better, but we might as easily abandon an American identity to solve the same problem. Neither is very likely, but the degree to which we retain these beliefs for our own existential well-being may be the extent to which we turn a blind eye to difference or lay the responsibility for change elsewhere.