It's something that rears its ugly head most every election cycle, or when some hot-button issue surfaces in our culture, like the recent battle over Amendment One vote in my beloved home state or the long-standing removal of prayer in public schools: the notion, raised by some, that Christians in America are persecuted for their beliefs.
It's a strong word: persecuted. And maybe that's what has me scratching my head this morning. Because while some may feel American culture is inheritently hostile to religion, the fact is that all people of faith enjoy certain rights and protections in our country - and none moreso than Christians. Secularization has certainly taken hold in our larger culture compared to a generation ago, but by and large we find that Christianity is spoken openly in our communities, in our politics, in the marketplace. We make open reference to God in our country's pledge; we see God's name adorned on our currency. We may disagree and wrestle with the specifics of it, but faith is woven into the very fabric of our civilization.
More than that, though, the notion that American Christians are a persecuted lot represents a pretty significant misunderstanding of the actual history of persecution in the church. The short answer is this: we've got it pretty good, folks. The longer answer: here are at least five reasons why American Christians are not persecuted Christians:
1. No one is putting us to death on crosses. And thank God for that. Because back in the day, it wasn't just Jesus who suffered the excruciating agony of asphyxiation from the weight of your own body. This method of torture by the Roman empire was used on "enemies of the state," and its very public nature (crucifixions typically took place along heavily-traveled roads and other populous areas) was designed as a way to quell the masses. Emperor Nero in particular, paranoid by the growth of Christianity in first century Palestine, ordered the crucifixion of thousands of Christians during his reign.
2. No one is kicking us out of the marketplace. Which is exactly what happened in the first century, per some of the New Testament letters. It appears that in various instances, Christians were denied the privilege of buying and selling goods in the secular culture of the day. Either that, or Christians refused to participate because the Roman coins they had to use contained images of gods and idols (thus violating the Torah). In either case, it was pretty hard for Jesus-followers. Imagine today not being able to buy that mocha frap at Starbucks.
3. We don't live in North Korea. Not to pick on a single country, but according to Open Doors, a non-denominational group that tracks Christian persecution around the world, North Korea ranks at the top of their list of fifty countries who have a history of Christian persecution. You can see the top twelve here if you want, but a heads-up: one country you will not see on the list is the good ol' US of A.
4. We're not sitting in prison right now. Christians all around the world - but not in America - are routinely locked behind bars for things they have said for things ranging from "conducting propoganda" to "apostacy." Check out some examples of imprisoned Christians here.
5. Our name is not Bartholomew. Apologies if it actually is. But this original disciple of Jesus had it pretty bad when it came to being persecuted for his beliefs. Depending on the account you side with, he was either filleted alive or beaten to a pulp with rods. Maybe both. And then he was crucified. Upside down. Ouch.
Now - does this mean that bad things don't happen to Christians in this country? Of course not. Churches are occasionally burned, folks are mocked and made fun of from time to time, and Sunday mornings are no longer the sacrosant space it was a generation ago. Religion is personal and powerful, and sometimes people let their beliefs - and misunderstanding or ignorance of the beliefs of others - lead them to do some pretty awful things. This, by the way, goes both ways; and a whole lot of nasty stuff has been carried out in Jesus' name as well.
That being said, we'd be wise to remember that just because the larger culture may not always align perfectly with our worldview does not mean we are persecuted. The truth of the matter is that Christians have it pretty good in America. And not because we necessarily should, but because we live in a country that embraces the practice of all kinds of faiths, or even no faith at all. I'm thinking we should be grateful for that and return the favor. Along with that, praying for our brothers and sisters around the world who truly are persecuted for their religious beliefs would be a good thing. And a nice way of putting our own faith into practice, to boot.