Starbucks’ simple red holiday coffee cups, devoid of any symbols or images that might imply embracing one Christmas “story” over another, have become the latest in a series of small things that American Christians find offensive. I guess our annoyance is better spent on that than, oh, I don’t know, human trafficking or the specter of abortion.
But while I could just say “this isn’t real persecution” (and I will), there are actually a variety of problems revealed when we react so strongly to things. (Like the final season of “Frasier”, I have saved the best for last.)
1. An Ignorance of our Orders
Never mind whether coffee cups without Christmas symbols is an actual sin. Jesus doesn’t tell us to point out sin and stop there. He tells us to spread the gospel. There’s a difference.
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts–murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
Jesus is teaching here that sin is merely a byproduct of an unredeemed heart. This is why those who live good lives (by human standards) are not saved by their good works; the heart remains wicked.
So what sense is there in treating the symptoms instead of the virus? In pointing to others’ sin without telling them the solution? Yet I really do think that we often act as just such Nyquil. We protest any shift away from American values, turning the issues into sectarian conflicts in the process. Legitimate sin should be identified for the sake of truth, and we should not be slow to condemn true injustice. But do we follow up our protests with the Gospel? Not nearly as often. There’s a reason people say that Christians are known better for what they’re against rather than what they’re for.
The Gospel is the most effective way of eliminating the sin of mankind. It’s the only way.
2. A Failure to Recognize our True Enemy
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
When was the last time we acted as if human beings were closer to unwitting civilians than enemy combatants in this great struggle for the earth? I can’t remember. Our barbs seem almost wholly directed at human individuals, corporations, and governments.
But our perspective changes (and lets in love) when we remember that ultimately Satan is the one who should be most firmly resisted here, not man. People are wholly responsible for their own sin and eternal destiny, to be sure. But God loves them, and they deserve our prayers. Satan deserves our swords.
3. A Total Misunderstanding of Persecution
Unmarked Christmas cups. Unisex restrooms. The opinions of nonviolent college professors. We label these things as “persecution” in America, taking deep umbrage. The usual thing is to interpret these or any other shifts away from Christian values as a stepping stone to a flat-out assault on our faith. It’s the slippery slope argument. “Put a frog in warm water and he won’t notice you turning up the heat until he’s already boiling” and all that.
I hope we know better than to speak of this “persecution” in front of pastor Saeed Abedini.
If only we could be in front of him – he’s serving an eight-year sentence in a barbaric Iranian prison for his faith. Nations still exist where people are not only denied the right to worship, but are threatened with death for doing so. What about the grievous stories of Indian believers who are beaten senseless and their churches razed (the police turning a blind eye) for speaking the name of Jesus? Or Iraqi Christians who were given the choice of renouncing Jesus, extortion, exile, or death?
I was in the Czech Republic when our mission team heard those first ultimatums from what would become known as the Islamic State. Even the peaceful Czechs have less regard for faith than America does. Czech believers may not be assaulted physically, but they face real social ostracism, damaging their family, friends, and professional relationships.
And here we are worried about colored pieces of paper.
Martyrs the world over hear our claims of American persecution and laugh. If things were that bad, we’d know it. We aren’t even close to churches losing their tax-exempt status. Ostracism is limited to slices of the scientific and academic community. The much-maligned Affordable Care Act exempts Christian healthcare sharing members from the dreaded no-coverage penalty. So much for our president being out to destroy us.
This paranoia, and that is a very fitting word, is unbecoming of Jesus’ followers. We need to keep a global mindset as we judge our surroundings, and give thanks for the safety we enjoy.
But perhaps the most embarrassing mistake we make…
4. A Wrongheaded Attitude Towards Persecution
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say we are persecuted. There are legitimate instances of it in America. And they do hurt. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:11 seem to grant that.
But keep reading. Not only does Jesus pretty much guarantee persecution (he says “when”, not “if”), he prescribes an attitude towards it. And it’s not always the one we display.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. …If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:44-46)
Thankfully, his disciples seem to have listened. Watch their reaction a few years later when the Pharisees call them out for preaching the name of Jesus:
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
Hold the phone. Persecution is an honor? Rejoicing and thankfulness?
We don’t act like that. We sign petitions.
Part of me doesn’t think we should seek out persecution, exactly. God doesn’t call us to be masochists.
But then, why are we hearing reports from churches in India worrying that their persecution is fading? They know something we’ve forgotten: there’s a direct relationship between persecution and the church’s vibrancy. The greater the pressure, the stronger the church. They don’t want to lose that. An incredible attitude, and a courage that could only come from the Holy Spirit.
America could not offer a more stark contrast. We react to everything with shock. Being stunned by persecution is like having a baby and then being stunned that the little one wets his diaper. No, it’s not an ideal situation, but what were you expecting? It’s just what they do. In the same way, the world hates Jesus and his followers. This shouldn’t be news.
Sometimes Christians almost seem eager to spot an affront to the faith in the slightest newsworthy event. Like we’re spoiling for a fight or something. Where is the love, prayer, and cheek-turning we’re commanded to transmit to unbelievers? Whatever our Christian education has taught us about contending for the faith, it never taught us to demonize those who challenge it. It taught us to help save them from demons. Otherwise, Jesus reasons, how are we different from the world?
“Outrage and panic are not the responses of those confident in the promises of a reigning Christ Jesus,” wrote Christian leaders in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling validating gay marriage. While that issue is closer to something truly offensive to Christians, it still doesn’t merit the tetchiness often exhibited by the church. Declare truth, yes. But don’t make enemies, and as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy advises, don’t panic. God’s power and faithfulness merit clear-eyed assurance and expectation. We haven’t got a thing to fear.
We live in a world at war. We have a divinely appointed mission. Let’s not allow frivolity like colored paper cups to distract us from the scale of this thing.