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Why Right Wing Christians Think They are America’s Most Persecuted
Valerie Tarico   Oct 8, 2014   Away Point  

A recent Pew study found that white American Evangelical Christians think they experience more discrimination than Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Atheists or Jews. Really?!

Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S. and many kinds of legally ensconced religious privilege are on the rise including the right to woo converts in public grade schools, speculate in real estate tax-free, repair religious facilities with public dollars, or opt out of civil rights laws and civic responsibilities that otherwise apply to all. By contrast atheists are less electable than even philanderers, weed smokers or gays; Hispanics and Muslims are being told to leave; Jews get accused of everything from secret economic cabals to destroying America’s military; and unarmed Black youth continue to die at the hands of vigilantes.

Given the reality of other people’s lives, a widespread Evangelical perception of their group as mass victims reveals a lack of empathy that should give thoughtful believers reason to cringe. And indeed, Alan Nobel, managing editor of Christ and Pop Culture, and a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, wrote a thoughtful, pained analysis this summer of what he called Evangelical persecution complex. Nobel contrasted the privileged position of American Christians with the real and serious persecution Christian minorities experience under ISIS, for example, and he examined the ways in which victimization can become a part of Christian identity and culture to the detriment of Christians and outsiders alike. What he neglected to spell out clearly was the extent to which the Bible itself sets up this problem.

Christianity, born in harsh the desert cultures of the Middle East, got its start by defining itself in opposition to both Judaism and the surrounding pagan religions of the Roman empire. Consequently, from the get-go teachings emerged that helped believers deal with the inevitable conflict, by both predicting and glorifying suffering at the hands of outsiders. Indeed, persecution was framed as making believers more righteous, more like their suffering savior. Long before the Catholic Church made saints out of martyrs, a myriad of texts encouraged believers to embrace suffering or persecution, or even to bring it on.

This sample from a much longer list of New Testament verses about persecution (over 100), gives a sense of how endemic persecution is to the biblical world view.

  • I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. . . Matthew 10:16-17
  • Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Matthew 10:21-23
  • You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. Mark 13:9
  • Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Luke 6:22
  • If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. John 15:19-20
  • ​Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. Acts 4:27
  • Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. . . . They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Acts 5:17-18,40
  • On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Acts 8:1
  • Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Romans 8:35
  • That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10
  • For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. Philippians 1:29
  • Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24
  • For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15
  • In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 2 Timothy 3:12
  • Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:3
  • But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 1 Peter 3:14
  • Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 1 Peter 4:12-14
  • Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 1 John 3:13
  • Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Revelation 2:10
  • I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. Revelation 20:4

As any squabbling pair of siblings can tell you, claiming to be a victim is powerful stuff, even if you actually struck first. He started it! yells one kid. No, she started it! yells the other. Parental resolve waivers in the face of uncertainty, and both kids get an exasperated lecture.

When I was in college, I had a friend who grew up in a rough low income neighborhood. One day we got started talking about car accidents and he said, “My father told me that if you ever get in an accident, you should immediately get out and start yelling at the other driver. Even if it was your fault, it will put them on the defensive and keep them from making wild claims. And maybe the police will believe you.” Amoral, perhaps but brilliant.

If claiming to be a victim is powerful, believing you are a victim is far more so, again regardless of the actual facts—which, at any rate, we all are prone to interpret through a self-serving lens. Have you ever noticed that when your friends tell you about conflict with co-workers or lovers, you almost always feel like they got wronged? What are the odds, really? Seeing ourselves and our tribe as innocent victims draws sympathy and support, and it protects self- esteem.

But at a price.

Because when we cultivate the sense that we have been wronged, we can’t see the wrong that we ourselves are doing. We also give up our power to make things better. If people keep being mean to us through no fault of our own, then we’re helpless as well as victims, at least in our own minds. You can’t fix what you can’t see.

In the case of Christianity, the theology of persecution serves to give the faithful hope. It inspires persistence in the face of hardship, including the many hardships that life brings on all of us through no fault of our own. But it has also blinded generations of believers to the possibility that sometimes the hardships they face are due not to their faith or evildoers hating Jesus, but to the fact that they hit first. And sometimes the bewildering hostility they perceive may simply be something that the theology of persecution set them up to expect, whether it is there or not. 

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Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com

Related:
Hey, Christians. Don’t Be Evil!

Dr. Valerie Tarico is a psychologist with a passion for personal and social evolution.  In 2005, she co-founded the Progress Alliance of Washington, a collective of future-oriented donors investing in progressive change.




COMMENTS

Agree with all of this, but I think there’s another factor at work as well, namely fear of knowledge. To maintain an Evangelical worldview requires one to filter evidence and remain unaware of its internal contradictions and conflict with reality. Any information - including reasoned argument - that threatens this delicate balance is to be feared. And with such information becoming ever more readily available via the Internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. No wonder they feel persecuted.

To expand on Peter’s comment a little, I think that the right wing church in American has a problem distinguishing between persecution and the the loss of privilege. For a couple of centuries, Christianity has enjoyed the privilege of being the primary religion of the US. In spite of the separation of Church and State, Christianity was assumed to be the faith of the nation. Now they aren’t. They’ve lost their privileged status. Society has relegated Christianity whether right or left or whatever to the margins. Most people are most interested in the latest Apple product than in what the churches say.
So Christmas becomes a secular holiday and people complain of a ‘war on Christmas’ and get mad about ‘Happy Holidays’. They don’t complain about a ‘war on Hanukkah’ or a ‘war on Ramadan’ because they were never assumed to be public holidays. Loss of privilege. I could go on, but you get the picture.

That isn’t to say that there are not Christians who are persecuted. Those being driven out by ISIS, others under threat from other Islamist regimes. China occasionally cracks down on Christians, but those are places and times when you might die for being Christian, not just be told that you can no longer post your favourite propaganda in public spaces.

On the other side of Peter’s suggestion. Evangelicals (along with others of very set mind) just ignore anything they don’t like in the way of information or fact. It isn’t factual challenge that upsets them, it is the loss of a cultural assumption that they are more important than the Muslim down the street. It is impossible to change a fixed mind with facts and argument.

What does happen is that they take that information and use it as further proof of their ‘persecution’ which keeps them from examining their privilege.

I’m sure you’re right that loss of privilege is also an issue, Alex, and that their cries of ‘persecution’ are partly a response to that.

I would take some issue with the statement, “It is impossible to change a fixed mind with facts and argument,” though. Is any mind really that “fixed”? Are facts and arguments really THAT powerless? Whether during a discussion about religion or some completely different context, I think we have had the experience of saying something that our interlocutor just didn’t want to hear. While some may find that discouraging, I take it as evidence that the message has, at least to a degree, started to get through. If it is really important to me to pass the message, I persist. If not, I let it go. Respect is important, of course, so one needs to have a good reason, and the psychological obstacles can indeed be formidable. But ‘formidable’ doesn’t have to mean ‘insurmountable’.

I guess I think this is important because on this one planet that we all share what each of us believe really does have an important on everyone else. So we need to be wary of limiting beliefs about the extent to which minds can indeed be changed. I do agree that facts and argument have their limitations, but they are also by far the noblest form of persuasion. The trick is to know which facts and arguments to deploy. Rule number one, I guess, is that you have to be talking about something the person you are talking to actually cares about. It may not always be the thing you thought you were discussing.

I didn’t say that minds couldn’t be changed, just that they aren’t commonly changed by facts. This is not just opinion, but has been studied broadly. Perceptual bias means we see the world the way we see the world. Things that don’t fit are ignored or rejected. Now, a person who is mindful of their bias and works against it will shift opinions based on new facts. Research also suggests that we have two kinds of beliefs, the ones that are accessible to argument and those that are ‘sacred’ and will be held regardless of evidence to the contrary.

The way to change a person’s mind is not through argument but through relationship.

I’m interested in the “two kinds of beliefs” point. That sounds a bit too black-and-white to me, I suspect it’s more of a spectrum.

Re argument vs relationship, yes and no. Take the most sacred belief someone has. To get them to change that belief you are going to need to show them that something even more sacred depends on them changing that belief. Now obviously your relationship with that person is important, for various reasons: how much attention they are paying to what you say, how “sacred” the relationship is to them and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve it, and whether you know that person well enough to know what they do find sacred. But it’s not only about relationship. You can be very close to someone and fail to convince, or you can have a superficial relationship and be very convincing (as marketing departments know the world over). It’s also a question of technique.

The two kinds of belief comes from a neuro-psychology study on where people store belief in the brain. They found that some beliefs were stored in a different location if they were ‘sacred’ and were fundamentally less likely to shift.

I’m not talking about relationship as a tool to convince, but just that relationship changes people even if there is no argument.

Alex, how is “The way to change a person’s mind is not through argument but through relationship” not talking about relationship as a tool to convince?

The neuropsychology study is interesting, though, would be interested to know more about that.

Relationship isn’t a tool. It’s a relationship and it has reality outside of whatever argument is going on. It should also be bigger than that argument.

The example of the rabid anti-gay person changing their belief when they meet a real gay and they aren’t horrible is a truism. But it only works if the relationship they form is larger than the issue between them. If the only purpose of meeting is to change belief, it won’t likely happen.

Of course I agree about the importance of relationships going well beyond their effectiveness in convincing people of things. To me that’s so obvious as to be hardly worth stating. My point was rather that if we do want to convince someone of something, the extent to which one has a close relationship with that person is only one of the factors that determines how successful one is likely to be.

Actually this discussion is itself an illustration of the kind of thing we are talking about. I thought we were talking about one thing, but then it became clear that you were more interested in talking about how relationships change people. Of course, we are just having a casual on-line discussion and really don’t need to convince each other of anything, but still, it’s interesting to see how quickly one finds one is talking at cross-purposes!

That said, I do detect an element of wishful thinking in your claim that changing belief is unlikely to happen if that is the only purpose of a meeting. I really do think it depends on technique. It would be nice if exploitative marketing didn’t work, but it does, and I think it’s better to accept that than brush it under the carpet.

Put it this way: if I want to build a relationship, I try to build a relationship. If I want to convince someone of something, I use whatever techniques seem to work best (and are compatible with my values) to convince them. Part of my point, in any case, is that we are all “related” to each other in the sense that we share the same planet. And that’s why it can be important to convince people of things, even if they’d rather not be convinced.

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