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Fulcrums (5) – Good People Are Always Persecuted

It may be thou knowest not of the banishment of Anaxagoras, of the poison draught of Socrates, nor of Zeno’s torturing, because these things happened in a distant country; yet mightest thou have learnt the fate of Arrius, of Seneca, of Soranus, whose stories are neither old nor unknown to fame.  These men were brought to destruction for no other reason than that, settled as they were in my principles, their lives were a manifest contrast to the ways of the wicked.  So there is nothing thou shouldst wonder at, if on the seas of life we are tossed by storm-blasts, seeing that we have made it our cheifest aim to refuse compliance with evildoers.     -Boethius

There is an all-pervasive story that we collectively tell ourselves and our children: if you make good choices things will go well for you. There are good reasons to say this. We want to motivate our children to make good choices and we want to believe that the world is fair. What is more, it is often true that those who make good choices reap the rewards! Consider the Book of Proverbs: there are natural consequences for wisdom and folly alike.

And yet, this isn’t the whole story. The quote at the beginning of this message is from The Consolation of Philosophy, a book our students read. In this work the author, Boethius, struggles with the fact that he is unjustly imprisoned and is going to be murdered by the king (which in fact he was). In his distress Lady Philosophy reasons with him. She says, in effect, don’t you realize that good people always suffer? Christ likewise said the same, “No servant is above his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

So while it is true that there are rewards for doing what is good and right and consequences for doing what is bad and wrong, if that is all we teach our children they will not be prepared when they make good choices and do what is right and still suffer.

Besides telling them this general truth I think it is helpful to show them the various ways in which they may be persecuted (for if they think of persecution only in terms of extreme violence they will likely not be prepared for the persecution they will encounter). I am indebted to my pastor, Nic Gibson, for what comes next. According to Pastor Gibson, we can think of persecution happening on four different levels.

  1. Exclusion. On this level people are kept out of social circles and friendships. It is often informal and done by individuals or small groups of people. There are a number of reasons a Christian might be excluded: refusing to accept non-Biblical definitions of gender, refusing to engage in non-Biblical dating practices, refusing to gossip, refusing to watch certain shows or movies, etc. As adults, this probably doesn’t seem like much to us, but it is huge for teenagers. Developmentally teenagers are differentiating themselves from their parents—they are trying to figure out who they are, how they fit in, if they find a place in the world and earn the respect of others, etc. and to be cut off and left out for their faith is a very real form of persecution and frankly it may be shipwrecking the faith of more young people than overt, violent persecution.
  2. Caricature. On this level people are not only excluded, but they are reduced to certain characteristics or beliefs and actively mocked by some while others are encouraged to exclude them. This too is informal (e.g. there are no laws or policies that harm a group), but it is nonetheless powerful. An example of this might be a campaign against someone on cable news or social media. There may be no legal harm done to them, but it can destroy a person or group by encouraging others to exclude or harm them. A prominent example of this was when the CEO of Mozilla was forced to step down after it was revealed that he supported traditional marriage.  
  3. Systemic. On this level seemingly neutral policies or structures are put into place that harm or hold down one group of people. An example of this is the way Christians were (and are) treated in North Africa for centuries. Under Muslim rule they have not been killed outright, but they have been denied advancement and kept out of influential positions. Another example is Jim Crow voting laws that purported to treat all people equally, but in fact were designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. In our own age, it might be something like the gender/sexuality training that some companies and universities are requiring people to go through. While seemingly neutral, there are often assumptions baked into these trainings (that students or workers must agree and sign off on to continue their employment or studies) that flat out contradict Biblical teaching.
  4. Pillage. At this level a group is openly targeted and their goods are taken while they are subjected to violence. We saw this with Paul in the Bible and Christians in placed like the Soviet Union; we see it today in North Korea, a number of Islamic countries, and the Muslim Uyghurs in China.

If our children are going to live as faithful Christians in the United States they will undoubtedly experience the first two types of persecution. Based on current trends in our culture I *suspect* that they will increasingly experience the third. For what it is worth, I doubt we will see a lot of the fourth here and this isn’t because people are kinder or better than they have been in the past, but rather because I think people are more cowardly and passive today than in the past (they would rather tweet something than put on a brown shirt or red scarf and fight in the streets). 

While persecution is a sin and a great evil, Christ has and will give us what we need to overcome. We should be actively preparing our children to face persecution and hardship while we simultaneously pray that Christ will deliver us from the evil one.