christian persecution complex
I laughed when I read this in the Daily Beast this week:
The tendency of some religious conservatives to see themselves as a political minority under siege has even been given its own cheeky moniker, Christian Persecution Complex.
As if it’s been added to the DSM. It hasn’t. But it is defined in Urban Dictionary, so, you know, it must be real.
That said, the tendency of Christian conservatives to believe that they are under siege, are being lied to, are the victims of a conspiracy against them, cannot be denied. A writer who went to a midnight showing of Undefeated and blogged about the theater being empty has since been accused of privately hiring the theater out, in collaboration with AMC, in order to stage the event and falsely report on it. That is seriously insane. I really can’t imagine why that one theater at that one showing that one night not being empty is that important to people, but apparently it is, because their reaction to any further evidence that a) it really was empty and b) it really doesn’t matter is to accuse the writer of being a sex offender.
One of the things I think people sometimes miss here is the extent to which the belief that Christians are victims is taught and affirmed by the Christian community, the way it is ingrained. Growing up, I spent my summers at a fundamentalist Christian camp. My mom says when she decided to send me she didn’t realize what it was, that their materials just said “non-denominational.” My mom grew up going to and loving Methodist youth camps and assumed this would be along those lines. It wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. I begged to be sent back every year. I loved the lake, and the water skiing, and the canoeing and the tree house and being with my best friends and I loved the worship. But every year I came home irate that my mother had never explained to me that my Jewish friends were going to hell or that God’s perfect plan apparently includes a lot of really bad stuff.
My mom was a rock star. She took me to the library (where I loved to go) and got me a book for kids about the world’s five major religions. She explained that actually lots of different people believe lots of different things and that the Bible had been created over hundreds of years by a variety of Catholic men and not, in fact, dictated straight into the brains of Moses and Paul. Every year I eventually felt better, and all I remembered from camp was the water skiing, the canoeing, the tree house, my best friends, and the music of the campfire worships. And every year I begged to be sent back.
Every year we played a game that I particularly loved. It involved being out around the camp after dark, in fact after the usual bedtime, making it a very special night indeed. It involved hiding and whispering and water guns and water balloons and getting captured on your way to a hidden location. It was absolutely fantastic.
It was called Gestapo. The counselors explained that they would be playing the part of policemen looking to arrest Christians who were on their way to worship at a secret church. If caught, they would ask if you were a Christian, and you would either have to admit it and be caught or lie and get away.
I don’t remember the exact moment when, a little later in life, I learned what the Gestapo really was. And I don’t remember the moment when I connected that knowledge to the memory of my favorite camp game. That’s probably because it makes me feel kind of nauseous even to think about it, to remember the actual physical experience of it, and how much I enjoyed it. But I know what it taught us about the way the world sees Christians: that persecution is a curse, but a blessing as well. A sign that you are righteous. It can even be fun.
(I don’t know why they didn’t just make it Rome. Even if they had, it turns out that once Rome became Christian it was much more interested in prosecuting pagans than pagan Rome had ever been in punishing Christians. But at least that would have made sense. And would not have so appallingly misused historically real persecution to create the mistaken impression on very young people that Christians were really the ones who had it hard with that one.)
My road away from that form of Evangelical Christianity and back to something more like my mother’s Methodism has a lot more turns in it, and a lot more long-delayed “ahas.” But my sense that I was not, as a white, upper-middle class woman living in a developed country and a democracy, actually among those afflicted in every way, was certainly part of it. I do know that if my reward in heaven is based on how much I’ve been persecuted for righteousness, I’m gonna be pretty low in the heaven hierarchy. And I do think I have occasionally managed to be righteous.
I remember when Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ opened hearing a priest talk about how misplaced modern Christianity’s emphasis on suffering is. This aspect of Christ’s story, he said, was elevated to prominence during the Middle Ages when people were genuinely, in a bodily way, suffering as a matter of course (of plague, poverty, pillaging, etc.). When there were no cures for disease, he said, the idea that your suffering brings you closer to Christ made sense. Today, here, now, it doesn’t.
I’m sure some cultural, historical circumstance has made these Christian conservatives in this country at this time need this belief in their persecution to make sense of their particular experience of the world. I don’t know where it comes from, but I know this and the connected pride in it is something that Evangelical Christians are taught, in many cases in the most persuasive way possible – experientially.