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christian persecution complex

July 18, 2011

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott permalink
    July 19, 2011 3:07 pm

    Interesting topic. While I don’t get a chance to comment on your post very often, I have a couple of thoughts that might be of value.

    I don’t believe that Christians is in this country have ever faced “real” persecution, and I (being a Christian conservative as you know) do not feel directly persecuted for my faith in anyway. I somewhat agree, though, that there is an element among evangelicals that pushes the idea that American Christians are being persecuted by today’s culture and, of course, some governmental institutions. And I agree that some seem to think that suffering earns them a special place in Heaven. Thankfully, I don’t see this as the norm within the Christian community.

    The real question for me is “am I living a life that is truly Christ-like?” If I am, given the changing culture we live in, chances are I will rub some folks the wrong way. As a result of that, if I suffer some inconvenience or ridicule so be it. My reward in Heaven will be based on me following Christ, not the suffering that might come as a result of it.

    I have more to say, but I am late for dinner.


    • July 19, 2011 4:23 pm

      So glad to hear you say these things! I mainly think it’s really sad that some people are devoting so much energy to fighting conspiracies that don’t exist, and that they are refusing to trust education and history and other people to such an extreme degree. Surely it’s much more Christ-like to assume the best of people. It certainly produces much less anxiety, hate, and fear. I’m very glad to hear that it’s not the norm in your community and hope to hear more Christians like you talk more about what they really believe (course that’s not as appealing to the media, so it doesn’t get much coverage, does it?).

  2. Kerri permalink
    July 19, 2011 6:50 pm

    Good points indeed. And of course, what that guy Scott said…love it. I’d like to get to know him better! I’ll only say one thing….about that “fundamental Christian camp” you attended. It breaks my heart to know that you only took away the canoeing and skiing and singing. I didn’t know you felt so confused after those years at camp. Would have enjoyed some conversations with you back then about that. While no camp or church or person is perfect of course, I believe that that camp’s main function was to teach the Bible (and have fun while doing it!). The Bible is so much more than what you’re giving it credit for. I challenge you to look more into that Book. (contrary to what others might say, it is by no means a collection of good ideas from a variety of Catholic men). Research how the Bible came to be…the true canonization of it. It’s good stuff. The Bible isn’t just a neat book of stories teaching nice morals and ideals; it is the living and breathing Word of God. And I truly believe the Bible is either 100% correct or 0% correct. There’s no picking and choosing as to what might be true or what might not be. What sounds good or what might be difficult to hear. Is it sad that some people will go to hell? Absolutely. Is that hard to hear? Absolutely. But is it the truth? Absolutely. Christ talks about hell quite often. And He came to this earth in order for people to be saved and not go to that place. But, it’s a fact nonetheless. And hopefully, that’s the point of being evangelical Christians…to share the HOPE that Christ freely offers to all who believe in Him.

    Btw, several years later, that camp changed that game and renamed it. A Jewish camper was offended, and that camp apologized and changed the name and specifics of that game.


    • July 19, 2011 7:29 pm

      Don’t worry – I didn’t say it’s the only thing I took away from it. Just that it was the thing that, as a kid, kept bringing me back. And remember true is very different than literal. Something written by a whole bunch of different people over many years can actually still be true. So can metaphor.

  3. July 31, 2011 2:32 pm

    Persecution Paradox (Christian Persecuation Complex)

    The ” Christian persecution paradox” refers to the phenomenon whereby the more arguments you wage against a Christian that their actions are wrong or even un-Christian, the more convinced Christians are that their actions are correct and Biblical.

    ‎”And you shall be hated by all men for my name’s sake (Mathew 24:9).”

    This verse is the main problem. If a Christian does anything in the name of their religion and people react negatively to it, they take it as prophetic proof that they are true Christians. If you protest soldiers funerals in the name of God and people protest you, well, this proves you are a true Christian because you are being “persecuted”. If you bomb an abortion clinic, if you violate the establishment clause, if you talk poorly about Jews, and people react negatively, then it’s proof you’re a true Christian. I bet if some Christian slept with goats and the rancher who owned them got mad, the Christian who slept with goats would say that the rancher’s anger is prophetic evidence that the Christian was doing the Lord’s work.

  4. August 1, 2011 3:28 am

    Thanks for this post. Similar to you, my non-practising Presbyterian parents sent me to an evangelical camp not realizing what it was. I loved all the things you loved about yours: the boating and swimming, the sense of community, and the bible study.

    We played a similar game every Friday night but it was “Romans and Christians,” rather than Gestapo. I was absolutely terrified by the game. We played it at dusk and the task was to get to a campsite about an hour walk away through the woods. The camp counselors gave us a ten minute head-start then starting to pursue us. If you were caught, they locked you into the boat shed. The only way to get out was to try to convert the ‘Roman guard’ at the entrance. The ‘guard’ would release those campers who were better evangelizers. I wasn’t a very committed evangelical, so I ended up one of the last campers locked in the shed, getting increasingly panicked as it got darker.

    When I got home and told my parents about Romans and Christians, they forbid me to go back and if I recall wrote a letter of complaint to the camp. What I took away from the experience was not so much that Christians were persecuted, the point of the game, but the trauma of being persecuted by Christians.

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