Christians seem most comfortable in one of two situations. We prefer either to be the persecuted, or the powerful.
Jesus said we are “blessed” when persecuted. That’s how they treated the prophets, he said. Great will be your reward in heaven. To be persecuted is a guarantor of two perks. First, it means you are associated with ‘the good guys’. Second, there is that assurance of the eternal reward.
Our Scriptures also tell us – or so many have believed – that Christians are the powerful ones. We have “dominion” over the world, according to Genesis. But more importantly, we have power over disease … and the weather. In fact, we can ask for anything in the name of Jesus, and we get it. So the Bible says.
Being persecuted is OK; being powerful is better.
There is a third category of “being” we are much less comfortable with – the category of the ordinary. Not the persecuted ones, and not the powerful ones – just … well, just like anybody else. So uncomfortable are many Christians with this category of the “ordinary”, and so unfamiliar with it, that it can feel like persecution.
As I hear people speak about how antagonistic the culture in Burlington, VT is toward Christians, it has given me pause. Have we confused the loss of our “privilege” with persecution? No one has threatened my life because I am a United Methodist Christian. I’ve received no anonymous phone calls or letters.
Churches – Catholic and Protestant – have lost some of their luster over the past 40 or 50 years. And we have a number of new “Church Plants” in town. With no malice toward the conviction or commitment in evidence in these new churches, there does often seem to be an air of triumphalism to them – a sense of knowing exactly what Burlington needs and exactly how to deliver it. Fueled mostly by younger folk – many of whom are not native to the city – this wave of new churches has a current to them that speaks to a desire to return to the good ole days when Jesus was Lord, even if only in a figure-head sort of way.
With traditional churches going out with the tide or new churches hitting the cultural shores hard, we all are swimming against the current. The “new normal” is an eclectic hodgepodge of traditions and spirituality. Religion is being reconstituted in what feels to many like an intensely secular context.
Christians aren’t persecuted here. But … yes, the “Christian Privilege” is being challenged, and that is uncomfortable.
In 2001, Diana Eck published a book called A New Religious America. Dr. Eck is from solid Methodist stock coming right out of America’s heartland. She reflects on the motto emblazed on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum – “From Many, One.” Originally, she notes, this referred to the Thirteen Colonies – symbolized by the thirteen vertical stripes. As immigration boomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the motto took on a different meaning. More and more people came from Sweden and Italy, from Ireland and Poland. The E Pluribus Unum stories were all about how these different folk melted into and were molded by the land to which they had come.
It is different today, writes Dr. Eck. “Today our cultural differences are magnified with the new immigration. It’s not just Swedes and Italians, Lutherans and Catholics. It’s Russian and Iranian Jews, Pakistani and Bengali Muslims, Trinidadi and Gujarati Hindus, Punjabi Sikhs and Sindhi Jains.” Put another way – We are not in Kansas anymore.
Christianity is going to have to learn to live absent the privilege – that is, with much less power. It is also going to have to be careful not to cry “Wolf”. When people who aren’t being persecuted claim that they are, their complaining quickly sounds like what it actually is: whining.
“Religion,” wrote Raimundo Panikkar, “is not an experiment; it is an experience of life through which one is part of the cosmic adventure.” Such experiences come with risks attached. I don’t think Jesus ever intended for his followers to assume they were the only ones on the adventure (see the Tuesdevo for May 12).
We’ve got company on this “cosmic adventure”. They aren’t persecuting us; nor are they affording us any particular privilege. They are willing to learn from us, assuming that we are just as willing to learn from them.
 Matthew 5:11-12.
 Genesis 1:28.
 John 14:12-14