Why is persecution of Christians on the rise?
Just by looking at the news for this past week, you can see the rise of overt hostility toward Christianity. Consider these headlines:
- Statue defaced at Immaculate Conception basilica in DC
- Mexican clerics convicted for statements on marriage, human life
- Australian archbishop raps new restrictions on freedoms of religious institutions
- Supreme Court skeptical of Maine law barring state funds for religious schools
- Hindu nationalists attack Catholic school in India
- Nuns, deacons arrested in Ethiopia
- Hate crimes against Christians on the rise in Europe, report finds
I’m sure you get the picture. You probably were already familiar with it. But what are the underlying causes?
In some cases over the centuries, hostility toward Christians has arisen because of popular loyalty to false gods or—as we know from the riot of the silversmiths in Ephesus recounted in Acts 19—simply because of the financial advantages of promoting pagan worship. More often, of course, the root cause of Christian persecution has been Christian witness to the moral life. This cause is heavily accentuated in secular societies, and there is an important sense in which all pagan societies have been deeply secular because they do not worship a God who deifies through grace and cares about how we behave morally.
Pagan religions focus on rituals which are supposed to appease morally capricious gods. There is no question of becoming more like God. There is no focus on conversion of life. There is little or no interest in any transformative ultimate beatitude—nothing that goes beyond vague after-life myths. Christians are abhorred by pagans because they reject these “gods” as manifestations of the Devil, and to the pagans this lack of respect seems likely to incur divine wrath, threatening safety and prosperity here on earth. But above all, Christians are abhorred because they bear witness against immorality. Christians cannot avoid rejecting pagan lifestyles, reminding their neighbors that this way of life is in many ways both naturally and supernaturally unworthy of their human nature.
While philosophical “religions” such as Confucianism and Buddhism, which are natural religions insofar as they are religions at all, may prompt little hostility to Christianity, they may also prompt little interest in it. Hinduism is a strange case; I would classify it as an essentially pagan religion, replete with an absurdly repulsive mythology, but it is still very widely embraced in the Indian subcontinent, and so it is not surprising to see Hindus constantly attacking Christians. Islam, of course, is a separate case. It has some elements borrowed from Judaism and Christianity (such as monotheism, a moral code, and a strong sense of an afterlife) and some elements clearly borrowed from paganism (such as sensual notions of beatitude). Unfortunately its warlike doctrines and hostility to Christianity find plenty of support in both its founder and the Qur’an.
But in today’s secular societies, it is self-evident that the most important source of the hostility of other religious and ideological groups to Judaism and Christianity is found in the counter-witness of the Judeo-Christian tradition against the immorality and/or thirst for worldly superiority which characterizes the pagan and atheistic outlook on life. This hostility reaches its height when directed against the Catholic Church, which even in its weakness serves as a frustratingly enduring institutional witness to the truth about God and man. The one thing for which Christians have been almost universally denounced is their refusal to place their highest priority on this world and the pleasures of this world. As a direct result, along with the Jews who preceded them, they are blamed—they become the scapegoats—for every social, economic and political failure.
This scapegoating arises directly from the nature of human guilt. When you consider that Catholicism stands alone in the Judeo-Christian tradition as having an immense structure, complete with its own cohesive governance, and a clear history of witness which shaped so much of the world as we know it today, it is no wonder that contemporary men and women are driven to distraction and fury by contemporary Christian witness just as they are seeking to return to pagan ways of life. In other words, exactly like the pagan Romans in their day, modern secularists are constantly seeking to eliminate the counter-witness of Christianity no matter what the cost. In this they are driven psychologically, without any possible doubt, by a blinding weight of guilt and denial.
Fairness demands that we recognize Christian scandal as an ancillary motive. Not only has the general scandal of Christian division vastly reduced the effectiveness of Christian witness over the past five hundred years, but there can be no question that the disgust over child sexual abuse has fostered further contempt for the Church and her clergy. In one sense this is irrational, because the problem is not peculiar to the Church—and not even as widespread in the Church as in the larger society. But if someone argues that the Church ought to hold herself to a higher standard, Catholics can hardly protest.
Still, this is not only a matter of moral high ground. Any scandal provides additional reasons to diminish the Church and to rob the faithful of their ecclesiastical wealth, and so further reduce the effectiveness of the Church’s counter-witness against modern pagan lifestyles. As the Church cannot at one and the same time be herself and avoid a continuing witness against the paganism she finds all around her (and even among her own members), the Church will always be a scapegoat for those who despise her mostly because they must, as a matter of interior comfort, close their ears to moral commitments which extend beyond the demands of the general culture of which they are a part.
Nor should it be astonishing to us that the Church is the most loudly denounced of all institutions when it comes to condemning those in the past who did not already adhere to today’s most fashionable causes. For example, Catholic leaders, like nearly everyone else in the West, once had a different view of how best to integrate native peoples into the new dominant culture. In the very effort to mitigate the horrors of cultural displacement, from St. Junipero Serra onward the Church sought to do her best to shelter and protect native peoples from the contemptuous, roughshod coercions of the secular governments. Sometimes she did this badly and sometimes well. But a secular culture will always condemn the efforts of the Church, not only for her failures but for her successes in past years, as the cultural calculus continuously changes.
It is not always ludicrous, this criticism, but it is often so, and indeed often diabolical. Each shift in public opinion is used to condemn the ministry of the Catholic Church—from the point of view of those who refuse the Church’s offer of spiritual and moral transformation. Piling on for very complex past decisions as soon as sentiment shifts: This is how the moral high ground is most easily seized by those who prefer condemning the Church to acknowledging any human error or deficiency in themselves.
Assaults, political restrictions, destruction of property, exclusion from schools and universities—all these are inevitable in cultures which have a vested and highly personal interest in muting the Christian message. For regardless of all the Church’s failings, and those of her members, the more fundamental truth remains that “every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (Jn 3:20). This alone is sufficient to explain the overt hostility of every other religion, of every ideology, and of every sinner who is still attempting to protect his vices. Or to quote in full:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. [Jn 3:16-21]
Trouble in this world
Lately I have been fond of quoting John 16:33, where Our Lord says: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” One of the most stunning things about Christianity is that Christians so seldom persecute those of other religions, so seldom engage in mob violence against them, so seldom seek to deprive them of their rights, so seldom try to force them to accept Christ. To the Church, of course, a forced acceptance is meaningless, and so she has never countenanced any of this. The long history of Catholic mission work knows nothing of it, and the wayward Catholics who have engaged in such violence are few and far between.
If you doubt this, go ahead and seek out any Catholic brutalization which even remotely compares with the Roman martyrdoms of the early centuries, the Islamic warfare from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries, or the ideological massacres of more recent centuries both in East and West. Here I am speaking of the massive Christian martyrdoms in China, Japan and elsewhere in the Far East; and, most notably for many of my readers, the wholesale ecclesiastical dispossessions, martyrdoms and massacres of those great modern secular movements for human progress—the French Revolution, Nazism, and Communism.
We must remember that those who do evil hate the light, even to the point of applying this expression of Jesus Christ to our own weaknesses. This psychological fact is one of the biggest problems of being human, and by far the biggest problem when it comes to hostility to the Catholic Church. It is a problem augmented and exacerbated by our own sins. Illogical as it may be, Catholics especially will be condemned not only for following the Church’s moral teachings but for failing to live up to them. To take the most egregious current example, the Church will be condemned at one and the same time for her teachings on sexual morality and for the failure of some of her ministers to abide by these teachings. Such hatred, once we understand its source, is as understandable as it is inescapable.
And by the way, have you noticed that overt hostility to Christians is steadily increasing as modern culture becomes more and more self-professedly “open minded”? Today the definition of close-mindedness, of course, is adherence to the truth. I emphasize that this is not necessarily a fully conscious progression. But trust Our Lord on this one, and pray even harder: Because those who have committed themselves to evil really do hate the light. And without Christ’s mercy and our own, it can even scare them to death.
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