Friday, December 17, 2004

"So Persecuted They the Saints"

Where did the sense of Christian persecution come from, and why is it so important?

"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matt. 5:11

A sense of righteous persecution is laced through the Four Gospels like chocolate in a marble cake. Truly, the commitment to follow The Christ stood as open invitation to being flayed by the power structure of the time. The psychology of persecution is so ingrained in the Christian identity that, even when Christians account for a lopsided majority of the American public -- in Newsweek's "Birth of Jesus" holiday cover article, a poll found that 84% of American adults call themselves Christian, 82% see Jesus as the son of God, and 79% believe in the Virgin Birth -- the assumption of minority (& victim) status by Christians, supposedly persecuted by "mainstream American culture," is taken as a given by many evangelicals. Within the past year, for example, in Watauga County, a high school student wearing Old Testament quotes on a T-shirt was asked to remove it or be sent home. He went home, and he & his supporters howled that they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs, when what they were being reprimanded for was insulting gay students. School authorities were forced to apologize anyway.

In my hometown in West Texas, the biggest and the most elite church was First Baptist. Second in status was First Church of Christ, whose members were universally known as "Campbellites," even more conservative than the Baptists in that they didn't believe in any musical instruments. Third were the Methodists, those wonderfully accepting, easy-going Methodists, who not only believed in musical instruments but who held dances for high school students in their church basement. Way down that list of churches was the Assembly of God, the "pentecostals," to which me and my mother belonged. In terms of status, we were lowest on the totem pole. The biggest landowners were the Baptists, the Cambellites, and the Methodists. At our little church, we were mainly tenants on other men's farms, laborers, rough-necks, or more commonly the wives of rough-necks, since the husbands rarely darkened the church house door. If being holy-rollers carried a load of class stigma, we clung to it as evidence of our worthiness for the rewards of heaven: "So persecuted they the saints," my mother was fond of saying, warping for her purposes the actual text of Matthew Chapter 5. People did make fun of us. We knew it, and they knew we knew it. We chalked the derision up to our righteousness and their wickedness. Because when you can prove you're persecuted, even when you're not, you get to wear an embattled sense of self-congratulation: "For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. The righteous shall be preserved for ever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off."

I adored that promise. That the snobs in First Baptist Church would get theirs!

We talked endlessly at church about The Rapture, and I took a great deal of secret pleasure in that doctrine because I could pick out the outwardly Christian little Baptists whose behaviors in the schoolyard I knew qualified them for being left behind when me and my mom got taken away to be with Jesus. Such smugness can make you not only endure persecution. It can make you actively invite it.

So give me a break, dear Christian brethren, with your constant harping on how tough it is to be born again in this wicked, wicked America. You love being persecuted, or at least pretending that you are, for the sake of bragging rights. But seeing those beef-eater faces of millionaires like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, in their $300 suits, wrapping themselves in the cloak of outraged minority victimization because someone has protested a religious display on public property during Christmastime -- their smugness wafts off them like the smoke from burnt sacrifices. "I'm so persecuted, I could gloat!"

It's beginning to amount to bullying.

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