It’s been an eventful few months in America’s so-called culture wars.
In Kentucky, citing her own religious convictions and personal opposition to same-sex marriage, a county clerk named Kim Davis has drawn international attention for the legal drama that ensued after she refused to issue marriage licenses.
Some Christian politicians in Oklahoma have vowed to fight a decision by the state’s Supreme Court to remove a large monument of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. The move came after the Satanic Temple said it intended to donate a massive statue of a goat-headed demonic deity to the state capitol if officials allowed the Ten Commandments to stay. (The Satanic Temple relented, though it now may be eyeing the Arkansas capitol for a new home.)
Schools disallowing religious displays, towns praying at public meetings, the retail “war on Christmas,” controversial TV shows and other intersections of faith and public life have been at the center of the the so-called culture “war on faith in America”.
Christianity—which just so happens to be the nation’s most overwhelmingly widespread religion—has always had an interesting place in American culture. Though religious freedom is a core American value, the separation of church and state is also a guiding legislative principle.
The role faith should play in public life is always going to be the subject of debate—especially in a culture that embraces religious and philosophical diversity. Ideological opposition, even heated disagreements, are inevitable in a free society. But public resistance to an idea isn’t the same as “persecution.”
When we start to take on the language of violence—“culture war,” “attacks on values,” “faith under siege”—to describe ideological differences that are actually relatively peaceful in practice, we not only overstate reality. We risk losing perspective on what real persecution looks like.
An “offensive” sitcom or the dissenting views of a celebrity do not constitute persecution, an “attack” on someone’s faith or a war on religion. They’re actually signs that we are privileged enough to live in a society where people are allowed to disagree without being subjected to actual violence and oppression.
In Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has waged a years-long campaign of violence, mass abductions, rapes and village raids against local communities. In many cases, they’ve targeted Christians, as well as more moderate Muslims. Schoolgirls who have been captured have been forced to convert to Islam before being made to become child brides and even suicide bombers.
In parts of the Middle East, where Christianity was first born, faith communities are being eradicated by ISIS and their radical brand of Islam. Even countless peaceful Muslims who do not maintain the same radical ideology of ISIS militants have come under attack.
Videos of public executions of Christians have been posted on the Internet to strike fear in the hearts of other believers. There have been reports of Christian aid workers being publicly beaten and even made to watch their own children being tortured in an effort to get them to renounce their faith, before being publicly crucified.
There have been some estimates that Christianity could be completely eradicated in Iraq—once home to more than 1 million Christ followers—in just the next five years.
This week, Christian churches in an area of Indonesia under Sharia law have been burned and destroyed.
In North Korea, people of faiths that the official government does not recognize face imprisonment and even death.
According to some estimates, global violence against Christians has never been higher.
A ‘Civil’ War
Persecution is real. There is literally a war taking place that is targeting Christians. There are Christians that are literally under attack.
But this isn’t what’s happening during sitcom punchlines, in court room decisions about a value issues or at grocery stores where clerks say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
This is not persecution, and to call it such is to lose perspective on the actual plight facing Christians in parts of the world who may actually die for their faith.
Jesus warned followers, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” And though we may encounter people who believe differently, maintain different values and have their own ideas about how involved the government should be in matters of faith, many American Christians won’t ever know first-hand what true hatred and persecution can look like.
Civil opposition or even public mockery isn’t persecution. Those are the types of things that show just how little religious persecution actually exists in modern American society. People are permitted to disagree without being killed. We’re allowed to speak our mind, to disagree, to worship, to pray and debate about how we think worship should take place.
There may be times when Christians feel like its necessary to take a religious matter to court or even exercise forms of protest. But evoking the language of war and violence is the exact opposite of the mindset we should have.
Real persecution and injustice should not be conflated with what happens when Family Guy makes an edgy joke about Jesus.
Paul reminds us that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
The fact is, many people in Western culture won’t be subjected to violence for their faith. We have a court system in place where we have the ability to civilly decide idealogical disagreements. And, we have a freedom of speech that allows us to vocally express our dissatisfaction when we disagree. We have a democratic system that allows us to vote for representatives that align with our thinking.
We have privileges that millions of Christians—and other groups living under oppression around the world—don’t have.
Many of us will never know what true persecution looks like. That’s why we must focus our attention, our love, our prayers and our activism on the real victims of injustice, instead of only “fighting battles” for freedom that we already have.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.