I would like to muse about and opine regarding the question of why American Christians suffer so little persecution while people in other nations today pay with their lives for their Christian confession. But before I speculate on this matter, I would like to retreat into the past and glance briefly at an episode in the life and ministry of the apostle Paul:
“And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: ‘Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.’ Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions” (Acts 19:23–29).
In first-century Ephesus, it was a dangerous business to be a travel companion of Paul. And it seems that being closely linked to Paul and to his Master has been a dangerous enterprise ever since.
If we look at the issues that sparked the riot in Ephesus, we see two major points of conflict. The first was economic; the second, theological. Demetrius and his cohorts were threatened economically because their livelihood depended upon revenues gleaned from the sin of idolatry. If the mission of Paul succeeded, they would be put out of business. The theological issue was the status of pagan religion in the face of the bold claims of the apostles. Paul preached that there was only one true God and one true Messiah. All other religions were exposed as false, pagan, and idolatrous. This claim to exclusive truth provoked sharp conflict with the pagan world, which resulted in the martyrdom of multitudes of Christians. Why do such things not happen to Americans?
One factor is obvious. The United States was founded by refugees from religious persecution. They desired to create a nation that would be a haven for religious liberty. It was not by accident that the very first amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the free exercise of religion. Since its inception, this nation has taken such a strong stand on behalf of religious liberty that we still enjoy the benefits of that legacy. It may be, however, that we are living on borrowed capital, inasmuch as this country’s commitment to the free exercise of religion wanes almost daily. The erosion of this freedom is subtle at times, but it is nevertheless real.
In New England, the same community structure is evident in almost every town. At the very center of the town we see a church (or churches). In our day, more and more communities are developed with no room permitted for the erection of churches. By the fiat of zoning regulations, churches are moved “outside” the boundaries of community life. We may still attend church, but the church is no longer permitted to be in the center of our communities.
In the United States, we are still “free” to exercise our faith, but the arena of that exercise is more and more limited to a “reservation.” The unspoken rule is that we must not exercise our faith in the public square. For instance, Franklin Graham was asked to pray in a public meeting, but was excoriated when he dared to pray in the name of Christ. (He broke one of the unspoken rules.)
Still, there remains some constitutional restraint on those who would persecute Christians for their faith. The restraint is there, but it grows more tenuous by the hour.
In addition to our legal protection, we must also face the decline in passion for the cause of Christ by the modern church. Perhaps we have too much to lose by declaring the uniqueness of Christ. When a Christian wanders off the reservation and emulates the message of the apostles, he meets fierce opposition. Sadly, much of the opposition comes from the Christian community itself. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Washington, D.C., “Your friends are those who stab you in the chest.” But when a Christian leaves the reservation, he is usually shot in the back by his own people, who don’t want to be hurt if opposition is stirred up.
Avoidance of conflict is a frequent goal of the contemporary church. I discovered this when I published a book on abortion and produced a video series on it for churches. Of some 60 books I have published, the one that had the shortest tenure before going out of print was Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue. The video series continues to collect dust. When we inquired of churches why they weren’t interested in the series, we received the same response time and again: “This might divide the congregation.” Who dares to declare in this age that the “pro-choice” position is not only incorrect, but manifestly evil?
America is the place of baseball, Chevrolet, and apple pie. At least it was. Now it seems it is baseball, Chevrolet, and pornography. According to a recent report from the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, Hughes Electronics, which owns DirecTV, is the largest distributor of pornography via satellite in America, with 10.9 million households. (General Motors, the parent company of Hughes Electronics, recently announced plans to sell the business after much pleading by the coalition.) Likewise, Comcast is the largest distributor of pornography via cable, with more than 21 million households.
Such companies are the “silversmiths” of our day. If the church united in its resistance against these corporate giants, I wonder how long we would be asking why we weren’t being persecuted?
As long as we compromise the Gospel and seek the safety of the reservation, we have little to fear from the pagan culture that surrounds us. If we become clear with the Gospel, then things will change and we will take our place as companions of the apostle Paul.