In recent days I have seen a circle drawn around the category of persecution that minimizes what some folk are going through. You’ll find that someone looks at Fox Book of Martyrs and defines “real” persecution as the things that those people had experienced. You don’t have to run too far down the Internet—do a search for “real persecution” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Indeed, in a recent sermon I myself have downplayed persecution in the west showing that we don’t really know what this feels like (yet). There is another side to this that I think is important to mention.
Merriam-Webster defines persecute as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief”. This harassment can be for any belief. This punishment can be in any form—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a beheading or a lion’s den.
What the folk above are doing is taking a taxicab that let’s them off at their stop (beheadings or gladiator fights or prison) but anything further isn’t persecution. Ignore what the individuals are going through, move right along.
The Bible also doesn’t limit persecution to imprisonment or death. Surely it lists persecution that culminates in death (Jeremiah 26:20-23; Acts 7:52) but it doesn’t have to end there. For instance, Jesus began to be persecuted long before he was crucified (John 5:16)—but what form did that persecution take?
The fact is that the Bible lists persecution as things that one can suffer and get through (1 Corinthians 4:12). It lists it as things that a person can sometimes live to talk about and, somehow, take pleasure in (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Examples of Persecution in the Bible
- Abraham’s descendants were persecuted in Egypt for being Hebrews. The boys, of a certain age, were thrown into the Nile, they were enslaved, and the labor rules were ridiculous (Exodus 1-3)
- Some persecution led to people having to leave their homes and scatter (Acts 8:1).
- Being pulled out of your home and arrested (Acts 8:3).
- Suffering “reproach”, which is verbal persecution (Jeremiah 15:15; Romans 15:3; Proverbs 17:5)
- Someone lying about you (Psalm 119:86)
- Being hated and rejected (Isaiah 53:3)
- Changing work practice (necessity of bowing to idols in Dan 3:1)
- Changing legal code (prayers now offered to the king Daniel 6:5-10)
- Strict orders against the belief (Acts 5:28)
- A flogging (Acts 5:40)
- Distressing societal norms (2 Peter 2:7)
What the Bible shows us is that when we humans employ diogmos, to harass or oppress or pursue, we are often incredibly creative. Making someone’s life a hell is much more satisfying when we can keep the target alive. Indeed, in some cases (like Lot’s) the target doesn’t necessarily have to be in the crosshairs. It could just be that folk are proudly reveling in their own depravity and persecute without even realizing it.
Reactions During Persecution
In some cases the persecuted cry out to God (Exodus 1) and in others they carry on their activity as they did the day before (Daniel 6). In some cases the entire culture around the persecuted changes resulting in them being the folk left standing (Daniel 3, Genesis 19) and in other cases they stand in direct opposition to the status quo resulting in their persecution (ie: Jesus). Sometimes the persecuted went to jail and sang in prison (Acts 16) and other times they invoked their civil rights (Acts 22:25) before the punishment was enacted. Sometimes the persecuted went silently to the slaughter and other times they openly cried out to God.
The persecution was a fact that varied in form. The reaction was just as varied, even with the call to consistently maintain faith in God who is even working out that persecution for the good of those who love Christ Jesus and thus ultimately a source for rejoicing.
Now, does that mean that every situation where someone says, “I’m being persecuted” is indeed a case of persecution? No. In some cases, it might just be victimology (to borrow a term). We might see the idea of being a victim, just as persecution, across multiple groups of people.
And yet, there are cases of legal action taken against a person for their beliefs, or a loss of job, or within academia, or being thrown into prison (instead of allowing a conscientious dissent), or business contracts being denied or, well whatever—like I said we’re creative—we shouldn’t be so hasty so as to dismiss the pain or ignore the reality of the persecution. You can see some other modern examples in the book by DA Carson on intolerance.
Yes, the persecution has not succeeded to the ultimate level of death, but that chain of suffering that culminates in death has to start somewhere. Perhaps, in a civil society, it has to start further back before getting much worst.