Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is persecution?

Over the past week, I have had to address this issue repeatedly in response to world events and comments to blogs that I have made recently. I really rather enjoy this kind of intellectual exercise as it helps to sharpen our focus here at The Voice of the Martyrs.

A helpful place to begin when trying to define persecution is to see how the term is used in the Scriptures themselves. The Greek and Hebrew words often translated as "persecute" typically carry a sense of serious violence, aggression and hostility or the threat of such. There is an intent to injure and is carried out in a hostile, antagonistic spirit. In such passages as Jer.29:18 and Ps. 71:11-13 to “persecute” carries with it the idea of "to follow after or pursue." The Greek word dioko and its derivatives used in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 5:12; Acts 22:4; 1 Thess. 2:15) has virtually the identical meaning of "pursuing or driving away." The term thilipis, means to "oppress or afflict" (Matt. 24: 9; Acts 3:14; 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10).

Word studies, however, serve best as a basis for further study rather than as the foundation for defining what persecution is.

A large part of the problem of defining persecution has to do with a common misunderstanding as what exactly it is. To many, persecution conjures up images of extreme violence, martyrdoms, imprisonments and torture. They think of what they imagine the early church went through or the church in the former Soviet Union. Immigrants to Canada think back to their own experience in their homeland and while they may have faced societal discrimination and the like, they took it in stride as everyone else did and saw it is just a part of life; unpleasant perhaps, maybe even annoying or slightly humiliating, but hardly persecution.

Two points need to be made:

First, it is worth remembering that persecution on a country-wide scale has been rare both now and throughout history. In most countries, violent persecution tends to be focused in specific, often remote, areas where religious tensions have been enflamed for one reason or another. Hence, believers in one city may never experience violence for their faith, while in another location Christians are being beaten and driven from their homes.

Second, persecution as a term needs to be understood in its biblical sense. Persecution in the Bible manifests itself within a broad spectrum ranging from mildly hostile to intensely hostile actions. These actions range from ridicule, restriction, certain kinds of harassment, or discrimination on one end of the spectrum to torture, imprisonment, ostracism, or killing on the other (see Matthew 6:11-12, Luke 6:22; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; James 1:2 and others.

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Persecution, hence, from a biblical perspective, must be understood to encompass actions spanning the full range of hostility whether they are violent, physical, psychological, or social. We cannot define persecution strictly on the basis of the level of harm it might cause or the level of hostility in which it occurs. To do so would be inconsistent with Scripture. The issue that missions like The Voice of the Martyrs must consider is at what point on this spectrum do we see our involvement as necessary?

To summarize, we need to see persecution as the Bible sees it, within a wide spectrum of hostility. It need not involve violence, although it may. This is not to say that all persecution should be treated as equally grievous. Nor is all persecution a violation of our basic rights as a human being. To be despised, hated, and ridiculed is not a violation of one's rights, as unpleasant and unjust as these things are.

Significantly, understanding persecution in a biblical sense helps to include the Western Christian's experience in what it means to follow Jesus. Understanding persecution as only including violent acts often leads us to conclude that Western Christians are never persecuted, only those in the two-thirds world. Understanding persecution to include a wider spectrum of hostility makes it obvious that even Western Christians can and will experience persecution if they faithfully follow Christ, even if it is of a milder degree. The biblical passages on persecution then can become more meaningful for us and we can properly apply them to our present situation. For example, the various biblical texts that speak of rewards to those who were faithful in the face of persecution may seem out of reach to us if we understand persecution primarily as suffering violence for Jesus. With little opportunity to suffer in this way, how are we to ever receive these rewards? Understanding persecution in a broader sense makes these promises more applicable to us and should motivate us to greater faithfulness to God in the midst of our own situation.

Such an understanding of persecution should do nothing to cheapen the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world. It should, however, help us to see the Body of Christ as one Body; not a Persecuted Church and a Free Church. We are all the Persecuted Church and our calling is to reach out and minister to those who are suffering violence and loss for Christ's sake since we are one Family. There is no need to prayer as to whether we should help our persecuted brothers and sisters. The question, if we are to be true to scripture, is not if we should help but how. If we are not suffering together, we are standing together with those who are suffering (Hebrews 10:32-34).

Hence, persecution might be best defined, from a scriptural perspective, as any unjust action of mild to intense levels of hostility, directed at Christians of varying levels of commitment, resulting in varying levels of harm, which may not necessarily prevent or limit these Christians’ ability to practice their faith or appropriately propagate their faith as it is considered from the victim’s perspective, each motivation having religion, namely the identification of its victims as “Christian,” as its primary motivator (see Charles Tieszen, “Towards redefining persecution” International Journal for Religious Freedom Vol 1:1 2008: 76). Ronald Boyd-MacMillan suggests a similar (though simpler) definition: Christian persecution is any hostility experienced from the world, as a result of one's identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitude, words, or actions (from Faith That Endures. Revell, 2006: 114).

These definitions highlight the fact that persecution typically arises because of a difference that comes from being a Christian that the persecutor will not tolerate. When faced with situations where is difficult to determine whether this is a situation of persecution or general suffering, it is often helpful to ask, "If a person had other religious beliefs or would change their religion to the majority religion of the country, would things get better for them? Is this persecution or group specifically suffering because they are Christians?" If the answer is "yes," then it seems that this would be a situation where persecution is taking place. If the answer is “no” and that they would be suffering regardless of what they believe in, then the situation is likely one where persecution is not taking place.


Michelle said...

This is a great post....thank you.....

Anonymous said...

What about 'christans"persecuting "christians"as happened inthe past and even in the present?

Glenn Penner said...

The same definitions would hold since true Christians do not persecute. And I mean that statement as plainly as I have stated it.

blueshawk said...

Another way of viewing persecution is looking at the spiritual response to it. 2 Corinthians 4:8,9 says, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." The response, apart from Christ, is to feel forsaken, alone in the world. Much like a Muslim convert to Christ in most Muslim countries, such a one is targeted by family, neighbors, police, and society, without legal or societal rights. To be in this world and not to have any standing, no place to feel secure, is a hard road to travel.

I find it helpful to view persecution as this sort of pursuit and targeting, as compared to afflictions and tribulations that the Lord leads us all into for our benefit, to an increased measure of Christ within.

Anonymous said...

Hi Glenn,

Thank you for this post. I just had an interview with a Christian newspaper, looking back on 2008. Your post helped me in answering questions like 'was persecution of Christians in 2008 more severe than in 2007?'.
Your spectrum is really helpful to understand the biblical use of the word 'persecution'.


Glenn Penner said...

Very welcome, Edwin. I am planning on integrating this into future edtions of my book on the theology of persecution... just as soon as I can get around to it. In the meantime, it will go into future seminars on the subject. I wish I had worked on this while I was still teaching at Oklahoma Wesleyan University

Joel M said...

Hi Glenn,

Thanks for the thoughts. I wonder if the concept of "religious persecution" is really a Biblical concept as much as it is an enlightenment concept. In our Western pluralistic understanding of religious persecution, being a Muslim woman prevented from wearing a hajib is no different than being a Christian being prevented from owning a Bible. Obviously, God doesn't see it that way since scripture doesn't seem to present such a plurality but a duality. There are either sheep or goats, following Yahweh or rejecting him, doing good or doing evil. Peter, obviously writing at a time of great persecution, seems to just make the distinction between suffering for doing good or suffering for doing evil (e.g. 1 Peter 3:13-17, 4:12-19). Despite the fact that Peter was painfully aware of being seen by his society as, at best, a radical breakaway sect, he never seems to put this in terms of "religious persecution". He just seems to follow the black and white duality of the Old Testament and Jesus before him. For example, Jesus, when persecuted, does not seem to appeal to an idea of religious persecution. In John 10:32, when the Jews want to stone him he says, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?"

In light of that, should we really see any difference between Christians persecuted for "religious" reasons and Christians persecuted for following God? For example, I don't see a significant difference between a Christian fired from his job because he won't lie for his employer and a Christian fired from his job because he just converted from Islam. In both cases our brother is suffering for following Jesus. Should we have any more sympathy or offer any more help for one than the other? On the flip side, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for attempting to kill Hitler, was no more persecuted for doing good than Benny Hinn will be if and when he finally gets punished for fraud.

I strongly agree with your advice to view ourselves as part of one Body. I think that is a central theme of the New Testament. Unfortunately, it is so widely ignored that there is probably no greater indictment of modern Western "Christianity" than the degree to which we ignore our suffering brother and sisters and willfully maintain the gross inequalities that exist for the sake of our own comfort. As far as I can see, the admonition that "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it" (1 Cor 12), applies equally to brothers and sisters caught in crushing poverty as it does to those killed for proclaiming Christ. Certainly there is something more glorious about suffering for serving Jesus than suffering simply because of which country or cast you were born into. However, from our perspective as Christians, the effect to our Body is the same.

Glenn Penner said...

I don't make a distinction between religious persecution and Christians persecuted for following God. I think you are seeing differences in my writing which do not exist. I think that this is quite clear from the context in which I use the term

I do think we should offer different levels of help to people for different kinds of persecution. Would you equate a common cold with cancer even though they are both diseases? Would you give them the same treatment? Of course, not.

I would encouurage you to do a little more reading about Bonhoeffer. His situation was a little more complicated than it is typically portrayed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Penner! Being a Western Christian, I have no torture wounds to show, no memories of physical attacks, not even any obscene insults thrown at me. To be honest, the opposition I've faced has been very sporadic at best. But still, I'm glad for my particular situation. It's nothing to be compared with Orissa, or the Middle East (or any other physically dangerous place)- but it does help me understand those deeply suffering members of my family. Better still, my tiny troubles make understand God even better.

Anders Branderud said...

Le-havdil (to differentiate (to distinguish between the above and the below),
It is important to comprehend the difference between the historical Ribi Yehoshua ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and the counterfeit image.
To follow the historical Messiah is not the same as following the counterfeit image.
A logical analysis (found in ( is the website of the only legitimate Netzarim-group)) of all extant source documents of the “gospel of Matthew” (which is redacted and anti-Torah) and archeology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah (kept the mitzwot (directives or military-style orders) in Torah (“the books of Moses”)) all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

The original words of the pro-Torah teacher Ribi Yehoshua were redacted by Roman Hellenists, and the redaction is found in the “gospels”. Jzus is described in the “gospels”, and le-havdil the teachings of the historical Torah-teacher Ribi Yehoshua from Nazareth are found in the reconstruction (using a logical and scientific methodology to create the reconstruction), Netzarim Hebrew Reconstruction of Hebrew Matityahu (NHM).

The historical Jew Ribi Yehoshua is not the same as the Christian Jzus. The historical Ribi Yehoshua was a human. There is a Jewish Ribi Yehoshua. The Christian Jzus is a counterfeit image of the historical Torah-teacher Ribi Yehoshua.

The only way of how to follow Ribi Yehoshua is through becoming one of his Netzarim (

To follow Ribi Yehoshua is the opposite of practising Christianity and the opposite of following the counterfeit image Jzus.