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.
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.