Thursday, April 23, 2009

The problem of defining “persecution”

For those of us who minister to and on behalf of persecuted Christians, it is generally agreed and understood that there is no consensus on the correct use of the term “persecution.” Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, in his excellent book, Faith That Endures, adds, “And probably there will never be one”[i]. A significant part of the challenge, it seems to me, is two-fold. First, we apply human-rights definitions (or attempts at definitions) to the question. I actually made this mistake in my book (I hope to correct it in future revisions) where I defined persecution as a situation where Christians are repetitively, persistently and systematically inflicted with grave or serious suffering or harm and deprived of (or significantly threatened with deprival of) their basic human rights because of a difference that comes from being a Christian that the persecutor will not tolerate. By this definition, persecution must include violence or physical suffering and be repetitive, persistent and systematic. Very impressive sounding and very much in line with how most human rights experts see and define persecution. Sadly, it does not line up with a biblical view of persecution (which is rather embarrassing to me, since I was writing a biblical theology of persecution).

The second problem with defining persecution is the inconsistency with which the word is used. Boyd-MacMillan draws attention to this by referring to a widely accepted description of the three phases that persecution is supposed to typically pass through:

Confusion increases as the broad and specific implications of the term persecution are used inconsistently and even interchangeably. Even those within the world of persecution will frequently use the word persecution to mean something like "torture" in one sentence, and then use it again in the next sentence to mean "discrimination." Take for example the World Evangelical Alliance's report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004. They write, "Persecution usually passes through three phases," two of the phases are "disinformation" and "discrimination," but the third phase is also called "persecution." How can persecution be both a phase of the phenomenon and the phenomenon itself?[ii]

Let me interject a note here: even if one were to suggest different terms for persecution, I increasingly am doubtful of the truthfulness of the assertion that persecution usually goes through three phases. It may “preach” well and appear rather logical and scientific but it doesn’t match up with reality all that well from my observation of current and historical persecution. Persecution, by its very nature, it seems to me, defies such generalizations.

Boyd-MacMillan adds:

Another example of this flip-flop usage occurs in the latest Lausanne paper on the persecuted church. On the one hand they argue, "Suffering and persecution are inevitable for those who follow the Lord Jesus," but on the other hand they can't bring themselves to stick to that usage when describing the discrimination in the West: "While the deteriorating situation in the West does not (yet) merit the term 'persecution,' it should be recognized that there is a reduction in religious freedom which is primarily affecting Christians." That logic puts us in a strange position. If persecution is truly inevitable in the act of following Christ, yet no one in the West is persecuted, then clearly no one in the West follows the Lord Jesus - an untenable position.[iii]

My students at Oklahoma Wesleyan University picked this up immediately and it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I was able to resolve this confusion by insisting on defining persecution as the Bible depicts it

[i] Faith That Endures. Revell, 2006:89
[ii] Ibid.:92
[iii] Ibid.

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