The Supreme Court is considering a challenge to Christian prayers at a town board meeting. I’m inclined to label the challenge as persecution of Christians. What do you think?
This is an “onion question.” We consider it best in layers.
Layer 1: What is persecution? At its broadest, most literal definition, “persecute” means “to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly, especially because of race or religious or political beliefs.”
Contesting the legality of a practice—public prayer at government-sponsored events—about which reasonable people disagree certainly does not rise to the level of cruelty. But is it unfair? In the situation to which you refer, Greece v. Galloway, an atheist and a Jew sued the community of Greece, N.Y., because its town council opened its meetings only with Christian prayers across 11 years. For more than a decade, the town’s practice favored Christians over against people of other faiths and no faith. So, a valid argument can be made the town’s practice already was unfair, and this case seeks fairness for all.
Layer 2: Historical and global context. Throughout 2,000 years, Christians have suffered intense persecution. Jesus died on a Roman cross. Early Christians perished when beasts ripped them to shreds and fiery stakes reduced them to ashes. Anabaptists drowned in Europe’s rivers and fountains because they would not baptize their infant children. Our Baptist forebears languished in prisons on both sides of the Atlantic for refusing to register with government authorities. Dissenting German pastors died in Nazi prisons for opposing Hitler’s atrocities. Around the world, enemies of Jesus continue to beat, rape and murder Christians, as well as deny them education and jobs because of their faith.
In contrast, some U.S. Christians wave the banner of persecution because others disagree with their beliefs and practices. They insist they are persecuted because they no longer receive special privilege, such as saying Christian prayers at public events. These claims defy the reasonable definition of persecution. They demean the blood of martyrs who suffered physically and fully for their faith. Rather than echo such claims, other Christians should refute their corruption of pure persecution borne by courageous faith.
Layer 3: Public prayer and Christian principles. While an atheist, Linda Stephens, and a Jew, Susan Galloway, filed the lawsuit against Greece, N.Y., their involvement does not necessarily imply hostility toward Christianity. Many Christians, Baptists included, agree with their principle: Any government organization should not favor one religion over another. They resist the notion of religious coercion, affirming the cherished adage, “To be authentic, faith must be free.” They see Christian-only prayers at town council meetings as abuse of government power to force one particular belief upon all participants. They also see repeated sanction of Christian-only prayers as violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which denies government the right to “establish” religion or favor one religion over another.
Many chapters of Baptist history have been written with the blood of martyrs and persecuted saints. We honor their sacrifice by refusing to allow others to cheapen the meaning of persecution.
Marv Knox, Editor & Publisher
Baptist Standard, CommonCall, FaithVillage.com
If you have a comment about this column or wish to ask a question for a future column, contact Bill Tillman, consulting ethicist for “Right or Wrong?” at firstname.lastname@example.org.