You may have heard this argument before: how dare we speak of religious persecution in the West when the persecution of Christians in other nations is so horrific?
I agree wholeheartedly that persecution in the non-Western world is a terrible injustice that we have an obligation to speak out against. This is true no matter who the victims are. But given that 80% of the victims of religious persecution are Christians — and the secular world has little interest in defending them — the church has a solemn duty to draw attention to this travesty.
Hebrews 13:3 commands us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Open Doors estimates that 245 million Christians face high levels of persecution. Every month, over 100 of their churches are vandalised or torched; and every day, eleven of them are killed for their confession of faith.
If all this is true, how dare we distract from them to focus on much milder forms of Christian persecution here in the West? Let me suggest four reasons.
First, I’m not all that convinced that the church in particular or the Western world more generally is all that concerned with the persecution occurring overseas. There are of course exceptions to this. But apathy seems to be the rule.
Given that so few seem interested in the plight of suffering Christians in the minority world, if we put the spotlight on the Christians being targeted in the West, what would we be diverting attention away from?
Second, Christians are the canary in the coal mine here. There are now many examples of Christians losing their reputation, accreditation or career simply for expressing their sincerely-held beliefs. Read about 36 such cases from Australia here.
Unless something jolts us out of our apathy, we have reason to believe that the West will see freedom of speech, conscience and religion gradually disappear. Even famous left-wing academics drew attention to the risk of this in an open letter published in Harper’s magazine earlier this year.
Christians in particular have proven to be a soft target precisely because many who oppose them feel righteous in their hostility. After all, rebuking the religion most linked to our culture now passes for a noble act of humility — even if real people are cut down in the process.
Here is why all Westerners should care when Christians are targeted: as freedom gives way to censorship and repression, Christians will be among the first to feel it. Followers of Jesus are low-hanging fruit for those clamping down on freedom.
Third, the West is a safe harbour for those who flee persecution abroad. As Westerners, we pride ourselves on being a sanctuary for those who escape mistreatment in other lands. But as Western nations have begun to restrict speech and expressions of faith, those who were victimised elsewhere and fled to the West are now finding that discrimination awaits them here too.
Australian parliamentarian Mark Latham spells out this irony:
There are many things changing about Australia… and one of them has been that so many people, mainly of a Christian background, say they’re scared to talk about their religion; talk about it in the workplace; worried about being sacked…
I have run across a lot of people who have come to Australia in recent times and they say, “We thought we were getting away from religious persecution, that’s why we came to this land of freedom,” … but the persecution has followed them to Australia.
Quite simply, if in the course of time the West is no longer free, then there will be no truly safe harbours left. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand: these and a handful of nations in mainland Europe are the eventual port of call for those running from tyranny. But it is precisely in these nations — our nations — that freedom is fast eroding.
As Samuel Adams (1722-1803), one of America’s Founding Fathers warned,
“Our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.”
Not just for our own sake, then, but for all who depend on the free world as a safe haven, we must address what is happening now in the West.
This leads to the final reason: it is far better to live in a free civilisation. This should be self-evident. After all, who wants to be jailed or killed for what they think, say and believe? But secularism persuades us that all truth is equally valid, and all cultures are equally just. As a result, we’re reluctant to criticise cultures that stifle freedoms.
This is why we see so little outrage about human rights abuses in the Muslim world, and those currently being committed by the Chinese Communist Party. To call this out is to implicitly acknowledge that the West isn’t as evil as we’re constantly told it is. In actual fact, the freedoms afforded to people in the West are better, and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say it.
Christians, too, can wax lyrical on this. Pointing to Jesus as our example, many Christians argue that we should simply endure the assaults of our culture rather than confront them. At a personal level, they are right: Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But on a civilisation-wide scale, and as citizens of a participatory democracy, this is misguided. At the very least, it ignores 1 Timothy 2:1-4 where the apostle Paul writes,
I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Saviour, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.
Peaceful societies governed by good leaders, says Paul, are ideal for Christian living and for the spread of the gospel. Our ultimate hope is Heaven, not the kingdoms of this world. But if Christians have a choice between free and unfree societies in this life, we shouldn’t hesitate to choose freedom.
Neither is it selfish for Christians to want this, since free societies are good for everyone. When we pray and stand in defence of Western freedoms, we act for the common good.
And in doing so, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The early church was heroic in their efforts to end infanticide. William Wilberforce faced terrible opposition in taking on slavery. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in his struggle for civil rights, but ultimately, his dream was fulfilled.
Defending freedom in our era may seem less noble than it did for past heroes, since it is specifically Christians now among the most affected. But we must defend freedom all the same — because if Christians can be targeted in such significant numbers today, then it won’t be long before others are too.
In the process, maybe the world and the church will take notice of overseas persecution too.