“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 10-12)
These, we are told, were the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and persecution has been a hot topic for Christians ever since. True, they have dished out more than their fair share of the stuff to non-Christians (or ‘wrong’ Christians) over the centuries and have at times rivaled the most sadistic of Roman emperors in their dedication to inflicting agony on their hapless victims; true, too, that recent scholarship has cast doubt on the ferocity of the persecution faced by early Christians; but all the same, there is no doubt that persecution has been a horrible reality for some Christians throughout the last 2000 years.
Indeed, it still is. There are many parts of the world where to be a Christian is to take your life in your hands. Many Islamic nations, in particular, are not known for their tolerance towards other faiths. From Afghanistan to Yemen, Christians have been attacked, forcibly converted, banned from positions of power, or even murdered for their beliefs. And Islam is not the only culprit: Christians in India have experienced violence at the hands of Hindu extremists, while in Communist China imprisonment awaits Christians attending non-approved churches.
Since I don’t believe in a heaven where suffering will be rewarded, I see no silver lining in such atrocities. There is only this life, and if it is blighted by persecution on any grounds, religious or otherwise, that is a bad thing and should be opposed.
Still, Christians are taught that persecution is part of the package, practically a badge of honor. And that’s not easy to achieve in modern, democratic western societies which fully accept the universal human right of freedom of religion. In most such societies there is still widespread respect for religion, even if it is not widely believed in: some of the most strident opponents of ‘new atheism,’ for instance, are not Christians but what Dan Dennett calls ‘believers in belief.’ Difficult, in such circumstances, for a Christian to find herself facing anything deserving of the term ‘persecution.’
This does not, however, stop them trying.
There have been several high-profile cases in the UK recently. The Christian registrar who thinks she’s the victim of religious discrimination because she is required to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples - even though doing so is part of her job description. The Christian relationship counselor (employed by a secular organization) who thinks his faith means he should be allowed to refuse to help those who, in his eyes, have the ‘wrong’ sexual orientation. The Christian nurse who thinks her faith should mean she’s allowed to display a cross round her neck, even though her employer’s uniform policy bans necklaces; and the British Airways employee who also thinks her employer’s policy of “no additions to the uniform” should not apply to anyone with a Christian faith.
In both the latter cases, the employers offered a compromise: if the employee felt so strongly that she had to have a cross about her person, she could wear one beneath her uniform, out of sight, pinned to the underside of her lapel, for instance. Both women refused: for them, wearing the cross was not an act of private devotion but a public declaration. Indeed, in the BA employee’s own words, “It is important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them.”
This is where we get to the real crux of the matter. You have every right to be a Christian and, despite the orchestrated hysteria, no one is trying to take that right away from you. And you have every right to share your faith - on your own time. But your right to practice your religion no more entitles you to try to save souls in your employer’s time than your right to a family life (equally guaranteed by Human Rights legislation) entitles you to take long phone calls from your spouse during working hours. Your conviction that Jesus wants you to be fishers of men is just that: your conviction. There is no reason why employers who do not share your belief should be expected to act as though they did.
I am sorry to dash anyone’s hopes, but being required to honor a contract you have voluntarily entered into is not persecution. Being required to abide by your employer’s dress code and other rules is not persecution. Being required to carry out the job you are paid to do is not persecution. Not being exempted from laws that apply to everyone else too is not persecution. Not even if you are religious, and no matter how much you had set your heart on the promised heavenly reward.
These cases are the very opposite of persecution: they are self-serving, self-aggrandizing demands for special treatment. More seriously, they are an insult to Christians around the world for whom the word ‘persecution’ means something altogether more deadly.