Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

The sports world has a common narrative thread that usually runs through almost every championship team. It’s the “nobody believed in us” cliché.

Often at the conclusion of the championship contest, members of the winning team will be jubilantly celebrating their victory with various exclamations that fit that thread. “We’re all we had.” “The guys in this locker room, we never stopped believing.” “Everyone doubted us, but we believed.” And so on and so forth.

Sometimes it holds true. Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice US Olympic hockey team that stunned the four-time defending gold medalist USSR squad and won gold in Lake Placid. Al Michaels’ legendary call in the closing seconds – “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” – is iconic for a reason. It captured the sentiment that this team beating that team in this moment was a miracle. Where only hours ago nobody believed in them, in that moment we could all believe.

The place where this becomes cliché is when the teams that everyone expected to win spout the same sentiments. When the New England Patriots go on a run to win another Super Bowl, there’s often expressions of this idea that people didn’t believe in them. But really, who didn’t believe in them? That’s nonsense. People actively rooted against them. But of anyone following the sport over the last 20 years, very few would have considered their team as unlikely to win.

Even those teams that everyone believes in feel a need to create an at-best overblown (and sometimes straight-up fictional) narrative about people not believing in them. It helps them feel like their back is against the wall and they have to bond together to overcome some great adversarial challenge that is truly non-existent, or close to it.

This is what it feels like to watch (and be part of) white evangelical Christianity in America. Objectively, we are the single most powerful demographic group in the world (regardless of any revisionist history efforts, this group hand-picked Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and elected him to office). Our influence and power crushes the weak and vulnerable that don’t fit in our preferred demographics (the poor, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ, victims of sexual assault, etc.) as claim “religious liberty” to wield our power and dominance over others.

Through it all, though, we chant our own “nobody believes in us!” cliché: religious persecution.

We’re currently in the midst of one of the worst pandemics in world history, and already the worst in the last 100 years. Yet, we still have pastors flouting efforts to keep communities safe and healthy by holding large Sunday gatherings. Rodney Howard-Browne from the River at Tampa Bay Church was actually arrested this week for continuing to violate the guidelines put in place for public health by holding a large Sunday gathering.

As you can read in the story, members of the legal staff tried to explain the guidelines to Howard-Browne, but he chose not to meet with them. Further, throughout this pandemic process, he’s spread conspiracy theories about the virus. All of this comes down to what will inevitably come next: claims that he and his church are being persecuted for following Jesus.

You see, Jesus warned his followers that they would suffer persecution because of their devotion to him. “You will be hated by everyone on account of my name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). There are similar words in Mark, Luke and John.

Sometimes I wonder if those are the favorite (and possibly only) words of Jesus that white evangelical Christians in America pay close attention to. Because we’ve never met a situation where we couldn’t find a way to mis-apply these words. And this pandemic prompted churches to move online rather than holding in-person gatherings is just the latest example. It’s our own “nobody believes in us” cliché when there was never any doubt.

Howard-Browne and his church are not suffering persecution for Jesus’ name. They are being asked to love their neighbor sacrificially, giving up their preferred mode of gathering in an effort to literally save lives and slow the spread of disease. Jesus told us to love our neighbor goes hand-in-hand with loving God as the single greatest commandment. Later, he gave us an even stronger dictate: “A new command I give to you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

How did Jesus love us? He literally sacrificed his own life to save us. Yet when asked to temporarily sacrifice the experience of gathering together in a large group in an effort to save not just our neighbors but also ourselves from illness and possible death, we twist Jesus’ words about persecution to claim we’re under attack. And we do the most selfish, un-Christ-like thing we can do, all while claiming glory in fake persecution.

Fake persecution is a hallmark of white evangelical Christianity in America. We use it all the time as the club to wield against anything that tries to undermine our “freedom” to persecute against others who don’t adhere to our vision of Christianity. This isn’t even the first time we’ve done this with a public health issue.

We do it all the time with vaccinations for deadly diseases we have the technology to almost completely eradicate from society. But since there are percentages of the population that cannot have the vaccinations – very specific immune-deficiencies and the very young who are not yet old enough – it is vital that those of us who can do our part to protect the most vulnerable do just that. But somehow we find a way to claim it is somehow related to religious freedom and refuse to do so, putting ourselves and our often-more-vulnerable neighbors at risk. When states try to restrict such loopholes, the cry is always the same: religious persecution.

It astounds me to hear so many cries of religious persecution from white evangelical Christians in America who have lived their entire lives at the top of the privilege pyramid. I grew up in a tradition that professed to value reading the Bible and taking lessons from its pages. But somehow that same tradition completely neglects the examples from throughout the books of the Bible, which showcase tremendous legitimate religious persecution. We can’t honestly read those stories and find any comparison with our experience in America. Yet we still cling to those words of Jesus as the rallying cry of false martyrdom.

Falsely identifying with those suffering persecution in the Bible distracts our focus from wrestling with the messages that were actually intended for us, the ones like Jesus saying “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

Objectively, white evangelical Christians in America are the rich, we are the ruling class, we are the privileged few. And Jesus makes abundantly clear what he expects from the people in that demographic: give to the poor, care for the stranger among you, love your neighbor, sacrifice yourself for the good of others.

At no point in any of that does Jesus tell us to create a false narrative of religious persecution so we can justify selfish actions. In fact, at no point even when talking to people who are suffering religious persecution does Jesus tell them to use that persecution to justify selfish acts. Regardless of our station in life (and let us never forget our status as wealthy power-holders in this world, because that status is not destined to last), Jesus tells us to love as he loved us. That is sacrificial; it is not self-serving.

I wish Christians would retire the “religious persecution” cries just as I wish teams would retire the “nobody believed in us” cliché. Both serve no purpose but to create a personal narrative that prompts groups to build an “us-against-them” mentality. Again, even when Jesus warned his followers that they would suffer persecution in his name, he never told them to focus on that or use it as a rallying cry or excuse for their actions.

Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested this week for holding a large church gathering in the United States of America. That is a factual statement, one that many Christians will feel tempted to use as justification for cries of “religious persecution.” That choice would be wrong, however, and it would only continue to erode our witness to the world. Because Rodney Howard-Browne was not arrested for his devotion to Jesus. He was arrested for needlessly putting himself and others in harm’s way for a virus that is likely to claim more lives now than it would have without his actions.

Think about that for a minute. Rodney Howard-Browne’s choice to hold a large church gathering will likely contribute to the death of at least one person. We don’t know if that person will be someone who attended his church on Sunday or one of the people they with whom they come into contact. But his actions likely will directly lead to the preventable death of at least one person (and potentially more as the spread continues). How un-Christ-like is that? And how arrogant is it to claim religious persecution for supporting Jesus while acting in the exact opposite manner as Christ?

“Nobody believed in us” and “religious persecution” both have honest and true examples in our world. Unfortunately, both have been so heavily watered-down by ridiculously false claims that they’ve lost all meaning and have become cliché. This is an incredibly fragile time for our country and world. Let’s not lose focus of what’s important by clinging to false narratives that only harm our mission of sharing God’s love with the world around us.

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