Western believers now facing persecution
For Christians in all parts of the world, opposition and persecution are a fact of life. The Church is under constant attack, and the Gospel message seldom goes forth freely. When we read of persecution we should be shocked but never surprised because the Bible is clear that persecution will come upon the Church, and that the Lord's people will suffer for being identified with Him. The principle reason is because the world hates Christ, but there are secondary reasons why the Church is opposed. Persecution takes place in particular cultural, political, ideological and religious contexts or by seemingly ordinary people who have their own personal reasons for hating Christianity, shaped by factors of which they themselves may not be fully aware.
The Western Church has enjoyed unprecedented freedom to worship and practise the Christian faith over the past two centuries, to the extent that some will deny that persecution in the West is a reality. It may be nothing compared to that endured by believers in the Islamic world, under communist rule or in contexts where religious nationalism has the upper hand, but that does not mean that persecution does not exist. In December 2019 street preacher David McConnell was arrested in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire (UK) for a 'hate-related public order offence' and held in police custody for around six hours, simply for sharing the Gospel. Passers-by had falsely accused him of making hateful and deliberately-offensive remarks, but thankfully the police admitted that they had acted unlawfully and he was released without charge. In another country David may not have been released, and the authorities would most certainly not have admitted liability. In North Korea, Somalia or Eritrea he would still be in prison, or even executed.
It is common for both Christians and opponents of Christianity around the world to think of the West as a Christian civilisation, but we should not be too quick to assume that the Western world is purely Christian. We need to take into account the non-Christian philosophies and concepts that have shaped Western culture and, in a process that has its roots in the Enlightenment, are transforming the West into a post-Christian environment. These philosophies and concepts include secularism, progressivism, individualism and materialism.
A secular society is one that does not privilege religion or religious points of view. This includes not regarding any established religion or church as being any more important or worthwhile than non-religious. Western society is largely secular. Religion does not – despite the protestations of humanists and atheists – have a privileged position when it comes to policy-making or agenda-setting. There are elements of secularism with which some Christians would agree (equal standing before the law regardless of a person's religious belief being one) yet secularism's claim to create a value-free public space is deeply flawed. It might aim for a religiously-neutral space but it tends toward one that's actively hostile towards religion in general and Christianity in particular, especially as public discourse and policy-making is being increasingly possessed by the West's new dominant ideology – progressivism.
Progressivism is a very broad term that encompasses a number of theories, ideologies and beliefs, including liberal views on marriage and sexuality, gender identity and medical ethics. Those who hold to these tend to oppose religion and Christianity for promoting what they see as outdated views on these matters. In a secular West it is progressive ideas that now proliferate. Behaviours that are contrary to God's Laws and Christian values are first permitted, then celebrated – as evidenced by the recent Gay and Lesbian Mardi-gras. Progressive movements seek to overthrow Christian ethics because such ethics represent 'repressive sexual codes' that destroy individual freedom and identity. Put simply, the progressive view is that individuals can be free only when Christianity is completely dismantled.
Progressivism, therefore, goes further in its stated aims than secularism alone. In a purely secular model a street preacher like David McConnell should be allowed to present the Gospel in public, but because his perspective should not be privileged others should also be allowed to criticise his beliefs and present their own. Progressivism, however, will denounce David as an oppressor, accusing him of hate speech and demanding that authorities lock him away. Tolerance is no longer held to be sufficient. A Christian may hold the personal view, for example, that homosexuality is sinful, but genuinely feel no animosity towards gay people or wish to criminalise their behaviour. Yet such a stance is nowhere near good enough for today's progressives! The politics of sexual identity has become so ferocious that any dissent from the latest orthodoxy is greeted with scorn and oft-times legal action. Christian ethics and beliefs must not only be pushed into the private sphere, but eliminated altogether.
In even more recent times, the definition of oppression has been broadened to include awareness of self due to the importance that our modern age attaches to identity – particularly sexual orientation and gender. The modern sense of self is derived from the values of the Enlightenment mentioned earlier: the 18th century turn towards rationalism, liberalism and materialism that now dominates Western thought. However, the Western commitment to the value of the individual is not necessarily a bad thing. In part it is derived from a Christian ethic, particularly the Protestant view of the individual having communion with God through Jesus Christ without any earthly mediator. Christians who would wish to return to pre-Enlightenment days would do well to consider the denial of individual worth that under-pinned both the feudal societies and the slave trade that preceded it. Yet while as Christians we affirm the value of each individual regardless of their lifestyle or belief – after all, we are all sinners – individualism itself is not always healthy. Too often the Western view – in both left-wing and right-wing thought – is that the individual should be free to do whatever pleases himself or herself.
In progressive ideology this morally-autonomous individual is one who is oppressed if not allowed to live according to his or her own truth, judgement or ideals, but with the focus on self comes the worship of self. The Bible, however, denies that the subjective 'truth' of the self is God's Truth. A person cannot simply choose his or her own lifestyle and have it acknowledged as both good and right. He or she is obligated to obey God, and commanded to repent if failing to do so.
On current trends persecution of the Church in the Western world will increase, because the Gospel is in permanent opposition to worldly values of any time or place. There is a significant division between the Christian message and the prevailing message of the West. The West is not merely passively post-Christian and indifferent to Christianity: it is actively anti-Christian and profoundly intolerant of the Christian faith. Secularism, progressivism, individualism and atheistic materialism combine to ensure that Christianity will always be cast in the role of hate-filled oppressor, damaging the self worth and self esteem of those who are trying to live according to their own truth and identity.