Persecution of Christians: Polyphonic Readings from a Historical Perception
Dr. Rajeevan M. Thomas
Of some of words and phrases that are exceptionally pertinent to certain movements or people groups, the word “persecution” is one in the long and varied history of Christianity from the inception to the present day beyond the delimitation of national precincts.
It can be deduced as the constant companion of Christianity as if the shade of a person or a thing. Though persecution is an external challenge in its disposition, it is an integral part of the holistic history of Christian mission. Nevertheless, on the ground of its repercussions, predominantly on the unremitting episodes of the bloodbaths of its inoffensive adherents, one ought to ask that why persecutions are taking place or how far Christians are responsible for it? Therefore, this simple and short discourse is an attempt to draw the select interpretations or the readings on the process of persecutions of Christians. It would help us to have a right perception on the topic.
Christian Persecution: A Terminological Understanding
Christian Persecution simply denotes the callous or unfair treatment of Christians because of their special religious beliefs and practices. Persecution of Christians has been defined as defined as “a situation where Christians are repetitively, persistently and systematically inflicted with grave or serious suffering or harm and deprival of (or significantly threatened with deprival of) their basic human rights because of a difference that comes from being a Christian that the persecutor will not tolerate” (see, Mission Intelligence, 2007:14).It is debuting out of the fear or aversion of the opponents or persecutor.
Persecution of Christians in Roman Empire: A Prototype
Biblically, the embryonic form of persecution has launched with the birth of Jesus, the founder of Christianity (Mathew 2.1ff.). But historically, it was pioneered by Jews who crucified Jesus as well as stoned, harassed, jailed and even killed apostles. Nevertheless, the systematic persecution was started by Romans who caused both the local and general persecutions throughout the Roman Empire under the auspicious of emperors (ca.A.D.63-313). The period of persecutions offered a great question of choice before the people: They had to respond to, " do you need Ceasar or Christ". Those who preferred the last choice had to undergo severe persecutions from the hands of pagan religious leaders and royal authority (See the writings of John Fox, Franklin J Balasundaram and others).But even after around three centuries of persecutions, Christianity ultimately proved as a living and victorious religion in Roman Empire by the perpetual peaceful toleration. It is also significant to note that the nexus between religion and politics (State) is a danger to the minority religions like Christianity
Different Version of Christian Persecutions
Out of the mooring of the Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, I would like to trace out the possible readings on persecutions which are relevant even to the contemporary India where Christians have been persecuting and challenging with Ghar Wapasi and re-conversion programmes.
Fulfilment of the Prophecy
Primarily, Christian persecution is the realization of the prognostic words of Jesus. Jesus warned that persecutions are ahead of us (Mathew5:11-12; 10:17-18; Mark 13:9-10; Luke 23:31; John 16:33) .This foretelling was literally fulfilled in the Roman Empire and continues elsewhere in the globe including India. In fact, persecutions of Christians are taking place with the permission as well as the plan of God. Undergoing the persecution is the part of Christian suffering. The persecution is a divine plan to keep up the believers in the right track with qualitative and quantitative Christian faith. It also provides good avenues for Christians to declare their faith and values to a wider community silently but more widely than the existing mission methods.
Clash between Polytheism and Monotheism
Persecutions of the Christians in Roman Empire and elsewhere were emanated out of the clash between polytheism and monotheism. Being a monotheistic religion Christianity raised several challenges to the customs, practice and theology of the polytheistic religions particularly with regards to their external objects and mode of worship. The polytheistic religions are major religions and have some basic and common historic traits which are contradictory to the newly emerged monotheistic religion like Christianity. When the monotheistic Christian faith began to develop, few segments of the non-Christian polytheistic religions began to oppose it with employing persecutions.
Encounter between Inclusivism and Exclusivism
Persecution of Christians can be interpreted as the natural outcome of the exclusive claims of Christians and the counter-reaction of non-Christians towards them. Along with the monotheistic faith, Christians are earnestly propagating the absolute biblical truth that Jesus Christ is the one and only saviour of humanity in the world. (Mathew 4:12). It exposes very emphatically that Christianity is not one ‘way’ among the many. It offers severe challenges to the non-Christian religions like Hinduism and similar which are pursuing the inclusive salvation concepts. What make unique Christianity is her exclusive claims both on the dogmatic and pragmatic levels. The lack of an apologetic/dialogical rapport with people of other faith or their unwillingness as well as the misunderstanding to accept exclusive truths of Gospel would naturally end up with persecution. This is what actually happened in Roman Empire. Romans persecuted the Christians out their misunderstanding on Christian loyalty and integrity towards the people and State and in fact it is an Inadvertent Action.
Human Right Violation
Any sort of violence is a human right violation. The harassment and physical assaults on Christians on the ground of their religious in differences is a human right violation. Religious affinity or spirituality is a personal affair and right. Out of his /her freewill, one can choose and belief any faith which gives spiritual satisfaction to him/her. In a Secular Democratic nation like India, Christians are persecuting on the ground of their religious background. The Indian Constitution explicitly defined the Right to Freedom of Religion (see, Articles 25-28).hence, estimating people through the spectacle of religion and attacking them on its ground is both human right and constitutional violations.
Predominantly, persecution of Christians in a place or State is the reaction of a disturbed community or religious groups on the ground of the issue of conversion. Being a missionary religion, Christianity is challenging them by drawing people from their space with the holistic mission. In fact, conversion (voluntary) and subsequent opposition and persecutions are the by-products of Mission. Here, one can see a chain of action and reaction in a cyclical process: revival leads to mission; mission leads to conversion; conversion leads to persecution: persecution leads to revival. If the church is not doing any public witness /mission (frozen or dead church), naturally have no oppositions and persecutions from the people of other faith. Hence, persecution is one of the characteristics of a living church.
All the above said readings are the different dimensions of Christian’s persecution. Nevertheless, the socio-cultural and political dimensions of persecution are not highlighted here due to the lack of space. Persecution of Christians is ultimately good to the church, though it is a painful experience to its immediate victims. It also offers a time of purifications of Christians and in fact, it is regarded as the ‘refining fire’. When original gold is putting into that fir, it would cleanse and shine it. Persecution is a time of testing the integrity of Christians. After the persecutions, the remaining church would become the ‘club of Saints’ by fanning out the so-called believers. Therefore, the present non-forceful voluntary GharWapasi / re-conversion programmes under the Hindutva agencies are not harmful to the true Christian Church. It would also help the church to cleanse by avoiding the fake or nominal Christians who are running after material benefits. A genuine Christian would surpass all such temptations and trials. As Paul asks, who can separate us from the love of Christ? (Romans 8:35). The non-Christian people groups are employing persecution as the possible step to put an end to the growth of Christian faith. But the history of persecution and the Hagiographical literature depicts that persecution of Christian Church is contributing for the growth of Christians. It works in two ways: firstly, it boosts up the frozen Christians into more pietistic by renewing their faith and secondly, it attracts many to Christian faith by seeing the heroic life and witness of the victims. But majority of the contemporary Christians are trying to avoid the persecutions brilliantly by keeping their mission within the four walls of Church by pushing the people to hell without hearing or having Jesus, the one and only savior. It ultimately affects the church growth. Instead of the biblical candidate of church growth by voluntary conversion by hearing the gospel, our churches are growing (?) by mere biological growth and transfer growth. In fact, we need to back to the Apostolic Mission as narrated in the Book of Acts, the primary Hand Book for Mission. Nevertheless, the non-violent Christian victims of persecutions in Kandhamal and similar places has proved the fact that there are ‘1st century Christians in India even in the 21st century’! (For the details, see the wirings of Anto Akkara)
In the above said challenging context, Christians must re-examine how to do mission/witness in a pluralistic nation like India? Here we must be ‘innocent like a dove and cunning like a Serpent’ (Mathew 10:16) to provide Christ to others which is the noblest service one can render for the holistic development of a person both in the material and metaphysical world. It is not an option but obligation. Can we stop persecutions fully? No, certainly not but we can bring down it up to certain level by ourselves. We should not create the ground works for persecutions and oppositions by our provocative statements and actions in the public sphere such as open declaration of ‘winning India for Christ’, declaring and publishing the number of converts and formation of new churches, quoting from the scriptures of non-Christians in public oratory and so on. It is quite euphoria to note the fact that two thousand years of persecution terribly failed to destroy the Christian mission elsewhere in the world including in our land because mission belongs to God and it would continue up to the last fragment of second of the rapture event. Meanwhile, we have to think and reflect that how far we are personally obeying our Master to do the Great Commission (Mathew 28:18-20) both in the persecutions and peaceful times in our given contexts?