“Ha! You believe in God? That is so stupid,” the neighbor’s six-year-old boy said to my son Will. “He doesn’t exist; you know that, don’t you? Do you still believe in Santa Claus too? My dad told me about Santa. Your dad should tell you about God.” It broke my heart to hear this little sweet boy say these things. It broke my heart even more to know that his dad was teaching him the Santa/God comparison that is so popular among atheists today. But what gets to me most is the landscape of theological oppression that is increasingly becoming a part of the fabric of our world today. This has always been evident in the media. It has infiltrated the political arena. The educational system has been a suppressive environment for decades (nearly a century). And now we are starting to see it on the playground.
Don’t get me wrong, in a very real sense Christians can live with great security here in America (indeed, in the entire western world). While we gawk at rare times when Christians (normally obnoxious street preachers who are trying to make a video) are physically oppressed for their faith, these things don’t come too often. Let’s face it: I don’t worry much right now about the health of my kids being threatened for their stand for Christ. If a policeman shows up at my door, the last thing that I think is that he has come to interrogate me about my Christian confession. We feel for those in other countries whose lives are constantly in danger because they are Christ-o-phers or “Christ bearers” (a quick nod to my first name). In the last century, nearly fifty million Christians in other parts of the world lost their lives as martyrs. That is more than half the total number of Christian martyrs in the entirety of church history. So physical persecution is not something to take lightly and I am very grateful for the freedom that we have in this country.
However, this is not the end of the story. While western Christians may not be physically persecuted for our faith, there is a great deal of intellectual persecution going on everyday and it shows no sign of slowing down. Persecution, as any sociologist knows, is notoriously difficult to define. At its core, it involves oppression, denial of freedom, harassment, instigation of pain, belittling, and wholesale hatred. It has a very emotional foundation and has little regard for the dignity of man. In Christianity, it has always been associated with an attempted denial of belief. The sporadic persecutions of the early church had grassroots beginnings. Normally the government would stay out of it. Eventually, it turned “official” and violent, especially during the Diocletian era at the turn of the third century. But whether physical or not, the end goal is the same: the individual oppression of people’s faith in Christ.
Many people believe that the western world is on a fast train heading toward a time when there will again be physical persecution. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that when we are always looking for some time in the future, some Christ-hating law to be passed, or some political leader whose name can be creatively associated with 666 (0r 616 for us Wallacites!), we miss something very important: we are already under persecution – intellectual persecution. It is happening right now, under our noses, everyday. All one has to do is turn on Bill Maher, watch the news, or read one of the “New Atheists.” Their interaction does not come in the form of reasoned intellectual response to Christian beliefs or values, but belittling sound bites which seek to gain them quick favoritism. Have you ever seen a Christian attempt to pull off a news interview? If the Christian stands up for traditional marriage, against abortion, or holds to the exclusivity of Christianity or the reality of eternal punishment, there is no call for debate or serious interaction, but ad hominem attacks. As in all things, belittling evidences more insecurity on the side of the belittler than anything else, but observers don’t always know that. This translates into a more culturally-accepted persecution and suppression of ideas. How do we know about it so intimately? Because we have done the same thing to others.
You see, Satan’s goal is not necessarily the torturous death of a person. Everyone dies eventually. Death is not an authoritative power that Satan has been given, but is an ever-abiding reality of his own future. But what he wants to do is erode our beliefs. He does not care whether this comes through a denial of the faith at the end of a barrel in a lion’s den (if I could place those two together) or the lessening of faith due to embarrassing associations of God with Santa Claus on a playground. He simply wants people to believe less today than they did yesterday. He is the crow who comes and eats the seed so people might not hear and believe the word of God (Matt. 13:19). Remember the parable of the soils? The seed is the word of God. The four soils represent the human heart. Seed number 1, Satan ate. But what about the others? Seeds number 2 and 3 gained ground, but eventually fell away. Remember the seed that took root, grew with great excitement, but then died? Why did it die? Because it was “choked” out due to persecution and oppression (Matt. 13:21). Satan’s goal is simple: he wants our faith to be insecure. There is no need for him to turn to physical persecution here in America. He has dibs on intellectual persecution and it is choking out the faith of so many. Perpetual doubt, disallusionment, and dispair are the result.
“Believing that homosexuality is wrong is backward, Middle Ages type stuff. Don’t you know we have evolved beyond that?”
“You believe in God? Do you believe in the Tooth Fairy too?”
“I quit believing in God when I woke up to reality. You should too.”
“Imaginary friends (such as God) go here: trash.”
“The IQ of non-believers is higher than believers.”
“Your faith a blind leap into the dark. I don’t have ‘faith,’ only evidence.”
All of these are realistic examples of the intellectual persecution Christians can expect to receive. It is an ever-so-slight belittling which, ironically, does nothing but suppress free thought. But don’t underestimate its effects. Just because such things do not kill, burn, hang, or mutilate the human body does not mean they are harmless. You know, the old “sticks and stones…” thing? It does introduce a very real virus to the mind. People are fragile. No mind is that strong. Subjected to constant harassment, faith can be choked and suffocated. No, not from a divine standpoint. I know that God is both the author and completer of our faith (Heb. 12:2; Phil. 1:6). In this, we gain our strength and rise up with wings of eagles. Nevertheless, from a very practical standpoint, we are called upon to love God with all our minds. But under intellectual persecution, many will concede their minds. This creates an insecure cognitive dissonance (separation of what you really believe from how you behave). Therefore, with our hearts we serve the Lord, but with our minds (due to intellectual persecution) we find ourselves retreating into isolation and unbelief. This is never good for Christianity as it causes a false dichotomy to be set up, as if we can love God with our hearts and not our minds.
Am I persecuted intellectually? Well, I live in the Bible Belt of America. Eighty-five percent of the population here is Protestant Christian. I spend most of my day talking to people at the Credo House, teaching Christians, doing interviews, and exchanging ideas with like-minded leaders. Yes, I get emails fairly often from people who label me as intellectually backward. But the intellectual persecution does not always come in direct ways on the playground of life. Most of it is indirect ambient persecution which can fold the chairs of real security for the unprepared. If Satan can do that, then he has produced the same effect as the lion’s den.
How to respond:
1. Never respond in kind (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:14). If we respond in kind, are we not instigating the very persecution that we condemn? We turn the other cheek, not in that we do not offer a defense, but that we never visit belittling with belittling, hate with hate, and oppression with oppression.
2. Realize that no matter how well-reasoned our intellectual responses are, they alone will never change the heart or militancy of those who hate God (1 Cor. 2:14; Ps. 2:1-2).
3. Keep in mind that there is strength in numbers. The ambient persecution that exists today will only increase as unbelievers are confirmed, not because of their arguments, but because of the wide acceptance their assertions may gain (whether legitimate or not) (Prov. 13:20).
4. Do not be surprised when your Christian faith is resisted with obstinance and, often, belligerence. Remember this is supposed to happen (John 15:20).
5. Don’t concede the mind even if “victory” is never going to be attained in this world. Remember the world is watching. Os Guinness once said that we only have the right to a position in the marketplace of ideas to the degree that we understand and can defend our faith. We are called to defend our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). We need to continue to contend for this position in the marketplace of the mind until Christ comes.
6. Know that God uses such things for his glory. Obviously, any type of persecution, physical or intellectual, is never the perfect will of God. But God does not have perfection to work with in our current world. He is perfecting it, but it has a long way to go. Intellectual persecution can go a long way towards helping Christians to internally consider the foundation of their faith and its merits. What an opportunity we have to grow.
My son Will, being only seven years old, did not feel the persecution that day. But I know he will someday experience and feel intellectual persecution if he truly decides to follow Christ. He will have some tough choices to make at this time. I pray that he surrenders neither his heart nor his mind. I pray that he will mount up on eagles’ wings, relying on grace and truth, never seeking the acceptance of a man – no matter what playground he is on – over the acceptance of God.