About a year after I graduated from college, someone asked me whether or not I had endured religious persecution at my school. After all, it was a secular university with a reputation for being liberal, so the assumption was that it must be hostile toward Christians.
Well I responded to the inquirer with an emphatic “yes.” I then proceeded to tell them the story of one Easter morning when all the Christians on campus decided to wake up extra early and write “He is Risen” on the campus sidewalks in chalk. It seemed like a fairly benign gesture, but when the rest of the campus awoke that morning, there was a public outcry. Students wrote to the school newspaper complaining that the Christians were imposing their religion on them, and as a result, all the Christians were forced to wash off the sidewalks.
The reason that this story really irked me at the time is that other students would use chalk to write on our sidewalks all the time. What’s more, the writing was often extremely political, and extremely liberal. I had to walk past countless statements with which I not only disagreed, but also found offensive. Why was it ok for the other students to write those kinds of things, but Christians couldn’t write a non-confrontational phrase like “He is Risen?”
So that is the tale I told in reflecting on the “persecution” I endured as a college student. That was the “cross we had to bear.” I’m sure I also enhanced the story with some woe-is-me dramatic flair.
Well since that time, I have come to realize that that incident was not, in fact, persecution. Were my toes stepped on? Yes. Was that a frustrating double standard? Yes. But persecution? Really? I’m not so sure. The fact that I would classify such an experience as persecution probably reveals that I don’t really know what true persecution is.
My own ignorance on the topic became clear last week when I learned what some Christians endure in the prisons here in our country. After speaking with a number of the inmates, I am now convinced that our prisons contain one of the last true frontiers of religious persecution in America. Compared to them, my “persecution” is revealed to be a mere inconvenience.
Because devout faith is perceived to be a kind of weakness or attempt at sucking up to the authorities, Christian prisoners are actively targeted and harassed by the other inmates. Their Bibles are often torn up, and they suffer physical and verbal abuse because of their faith, so attending a weekly worship meeting is no small commitment.
When they come to worship, they are there against many, many odds. And they take their worship very seriously. For instance, the prison I visited also had a choir, and the members would not allow an inmate to join the choir if his witness was not consistent. If he was even caught doing something as small as using foul language, they would recommend to the pastor that he be removed. These men knew what it was to follow Christ, and they wanted everyone around them to know it as well, so they worked hard to guard their witness.
What a remarkable paradigm shift! Our country’s criminals, our country’s convicts, the individuals who we have locked up and turned our backs on–they are the ones who are standing for Christ with what is perhaps the most courage and ferocity in America. To me, that is both surprising and convicting. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, that is often the pattern we see in Scripture–God has a knack for working through those whom the rest of the world has shunned. He picks the most unlikely candidates to fight His good fight. And fighting, these inmates are.
This post concludes my reflections on the week I spent in West Virginia, and I hope it has challenged you as much as it has challenged me. But if nothing else, my greatest desire is that you would pray for our brothers and sisters in prison. They are in a very dark place, but because of that darkness their lights can shine all the brighter. Pray that they would be strong and persevere, as they have a ministry opportunity unlike any other. They truly need our prayers, so when you pray for the persecuted in China and the Middle East, do no forget the persecuted in America.