We often like to flatter ourselves that if we lived under conditions of persecution for our faith we would have the resilience and courage to risk persecution in order to stand by what we believe. I wonder if this is true though?
In much of the world, Christians are savagely persecuted for their faith, and often killed. In countries like North Korea all expressions of religious belief are totally forbidden under pain of death or imprisonment.
In countries like China, people can practise their religion but under certain conditions. The Faith is not allowed to grow freely. There are restrictions on the building of churches, for example, and Christian leaders are often harassed or imprisoned. The State wants to approve of what leaders are appointed, which is a huge point of tension with the Vatican. No criticism of the state is permitted.
In many parts of the Muslim world, Christians find themselves under attack from local mobs, from terrorist groups, and even from the government. Christianity is disappearing from its place of origin. It is a disaster and it is happening right under our noses and we don’t seem to care.
In a homily delivered in the Abbey Church at Lamspringe, Germany at the weekend, Archbishop Eamon Martin used the occasion to draw attention to the persecution of Christians around the world. He did so because the Benedictine monks of Lamspringe were keepers of the relics of St Oliver Plunkett for many decades. Plunkett, of course, was famously martyred for his faith in 1681 by being hanged, drawn and quartered, a form of death matched only by burning for its horror.
“How can we mark this day, honouring and commemorating St Oliver Plunkett, without opening our eyes and ears to the brutality of what some of our brothers and sisters in the Christian family are experiencing?”, Archbishop Martin asked.
“Sadly, many Catholics and other Christians in Ireland, Germany and other parts of the Western world, remain unaware of the horrors and extent of persecution that our sisters and brothers in Christ have to suffer,” he added.
Why are we not more aware? Well, when is the last time you heard the topic being addressed in your local parish? How often is it mentioned in the media? How often do politicians address it?
The lack of sympathy that Western Christians have for their persecuted fellow believers in other parts of the world is very mysterious. When Christians behind the Iron Curtain were being persecuted we did have a sense of solidarity, in the early days of East European communism at any rate. Maybe the lack of solidarity stems in part from the fact that we hold on to our own faith less strongly than we once did.
Elsewhere in his homily, Archbishop Martin spoke about the need for us Christians in the West to stand up for what we believe, even if it might come at a cost.
He said: “Standing up for your faith, being a witness for what you believe in, is not the stuff of ancient history or another world. It is a living reality for Christians across the world today. Even in Ireland and Germany, Catholics and Christians are entering a time when we will need the gift of courage to stay faithful to the teachings of the Gospel.”
He spoke of a “sometimes aggressively secular world which would seek to silence the public voice of believers”.
He listed five areas where we need to be prepared to raise our voices.
These are: “The sacredness and dignity of all human life; the uniqueness of love and marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of children as fruit of that love; the need for a fair distribution of the worlds goods; welcoming the stranger and those who are persecuted; and, the importance of respecting the environment and caring for the Earth.”
It is the first two of these that require the most courage. The other three, while also very important, meet less resistance because in these areas the Church has many secular allies. But we have few secular allies when we are defending the right to life or the true nature of marriage and many ferocious opponents who denounce us as ‘bigots’ for what we believe.
Christians in the West are obviously not persecuted for their beliefs in the same way that Christians in certain other parts of the world are. We do not face the risk of death, for example.
But if you speak out too loudly in defence of the right to life or the true nature of marriage, you can find yourself barred from certain jobs, you can face fines, you can face ‘hate crime’ charges.
Thus, two midwives in Sweden are banned from working in their profession because they do not believe in abortion. Bishops in various parts of the Western world (in Spain and Australia, for example) have been investigated for ‘hate crimes’ for defending the traditional view of marriage.
This is all extremely serious and does amount to a form of persecution, unless we are unwilling to consider anything short of death as persecution.
You will also face social ostracism for publicly defending certain Christian beliefs and the likelihood that in certain professions (academia, for example), your career will not progress, if it gets started at all.
I asked at the start of the article if we are really willing to stand up for the most controversial Christian beliefs, assuming that is, we believe in them ourselves. There is little evidence that we are. Most Christians fell silent during the marriage referendum of two years ago, and we will soon see how many people in sensitive positions will stand up for the right to life.
It is hard to stand up for what you believe in the face of ferocious opposition and sometimes the force of the law. But it is also a time when the quality of your faith is tested. This is now the situation we face, like it or not. How many of us will pass the test?