Groups who study religious persecution on a global scale have found a disturbing truth emerge: millions of people are not needed for intense persecution to begin.
That might sound strange to us in the West, familiar with news programs showing marching mobs and burning flags. But when religious persecution is analyzed, it can frequently be broken down into a predictable pattern. As we examine this pattern, please remember that while our study is Christian persecution, this same pattern can be seen in other types of religious persecution, as we will see in today's example.
According to Boyd-MacMillan, a climate of persecution is usually created by "a tiny elite who manipulate handpicked mobs and ... manufacture a chaos that leverages them into power." (p. 45).
The recurring pattern is simple:
- A power vacuum - exploited by extremists. Extremism always needs a power vacuum. Typically, extremists are invited into power when moderates fail. Essentially, extremists end up center stage because of a failure in the forces of moderation.
- A villain - created by extremists allowing them to establish a strategy to come to power
- A lie
- A mob - organized to instigate chaos. Often, supposed "spontaneous" violence is actually often highly organized and superbly planned (p 54).
- A megaphone to repeat the lie loudly and often
It's vital to watch for this pattern in the early stages, whether with Christians or other minority religious populations, because there is a "creeping" nature to persecution. In fact, Boyd-MacMillan states that historically three facts emerge related to persecution:
- It rarely happens in the way expected.A familiar example highlights this pattern at work (summary is mine from multiple readings over the past few years). In the 1920s-1930s Germany was bankrupt as a result of World War I. Nationalism was on the rise and political instability was growing, The moderates were unable to restore stability, and into this power vacuum stepped an extremist with an agenda: Adolf Hitler. Hitler created a villain by playing on people's nationalism and fears, laying blame for numerous problems in Germany at the feet of the Jewish people. As he expanded his reach, he used a series of lies to exploit incidents by blaming them on Jews, and repeated those lies through the megaphone of his propaganda campaigns. Before going into a country he sent individuals ahead to organize mobs to make the supposed support for Germans to be part of the Reich seem stronger, instilling fear into leaders of small countries and gaining capitulation. By the time registration of Jews began, the argument made sense to enough people that many of Hitler's evil plans proceeded right before the eyes of the people who would not have agreed to "genocide".
- It often comes out of the blue - people are blindsided with it.
- "When it comes, we see that we are partially responsible for its appearance." (v. 45) This doesn't mean Christians "ask for it" but often that there are signs that could have stopped things sooner, had they responded differently. Syncretism, compromise, allowing the opposition to define terms, and handing over rights are some actions that smooth the path for persecutors, making it easier for them to do their evil deeds.
During this time, the church in Germany was largely silent, some out of fear and others out of direct complicity with the state's goals. Some estimates are that only 20% of the churches were members of the Confessing Movement, openly defying the state's orders to display Nazi flags, excommunicate Jewish Christians, and other commands. In an effort to take responsibility for the appearance of extremism in Germany, one resistance pastor, Martin Niemoller, insisted on a clause to be added to the 1946 Stuttgart Declaration of the Evangelical Church of Germany: "With great anguish we state: Through us inestimable suffering was inflicted on many peoples and lands" (Boyd-MacMillan, 45, italics his).
"Through us." Those words were controversial but they underscore the reality that Boyd-MacMillan finds: When we don't see the pattern, we become part of the problem of bringing extremism into power. Niemoller expressed his personal experience in one of the most stunning paragraphs of the post-war era:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. (p. 46)So what do these patterns look like in modern Christian persecution? We'll consider that in the next couple of sessions.
YOUR TURN: Is your brain churning as you think of historical and current events that fit this pattern, or times when you've seen exceptions to it? Share your insights in the comments!
Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church. Revell, 2006.