The word persecution tends to be misused today. Either people try to limit its use to the great atrocities of world history (such as the Holocaust or the Ethnic Cleansing), or use it as an epithet when a person happens to oppose their position (such as the rhetoric used by proponents of “same sex marriage”). Both would be misuses because:
- Persecution is not limited to genocide
- Persecution is not mere opposition.
Why These Two Cases Misapply the Word Persecution
The first case is a misuse because this confuses what a persecution is (definition) with the level of injustice directed at a person because of his or her religion, ethnicity or political outlook. When this confusion is made, it basically says, “You’re not being persecuted because what you’re going through is not severe enough to count.” Yes, genocide of people of a religion or race is a persecution, but there can be less drastic forms intending to cause harm to a person which are persecution, but fall short of mass murder.
The second case is a misuse because this confuses mere opposition to a person’s views or behavior with maltreating them on account of those who hold them. For example, when I meet an atheist who is virulently anti-Catholic, I may think he’s a bigot or an idiot if he’s obnoxious enough about it. But I don’t assume he is persecuting me simply on the grounds that he thinks my views or actions are wrong. It’s only if he goes from opposition to seeking to mistreat me on account of my beliefs that opposition can become persecution. When being opposed by someone who thinks your ideas are wrong and seeks to pass laws which support what they think is right, that’s not persecution. But when someone seeks to use the law to target someone who holds certain beliefs with the aim of punishing them for holding those beliefs and living in accordance with them, that is persecution.
So, the state not recognizing “same sex marriage” is not a persecution of people with same sex attraction. Nor is outlawing abortion a persecution of women. Such laws do not seek to punish people for having same sex attraction or being a woman They face no legal maltreatment for being a person with same sex attraction or being a woman. However, a judge who rules that it is illegal for a person who refuses to provide services on the grounds that he or she believes that to do so is to cooperate with moral evil is persecuting the person. He or she can either abandon their moral convictions or face repercussions.
The Issues of Religious Persecution
St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor points out what this conflict ends up being about. It is about the obligation to do what is right in the face of coercion to do what is wrong. When we are called to do what is right before God, we see it as better to suffer evil at the hands of our persecutors than to do evil ourselves:
91. In the Old Testament we already find admirable witnesses of fidelity to the holy law of God even to the point of a voluntary acceptance of death. A prime example is the story of Susanna: in reply to the two unjust judges who threatened to have her condemned to death if she refused to yield to their sinful passion, she says: “I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord!” (Dan 13:22–23). Susanna, preferring to “fall innocent” into the hands of the judges, bears witness not only to her faith and trust in God but also to her obedience to the truth and to the absoluteness of the moral order. By her readiness to die a martyr, she proclaims that it is not right to do what God’s law qualifies as evil in order to draw some good from it. Susanna chose for herself the “better part”: hers was a perfectly clear witness, without any compromise, to the truth about the good and to the God of Israel. By her acts, she revealed the holiness of God.
The same applies to us. When threatened by punishment or death if we do not choose to do evil, we must choose to obey God. This has been an example throughout history. Our martyrs witness to the proper response to persecution Take for example, the account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (AD 69–155):
And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, [the proconsul] sought to persuade him to deny [Christ], saying, “Have respect to thy old age,” and other similar things, according to their custom, [such as], “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists.” But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, “Away with the Atheists.” Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ;” Polycarp declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
[Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1885). The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 41). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.]
Susanna could have sought to save her life from the corrupt judges by yielding to them. St. Polycarp could have saved his life by denying Christ. Christians today can avoid suffering, whether physical or otherwise, by compromising their beliefs. By participating in a sin, they could save their lives or their businesses. But they chose to do what was right and obey Christ.
Most of us will not have to suffer martyrdom for our faith (though it may happen—ten years ago, I never thought America would be where she is today). But we may have to endure lesser suffering if we would be faithful to God. As St. John Paul II told us in Veritatis Splendor #93:
Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby—as Gregory the Great teaches—one can actually “love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards”.
So we do have the right to defend ourselves from unjust laws, seeking to overturn them and to show our persecutors why we must do as we do, and try to convince them of the truth of what we say. But when it comes to the choice between serving God, or serving ourselves, we must serve God and avoid evil.