Monday, June 26, 2017

Book Review: Persecution Complex by Jason Wiedel

I now believe that Christians in America are not persecuted or oppressed. I will go so far as to say the persecution of American Christians is a myth, a fiction that serves to bind many American Evangelical communities together. It is a legitimizing force for our religious activities, a motivator for evangelism, and an excuse to behave badly toward those with whom we disagree. Worst of all, it distracts us from the real problems of human suffering, to which Jesus instructed his followers to attend. What many Christians perceive as persecution is actually fear of losing their privileged place in society, a fear that is exploited by the very people who have the most to lose from this shift in status. - Jason Wiedel, Persecution Complex

I was part of several campus ministry groups in college, several of which had some evangelical leanings. My junior year, a couple members worked to bring a Christian band to campus, which would include a speaker and opportunity for inviting attendees to talk one-on-one with those trained in the typical procedure of prayer and proselyzation that accompanied it.

A week or two before the concert was to be held, I happened upon a conversation in the student activity center where several of those who oversaw the scheduling of campus events were expressing their confusion as to what group was sponsoring this. I chimed in and told them to put my campus house organization's name on it, thinking this would resolve the situation. A few days later, the local church co-sponsoring this concert appeared on our doorstep saying the college told them they wouldn't be able to host due to paperwork not being filed properly. Rather than seek to reschedule while following proper procedures this time, we decided that this was an attempt to stifle Christian witness, and saw this as a call to fight back toward the oppressive administration seeking to silence us. In reality, we probably could have just filed some forms and been okay.

This felt need always to frame pushback against Christian ideas or actions as persecution has a long history and some suspect theology, not to mention that it can often be avoided as in the case of my group's concert. In Persecution Complex: Why American Christians Need to Stop Playing the Victim, Jason Wiedel explores why many Christians in the U.S. seem to constantly behave as if they're a put-upon minority when the opposite is often the case.

Wiedel begins by exploring where the persecution narrative comes from and how different groups, organizations, and individuals promote and perpetuate it. He examines what the world looks like from this perspective, the Biblical texts on which it is based, and some of the historical movements that have contributed to its rise including Dispensationalism, Christian fundamentalism of the late 1800s, the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Wiedel illustrates how each of these helped stoke fear of losing ground to non-Christian ideas and behavior.

"Persecution Complex" actually serves as a double entendre for Wiedel, as not only does he use it to describe a mindset out of which people operate, but also an industry that helps perpetuate it through movies, books, and certain news outlets. Examples given include the recent God's Not Dead and Left Behind franchises, as well as the so-called "war on Christmas" that we inevitably hear about every December. Wiedel argues that a persecution narrative is profitable both financially for media companies, but also politically for candidates and parties that tap into it.

Wiedel examines why this narrative is so attractive, but also why it is so dangerous. He explores how this perspective can inspire people to band together against a common perceived enemy and take action against them. Again, this can come in handy for politicians but at its worst it can also be unquestioning and absolute, with persecution becoming equivalent to being right and just no matter what.

In both the early chapters and in the last, Wiedel argues against the validity of this perspective in several ways. First, he points out that what people call persecution is usually a loss of privilege: things like removing mandatory prayer from public school or a display of the 10 Commandments from a courthouse is less oppression and more making room for those with other religious beliefs or no belief. He also presents a theological case for why certain texts are misread by those who hold this narrative while stating that Christians' calling is more to help the poor and the downtrodden rather than seek to limit the rights of others or hang onto one's special place in society.

Wiedel presents a decent introduction to the Christian persecution complex, both as a personal mental state and as a framing of the world pushed by organizations and coalitions for the ultimate benefit of a few. I did not find parts of the book well-written: I didn't appreciate an early example he gives equating this perspective with schizophrenia, and some chapters are only a few pages and could have been fleshed out more or folded into other parts. But if you're looking for some basic insight into why many Christians believe they are persecuted despite continuing to enjoy cultural dominance in many ways, then this will still serve as a helpful beginner's guide.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)