A recent Facebook discussion initiated by Dr Steve Holmes of St Andrew’s University has centred on the question of whether British Christians can genuinely be said to have been persecuted in recent times, particularly as liberalising legislation on same-sex partnerships has led certain evangelicals – registrars and BB owners among them – to leave their jobs or discontinue their businesses on conscience grounds. Steve suggested that the language of ‘persecution’ was inappropriate for the present-day UK context given the far more tragic and extreme circumstances in which it has typically been applied, both in past centuries and elsewhere in the world today. A lively debate has ensued, with some basically agreeing with Steve and others insisting that at least in a mild form, ‘persecution’ is an appropriate term for the British Christian experience in 2013. My own academic background is in linguistics as well as theology, so this debate is of particular interest to me. In due course I would hope to do more etymological and theological work on it, but in somewhat amended form, here is my contribution to the dialogue started by Steve…
I’d suggest that ‘persecution’ be reserved for the killing, torture, gaoling, forced migration and house-dispossession of Christians and their families essentially by virtue of their being Christians. I’d also apply it to the banning, disruption or forced re-location of Christian assemblies/services/gatherings essentially on the grounds that those assemblies are Christian.
‘Discrimination’ might not be fully distinct from ‘persecution’, but in what linguists call a lexical cline it is less catastrophic, and I would apply it to the registrars, BB owners and others who have found that they can’t function in public roles in the public square quite as they might once have done in the UK because their views as Christians on certain specific issues no longer accord with the democratic consensus, or with the law. The BB owners, the registrar and others were not deprived wholesale of their life or their liberty. They were not forced out of their homes or their churches. They were not tortured. Yes, out of conscience on a particular issue of theological-sexual ethics they found themselves having to shift the focus of their business or their employment, but they did at least have recourse to tribunals and courts, and even when they lost their cases they did have a range of alternative options. In that respect they were a long way removed from Jews in Nazi Germany or from Christians in several countries and regions today – North Korea, Pakistan, Iraq etc.
Then, where there is no state or statutory power involved I would suggest ‘prejudice’ for wilful or spiteful verbal attacks on Christians such as those sometimes levelled by the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins – a man whose qualifications to engage in serious theological debate were aptly likened by Terry Eagleton to the qualifications of someone who had just read the Beginners’ Book of British Birds to engage in advanced ornithology.
Even more subtly, one might talk of ‘marginalization’ when observing the often implicit sidelining of Christian perspectives and values from social and cultural discourse: for instance, the refusal of many sociologists, therapists, schoolteachers and others inculcated in secular humanist worldviews to recognise a moral category of ‘evil’.
I accept that this taxonomy is imperfect, and that semantics is not an exact science. But we do surely need a vocabulary here which is able to distinguish between pogroms, holocausts and mass slaughter, secularising of public services in a democratic state, and being offended by the latest anti-Christian one-liner from Stephen Fry.