Easter and Other Four-Letter Words
By Rick PearceyFor millions of people, the entrance of God into verifiable history in human form is cause for celebration. It began with that birth in Bethlehem, and it culminated with an empirically verifiable resurrection in space and time in Jerusalem. Here was an individual observably alive at point A, dead at point B, but then alive again at point C. Thus we have Easter, a rock upon which to build a house, a life, a city on a hill, and even an entire civilization, once the profoundly pro-human implications of the Judeo-Christian worldview begin to be understood and applied across the whole of thought and culture.
No one should be surprised that the consequences of factual events so amazing should cascade like fresh mountain waters over the centuries into new years and into new lives every year. Christmas becomes a time of joy and celebration. Easter becomes a time of doubt followed by certainty and then amazement. But for others it’s a different story.
King Herod’s is such a story. So is that of Pontius Pilate. Herod searched for the newborn king not to celebrate but to destroy a potential rival to power, and that is why he ordered the death of boys in Bethlehem “two years old and younger” (Matt. 1:16). Pilate had Truth staring him in the face when he asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:19). But instead of setting an innocent man free, a man in whom Pilate found nothing wrong, the Roman washed his hands and gave Jesus over to be crucified (Matt: 27:26), just as the religious establishment wanted.
Had Pilate really been honest in his question about truth, in a matter of days he could have begun investigating the ample evidence regarding the resurrection of the man about whom he found nothing wrong. His curiosity might have been stimulated, one would think, after hearing reports of strange goings-on at the tomb of Jesus. After all, a dead man usually does not unwrap his grave clothes, roll away a massive boulder blocking the entrance to his tomb, overcome sentries whose job (upon pain of death) is to ensure his body stays put, and then convince utterly defeated followers that he is the Lord of life.
One thing pretenders and outright liars seem to have difficulty understanding, whether they be corrupt religious leaders, maneuvering politicians, or enablers easy to command: Truth never dies, is never really defeated, even if you kill it.
Celebrations of Easter and Christmas in America today occur at a time and place far different from that of the countryside and politics of ancient Israel. And yet, there is continuity, for ours too is a time of celebration and praise — but also one of pretense and hatred and even persecution. That’s right. Persecution is the correct word, it seems to me, if we are to reflect sensitively a Biblical understanding of what is at stake in the world today.
What Have We Seen?
Consider that only a few months ago we saw a Nativity scene removed from a showcase in Simmons Elementary School, in Horsham, Pa. Why? The scene “was too overt in its religious significance,” according to a school district spokeswoman, quoted in the Washington Times. In New York City, 1,200 public schools were permitted to display symbols of non-Christian religions during the Christmas season, the Jewish menorah and Muslim star and crescent for Ramadan, for example. Meanwhile, noted Gene Edward Veith in World magazine, Nativity scenes were “verboten.”
City Hall in Cranston, R.I., was calm as the grounds sported an “inflatable Santa, snowmen, a menorah, a 4-foot-tall angel with lights and 15 plastic pink flamingoes wearing Santa hats,” reported the Times. But then a Jewish man raised the hackles of the ACLU when he “put up a Nativity scene in honor of his deceased Christian wife.” Students at Clover Creek Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash., were permitted to sing a “Hanukkah song that includes lyrics about the ‘mighty miracle’ of Israel’s ancient days,” but were not allowed to sing the word Christmas in a concert. Music teacher Mark Denison replaced the word Christmas with the word winter, reported the New Tribune, so that the “lyrics in Dale Wood’s ‘Carol From an Irish Cabin’” were made to read: “The harsh wind blows down the mountains, and blows a white winter to me.”
We see much the same thing happening at Easter, as David Limbaugh documents in his book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity.** In Persecution, we see high school officials in Hampton, Va., allowing an “Easter Can Drive” to raise funds for a local YMCA, but only if the project name was censored and cleansed into the “Spring Can Drive.” In Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois and Hawaii, we have seen Good Friday challenged as an occasion when the state can give workers time off for religious observances. In San Francisco, Oklahoma City, and the Mojave National Preserve, we have seen legal challenges to the display of crosses on public land.
Turning to the private sector, retail giant Target claims to “respect and value the individuality” of its workers, but one worker, Cindy Dunn of Springfield, Alabama, sued the company. Dunn alleged that the store fired her because she refused to remove or hide a cross necklace she wore to work. In a similar vein, Hollywood waxes eloquent in its claim to respect the value of the individual as a creative artist, and yet many in that community engaged in months of unrelenting criticism of Mel Gibson’s riveting film The Passion of the Christ — before ever having seen this work of art for themselves.
Clearly, in America today, Christian-based holidays have become occasions of light and joy but also of darkness and furrowed brows. Christians have been selectively targeted and warned that action based on information from the Creator is forbidden in public life, and as Persecution makes clear, this targeting is anything but occasional.
In fact, it’s a systematic assault on all things Christian at the local, state, and federal levels of government as individuals properly seek to express Judeo-Christian principles across the whole of life. This bigotry occurs not just during the Christmas season or around Easter, but also during Thanksgiving, or just before a high school football game or just after a student hands in a book report about Jesus or bows a head in prayer at a lunch table.
True enough: Christians sometimes actually win when taken to court. And I can a testify to encountering smiles of approval when explaining to well-wishers that “‘Merry Christmas!’ is better than ‘Happy Holidays!’” Others may have enjoyed positive discussions about the facticity and meaning of Easter. But despite these kinds of successes, legal and otherwise, the question is: Why are Christians in court in the first place? And why do chunks of corporate culture treat Christmas and Easter as if they are four-letter words?
What Is Persecution?
The “systematic efforts by those who seek to eradicate Christian principles from our schools and the public square should be seen for what it is — persecution,” said Rena Lindevaldsen, an attorney with Liberty Counsel. “Any avid observer of First Amendment issues will recognize that the efforts made by certain groups to ‘maintain the separation of church and state’ are blatantly discriminatory.” For “only Christian teachings and beliefs are targeted for removal,” and yet “secular humanism runs rampant in the schools” and “students are regularly taught Buddhist principles and Muslim beliefs.”
But haven’t we been told that real persecution happens in other countries? Besides, how can Christians possibly be persecuted here in America, where they are in the majority? A brief look at the Biblical information on the word “persecution” may help clarify what we are talking about, and help us avoid overstating, or understating, what confronts us here in the States.
Biblically speaking, “persecution” can be understood to include a range of hostile actions against Christians. Consider the activities of Saul. In Acts 8, we learn that there “arose a great persecution against the church” and that “Saul was ravaging the church.” Here the persecution was “great” but did not include killing or maiming, for Saul limited himself to dragging off “men and women” and committing “them to prison.”
In Acts 9:1, Saul was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples.” Here, the persecution includes “threats” and a strong desire to kill Christians, as well as Saul’s attempt to acquire the authority to carry out the threats. Later, the great persecutor would be on hand to witness the stoning of Stephen, but Saul’s own action as a persecutor demonstrates that persecution is an activity that includes but is not limited to killing or maiming.
Consider also the career of Saul-turned-Paul, for he who once persecuted Christians later embraced Christianity. In 2 Tim. 3:11,12, Paul talks about the “persecutions and sufferings that happened” to him at “Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra.” When we turn to Acts 13 and 14, we discover that “persecutions” include several elements. In Antioch, Paul’s teaching was opposed by people who drove Paul and Barnabas out of the district. In Iconium, unbelievers “poisoned [Gentiles’] minds” against Christianity and intended to “mistreat” and “stone” Paul and Barnabas, but the two of them left — thus, Paul and Barnabas suffered persecution even though they had the good sense to leave before experiencing ill-treatment in a physically intense form.
In Lystra, the opposition pursued Paul and turned the crowds against him. He was stoned, dragged out of the city, and left for dead. Here we see persecution in many of its elements: Pursuit of the Christian, stirring up anti-Christian animus, and then decisive physical action based on that anti-Christian animus. It is this range of Biblical data that led one of my former professors in New Testament Greek to conclude that there are different kinds of persecutions: “physical, social, mental, and spiritual” (see W. Harold Mare, “Persecution,’ in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology).
It seems clear that what we see in contemporary America is a form of persecution. This is simply to state a fact, a fact that should always be kept in balance even as it is acknowledged. “As a boy,” Os Guinness of Trinity Forum told me, “I lived through the Chinese revolution and its wave of savage persecution against Christians, so we must always keep a sense of perspective. And of course, we must always respond, not with victim-playing, but in the way Jesus taught his followers to face hatred and opposition. But there's no doubt that prejudice and discrimination against the 'old faith' are mounting and that extreme persecution may be in the wings."
Clash of Opposites
“Persecution is simply the clash between two irreconcilable value-systems,” wrote John R. W. Stott in Christian Counterculture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. This is not to say that the clash of irreconcilable systems necessarily always results in physical or legal violence — and Christians especially should take care not to persecute those with whom they have theological differences, as for example occurred when pre-Reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake in July 1415 at the Council of Constance.
And yet, Stott’s comment about the clash of irreconcilable systems offers insight into much of what we have today: A smaller, but more organized and culturally powerful secular elite gripped by an anti-Christian worldview has successfully targeted the larger but less-organized and culturally less-powerful Christian community in America.
The two groups represent mutually irreconcilable worldviews, with the secularists declaring that Christianity is at best a subjective crutch that belongs in the closet and that, at worst, is responsible for just about all the ills of the modern world. A smaller group with a vision, plan, and the will to execute the plan, often has the advantage over a larger group, even a majority, if that larger group lacks these strengths and instead fears its loss of privilege, influence, or its “personal peace and affluence,” as Francis Schaeffer once put it.
The Christian community as a whole has yet to mount an effective answer to the challenge of today’s low-intensity persecution in America. What is needed is an answer that says (and demonstrates, observably) that Christianity is a total way of life based on verifiable truth about God, humanity, and the universe, and that the Judeo-Christian worldview alone gives an adequate intellectual and livable basis for the dignity of man and human creativity, the fight against evil and injustice, and the possibility of substantial healing across the whole of private and public life, including government, law, and education. We have to ask ourselves: If we have yet to sufficiently challenge the milder opposition we now face in America, what makes us think we will be ready if we have to face forms of “extreme persecution” that “may be in the wings”?
Thankfully, we in America have not yet faced the kind of systematic persecution that Guinness lived through as a boy in China and that others even now face in North Korea, China, in Islamic nations, and so on, around the globe. We should be thankful not just because friends and families are not being harmed, but also because the relative freedom we still enjoy in this land can be used to better provide aid to our brothers and sisters afflicted elsewhere around the globe.
Having said this, let us not forget that Christians in America have been subjected to a measure of lethal anti-Christian violence. We can think of the three students in Paducah, Ky., who in December 1997 were gunned down at Heath High School, where they had gathered in the lobby to pray. Five other members of the group were wounded. Then in April 1999, among the many casualties of Columbine High School in Colorado were one wounded and two murdered Christian students (the killers reportedly asked students, “Do you believe in God?”).
Then in September 1999, seven people died and seven were wounded at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth after a gunman fired into a congregation gathered for a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Those who think that severe, organized persecution could never happen here may want to consider the implications of abortion in America: that secularists are willing to spill human blood, even that of the innocent unborn, if they have the power and the law behind them. Is there anything more fascist than abortion?
“Social ostracism,” wrote E.M. Blaiklock in The Christian in Pagan Society, “in the early history of the church preceded official persecution.” There is a pattern in the move from milder to more extreme forms of persecution: First ostracize and demonize, then destroy. How many more years of the demonization of Christians will it take before the power-centers of society feel sufficiently emboldened to act against those who refuse to bend the knee to a modern Nero-class of government elites protected by activist supporters in the press, Hollywood, and on campus?
If the church, for example, can be demonized as a kind of cancer (which happened to a local congregation in Castle Hills, Texas, as Limbaugh’s Persecution reports), do we really think that anti-Christian hate groups will not employ this kind of sentiment to justify the attempt to remove the church and other “cancerous” groups from the body of society for the health of society? Christians are being persecuted in America, admitted one critic of the Limbaugh book, and they should be, according to this person — because we live in a multicultural society.
“If Christians do not fight for the right to express their faith, they will soon find themselves living in an America where the more severe forms of persecution become mainstream,” cautioned Lindevaldsen. Clearly, resisting the spirit of Herod and Pilate is not nearly as difficult as it some day may be, should the opposition actually enjoy the support of most Americans.
But there’s no need to wait for the arena and the full blast of evil against good. We can act now by waging love in small ways. Easter is at the door. Let the Easter eggs roll. Enjoy the colors of the day and the rising of the sun as it breaks over the horizon and casts the darkness away.
But we might also remember to tell a friend what it’s all about. That there was in space and time and history circa A.D. 33 a huge stone that you could touch with your hands. The rock was set in front of a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea, guarded by flesh-and-blood Roman guards whose lives depended upon making sure the body of Jesus of Nazareth remained undisturbed by friend or foe. Everything went according to plan, according to fate, the laws of life and death, the gods of Rome, and according to the wishes of the political and religious elites. Until the stone moved.
** Note: Rick Pearcey was primary editor of Persecution.
Rick Pearcey is editor and publisher of The Pearcey Report (archives). This article first appeared in Boundless in 2004. Copyright J. Richard Pearcey.