To persecute is to push down on a weaker group, at least somewhat continuously, in order to weaken or destroy it.
For Catholics, the example that sets the type is the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome. That could be quite severe, although the nature of Roman society and government meant it was mostly sporadic and localized.
The usual penalty for obdurate adherence to Christianity was death. That was cruel, but it reflected the limitations of pre-modern government. There were few public officials. Families and communities organized themselves and ran their own affairs, with the general government mostly carrying out a few specific functions: defense against invasion, maintenance of public order, administration of justice, public works like roads, harbors, and aqueducts, and—of course—collecting taxes.
Under such circumstances, punishments were simple, speedy, and direct: fines, whipping, exile, enslavement, execution. The point was to get the job done. Fines and beatings seemed an insufficient response to Christianity once its seriousness had become evident. That left exile, enslavement, and execution, all of which were used.
The persecution reached its climax under Diocletian, who wanted to reconstitute the empire on a basis that included rededication to the old Roman gods. That left no room for Christianity, and he tried to get rid of it. The effort failed—the Christians were too devoted, and by this time too numerous and well-regarded.
After that failure, the Romans in effect decided that if they couldn’t beat them, they would join them, and the empire became Christian. So the Roman persecutions ended happily. There was enough persecution to keep Christians serious and inspire them with examples of heroism, but not enough actually to eliminate them or even seriously discourage them.
The Roman persecutions had been based on the view that a novel religion that broke with ancestral tradition, worshiped a condemned criminal, held unauthorized private meetings, and rejected public festivals and civic rituals (like emperor worship) was self-evidently a bad thing that ought to be suppressed—especially if its adherents obstinately (Catholics would say faithfully) resisted what was considered correction.
From the Roman point of view, the persecutions, however bad in fact, seemed a normal part of maintaining public order. They thought it was the Christians and not their persecutors who were acting badly.
Something similar is true of persecution in general. People today speak of “hate” and “intolerance,” as if these explained everything. But they reject the classical liberal ideal of neutrality in favor of government efforts to reform social attitudes. It is impossible to do that neutrally, without trying to enforce a view about which ways of life are good and bad. And that means suppressing inconsistent views.
So, for contemporary Western governments, as for social authorities at other times and places, the basic issue is the nature of reality and good social order. If they think Christianity is in line with them, they will support it. If not, they will, in one way or another, try to weaken it to the point of insignificance.
Since Roman times there have, of course, been many persecutions of Christians, some continuing today. But there are complexities. Some, like the old-style communist ones, have been rather like Roman persecutions—only worse, since the intense ideological emphasis and the power of the modern state made them far more continuous and thorough.
Others have been less organized. In Nigeria, thousands of Christians are killed every year for being Christian, but the actions are somewhat random, and it’s terrorist and tribal groups rather than the government who are at work. In other places, Christians are attacked or punished for something connected to Christianity rather than Christianity as such. A believer may be punished for proselytizing, or a priest killed for speaking up against some social or political evil.
Above all, there’s a tendency to make persecutions less violent. That happened in much of the communist world after Stalin. And in the West the comprehensive reach and activity of the modern state, and its growing integration with what were once considered private businesses and institutions—for example, regarding efforts to mold attitudes and understandings—give growing pertinence to the concept of “soft persecution.”
That is a situation in which dissent from the official ideology is formally permitted, but social disapproval, institutional policies, and various legal requirements make life increasingly difficult for those who reject it. In its modern form, it is an expression of the growth of market and bureaucratic arrangements, which have come to form an ever more integrated structure that guides the whole of life and radically weakens informal and inherited social ties.
In such a setting, people find it hard to know who they are apart from career and other formal aspects of social position. That makes them controllable. In addition, they are constantly bathed in messages from educators, employers, advertisers, journalists, entertainers, and so on, inculcating the unique legitimacy of the established order. The result is a system of top-down social control that becomes ever more comprehensive, pervasive, and effective even as punishments become more gentle.
If you are a dissident in a way that our rulers care about—for example, someone who pushes a serious alternative to official ideas about good and bad in a way that they fear may gain traction—you are likely to find yourself effectively shut out of public discussion. You may lose access to banking services and find it difficult to get and hold a job. If you are a baker, you may be sued for refusing to produce a cake honoring the purported marriage of two men. If you are a coach, you may lose your job for saying the sexes differ in athletic ability. And if you are employed by a large organization, your employer is likely to train you in correct thought in order to ward off “hostile environment” lawsuits by sexual, cultural, or religious minorities.
But here we have the problem that persecutors always think their actions are justified. The Romans thought they were right to call out and cancel Christians for what they considered antisocial attitudes and practices. So why wouldn’t people today feel the same way? Why wouldn’t they take to heart the Wikipedia article about the “Christian persecution complex,” which says it’s a fantasy provoked by loss of privilege, and ignore complaints?
That’s all the more likely, because the authorities think the persecuting boot is on the other foot. In their view, it is the baker, coach, and “hostile” employees mentioned above who are the persecutors. Christians have always persecuted other people to advance their favored form of society—or so people say, so why listen to them now? Then it was burning heretics; now it is violating the civil rights of sexual minorities by trying to get pornography out of school libraries. In both cases, though, people see the same principle at work.
So, our complaints are not likely to do much good: there is no neutral standard for us to appeal to. What matters is to understand, articulate, and—above all—accept and live by our own position. Then suppressing it will seem more trouble than it is worth. More importantly, if it really does tell us the best way to live, we will get the benefit of that, and demonstrate in our lives the perversity of attempting to suppress it.
Adversity clarifies issues, so the blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the Church. The same may prove true of the struggles of the canceled. If we remain true to what we are, our weakness, compromises, and betrayals will not stand in the way. May God help us rise to the occasion.
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