I cherish Christian friends and friends who practice other religions. With both groups I share the struggle to love God wholeheartedly, love my neighbors, hear and obey the Spirit’s promptings. In both groups I encounter some distrust of members of the other group. Some of my conservative Christian friends say non-Christians in the United States today are persecuting Christians. Some of my non-Christian friends say American Christians are privileged and are persecuting non-Christians. Both groups get outraged.
I don’t see American Christians being persecuted. American Muslims (and, to some extent, Sikhs) sometimes suffer surveillance, police harassment, and violence at the hands of angry and ignorant people. Some attackers may be Christians, though I think — and hope — that they’re motivated by fear and xenophobia more than religion. American Christians are in a majority. We can claim our faith publicly without risking surveillance, violence or imprisonment.
That doesn’t mean we always have it easy. According to the standard privilege checklist I’m privileged as a Christian, underprivileged as a woman, but I’ve encountered more hostility and dismissal for being Christian than for being female. People tell me Christians are ignorant irrational anti-Semitic homophobic misogynist bigots. People assume these things about me when I say I’m Christian. People tell me jokes based on those assumptions. I think this says less about our culture’s specific anti-Christianity than about its general tendency to polarization.
I fear that arguments over religious privilege and persecution may blind us to the real challenge our culture poses to our attempts to live in faithful community. By “faithful” I don’t mean “believing correctly” but “keeping faith with God and one another.” Faithful community begins with the understanding that we are members of one another and of God, and that the world is made up of sacred living beings who were not created primarily for our use or enjoyment. It requires gratitude, wonder, responsibility, compassion, humility, and self-discipline. People of many faiths and people who claim none recognize these values.
Consumer culture reduces other people and the living world to objects of use or pleasure. It encourages self-absorption, craving and resentment. It has taken over our economic and political system. We wreck our climate and our water supply to get cheap energy. We turn sex into a commodity and use it to sell products. We try to stimulate demand and create needs in order to grow the economy, ignoring the fact that intensifying selfish desire creates discontent and undermines truth, neighbor-love, gratitude, and joy.
Faithful practices such as chastity/fidelity, voluntary poverty, honesty and nonviolence are common to many religions, but the consumer culture depicts them as failures. When others mock these choices or offer us advice on how to sell ourselves and get ahead we may feel persecuted. It’s tempting to duck our responsibility to focus on God, care for the earth and stand up for our brothers and sisters who suffer injustice, and the consumer culture offers us a bewildering array of distractions and an easier set of life imperatives. This may feel like a privilege, but it is destructive to our own bodies and souls as well as to our neighbors.
The struggle between faithful community and consumer culture, between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, is not between Our People and Their People. It cuts through our own souls. In this struggle we are all united by our shared confession of fear, selfishness, failure and sin, and by the love that heals and frees us, and by our repeated attempts to turn again and live in faithfulness.
Joanna Hoyt is a homeschooled Quaker who has spent the past 12 years tending goats, gardens, and guests at St. Francis Farm, a Catholic Worker community in upstate New York.