Rod Dreher believes that “A time of painful testing, even persecution, is coming” upon Christians living in the U.S. Dreher, who is a senior editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Benedict Option and Live Not by Lies, claims that “A progressive – and profoundly anti-Christian militancy – is steadily overtaking society.”
Dreher identifies the persecutors as the liberal elite. They are the “social justice warriors,” and the “woke” crowd. They despise traditional Christian morality as hateful and bigoted.
Some traditional Christians think that Dreher has overplayed his hand, and I agree. His comparisons between Soviet era repression and “woke” culture activism have generated fear and hostility toward the very people Christians are to win for Christ. Persecution complexes are hardly conducive to evangelism.
The absence of cultural and political power does not equal persecution. It may, however, prepare the way for it. Once people have been villainized, as traditional Christians have been over their beliefs about sexual morality, it becomes easier to treat them unjustly. Today, if someone says that gay marriage is outside God’s will – even though President Obama said something like this in 2008 – they qualify as a hatemonger.
This cultural powerlessness-demonization-injustice sequence is old and familiar. In the middle of the first century, St. Paul came to Ephesus (a thriving port city along what is now Turkey’s central coast) and had considerable success in evangelizing people and instructing them in the way of Christ. But, as anyone familiar with the New Testament Book of Acts might expect, there was a backlash.
To make sense of what happened, some background is helpful. Ephesus was a principal center of Artemis worship in the eastern Mediterranean. A magnificent temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, had been built for the goddess where, as legend had it, her image had fallen from the sky. The temple was one of the Mediterranean’s great tourist attractions.
It was also one of the Mediteraanean’s great money-making enterprises. The production of miniature shrines to Artemis was a booming business. People who purchased a shrine were assured that they could worship the goddess in their own country just as truly as they did in her great temple.
The local economy, and the lifestyle it made possible, depended on the tourism that Artemis worship generated. So, when Paul came on the scene, saying things like, “we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill,” he was viewed as a threat.
The text of Acts is instructive here. An influencer named Demetrius called a meeting of local craftsmen and “workers in related fields.” Some of these were probably competitors, but you would never know this from Demetrius’ skillful oratory. He addresses them as comrades who face a common threat. With his use of first person plurals, he sets up an us-against-them scenario.
He then deftly conveys the idea that the Christians pose a threat to their economic security. His, “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business,” is a subtle reminder of what his hearers stand to lose.
He applies pressure by stating – perhaps, overstating – Paul’s success. He has “convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia.” He warns of the “danger that … our trade will lose its good name.”
He rounds off his argument with a religious note: “The great goddess Artemis will be discredited … robbed of her divine majesty.” With worries about economic security in place, and religious devotion as justification, Demetrius incites a riot that imperils Christians and turns Ephesus upside down.
Could something similar happen here? Possibly. The way has been paved. What ought Christians do? They ought to pull together across denominational lines, love and support each other, and bear testimony to God’s love before the people who oppose them.
But they must not adopt their opponent’s tactics. Demonizing enemies and stirring up hostility is not the way of Jesus. St. Paul taught Christians, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Evil can be overcome in no other way.