The Need for a Definition

What does “persecution” mean? An inadequate definition can lead to an inappropriate response, or worse, not being able to recognize the subtle existence of a type of persecution in a person’s own context. Examples of a definition can be found in the Bad Urach Statement (published by the International Institute for Religious Freedom), the writings of Charles L.Tieszen, Paul Marshall (Hudson Institute scholar), and the late Glenn Penner, former CEO of the Voice of the Martyrs, Canada. Engaging with their definitions can provide a framework not only for understanding the facets of persecution but also for helping us evaluate events in our own cultural setting that point to forms of persecution that were not recognizable before. 

Persecution, as described in the Bad Urach Statement, is essentially suffering for the sake of Christ while serving him. This definition refers to Christian persecution, but the term is used in a much broader sense in society. The Bad Urach Statement recognizes this and offers three more definitions, from the general to the specific. A general definition of persecution is any “unjust hostile action which causes damage from the perspective of the victim (s).” It can come from multiple motivations and be delivered in multiple forms and degrees.

“Religious persecution” is an unjust action against a believer or a group of believers motivated by religious reasons, although other motivations, like ethnic hatred, gender issues, or political viewpoint, may also be a part of the action. It includes systematic oppression, discrimination, annoyance, genocide, and harassment. Persecution of Christians further narrows the definition to “persecution for religious reasons because they are Christians.” These actions would include the systematic denial of religious freedom and rights. 

Glenn Penner offered a definition of persecution as “a situation where Christians are repetitively, persistently and systematically inflicted with grave and serious suffering or harm and deprived of (or significantly threatened with deprival of) their basic human rights because of a difference that comes from being a Christian that the persecutor will not tolerate.”

Charles L. Tieszen developed definitions for three levels of persecution. At its most basic level it must be an action, and it could range from mildly hostile, carried out socially (like shunning or ostracizing), physically (beatings, torture), and psychologically (isolation, harassment) based on multiple motivations, and must be considered or perceived by the victim as negative and persecution. For a definition of religious persecution, he offers this: “an unjust action of varying levels of hostility directed at a believer or believers of a particular religion or belief-system through systematic oppression or genocide, or through harassment or discrimination which may not necessarily limit these believers’ ability to practice their faith, resulting in varying levels of harm as it is considered from the victim’s perspective, each action having religion as its primary motivator.”

Tieszen also offers a “theological” definition, but before we address that, we need to look at a definition of “Christian” persecution. Tieszen quotes Ronald Boyd-MacMillan’s definition as follows: “Christian persecution is any hostility, experienced from the world, as a result of one’s identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitudes, words, and actions.” This is a good, functional definition of persecution that most Christians, I imagine, adhere to. But Tieszen feels the need for a theological definition. A theological definition includes the expectation of persecution, as taught in John 15:18 and 2 Timothy 3:12, in a systematic manner, not ruling out actions against Christians that do not necessarily violate their religious freedom or are not consistently discriminatory. When a Christian is murdered because of faith, a theological understanding of this would be that the Christian was martyred. Tieszen offers the following as a theological definition: “Any unjust action of mild to intense levels of hostility directed at Christians of varying levels of commitment resulting in varying levels of harm which may not necessarily prevent or limit these Christians’ ability to practice their faith or appropriately propagate their faith as it is considered from the victim’s perspective, each motivation having religion, namely the identification of its victims as ‘Christian,’ as its primary motivator.”

Both Marshall and Tieszen acknowledge that “Christian” can have many meanings, depending on their level of commitment. Marshall distinguishes between census, member, practicing, or committed Christians. The census Christian, at one end of the scale, is Christian in name only, and the committed Christian, at the other end, is one whose faith is the central aspect of his life. When Marshall and Tieszen use the term “Christian,” they include all four categories. Perhaps the best way to say it is that they accept as Christian anyone who is being persecuted because of their faith in or association with Christ. 

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