Confessions of Fire: Religious Persecution, Xenophobia & Christian Media
A word on religious violence, xenophobia and how we must exercise care with the news outlets we share to buttress our anger and confusion toward violence against Christians.
During Easter services at this church, a pastor confessed to his congregation that he hoped Muslims were found responsible for the fire that destroyed Notre Dame in Paris, an act so egregious that the mass elimination of Muslims from Paris would be all but necessary. Although he mentioned that thought during an act of repentance, the entirety of his comments displayed a sad common belief amongst many Christians: the persecution of Christians is solely at the hands of Muslims and the media refuses to acknowledge our plight. How did we get here?
“I immediately made that conclusion, but that’s not the bad part that I’m confessing. I was hoping it was Muslim terrorism so that, hopefully, there would be a violent purge of Muslims from France. I wanted that because France is lost.”
On Easter Sunday of 2019, Pastor Carl Johnson of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Kittanning, PA confessed to his congregation that he hoped Muslims were found responsible for the fire that destroyed Notre Dame in Paris, an act so egregious that the mass elimination of Muslims from France would be absolutely necessary.
Although he confessed to be wrong about matching “evil with evil”, he continued to say that “it’s only going to take a generation, maybe two, before France is Muslim, and there’s no stopping it. There’s just no stopping it.”
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St. John’s congregation made their disapproval very clear with Pastor Johnson’s confession, many walking out of church in protest. However what they heard was not just an unique confession from their pastor. Multiple stories surfaced online pinning responsibility for the fire onto Muslims. False reports and doctored videos purported to show Muslims cheering as they watched Notre Dame burn to the ground.
Most of these websites labeling Muslims as the cause of the fire were right-wing, ultra-conservative and Christian. Sitting at the intersection of white nationalism and fundamentalist Christianity, these website spew racist and xenophobic language about Muslims, using violence against Christians to bolster their desire for a mass elimination of Muslims. They also run rampant on Facebook and other social media websites. Your 65-year-old White uncle probably forwards you that email chain with that article from that website.
As a Philadelphia and Washington DC native, Muslims surrounded my daily life. I have Muslims in my family. The Autobiography of Malcolm X changed my life. When I hear people speak about Muslims in absolutes, I get angry. I take high offense to the phrase “Islamic extremist”.
But as I’ve seen in my attempts to correct this laissez-faire attempt to lament the death of Christians, bringing an ounce of context into this conversation about the religious persecution of believers labeled you as a non-believer of that persecution. As a Black Christian, I’ve seen enough church bombings, arsons and shootings to know that persecution is alive and real. I also know and believe that the persecution of Christians does happen. What I also know is that these atrocities deserve to be covered in their fullness so we can take a multi-level approach to fighting this type of violence. Where eradicating Muslims is never the solution.
But I wonder how we got to this point, where asking for context is dismissive of persecution and pastors can wish for the death of Muslims, using false news and narratives to bolster their hate.
In May, The British government released the early parts of a report which found that, “eradicating Christians and other minorities through violence was the explicit objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, northeast Nigeria and the Philippines.” The report states that the three main factors of religious persecution are a “political failure creating a fertile ground for religious extremism; a turn to religious conservatism in countries such as Algeria and Turkey; and institutional weaknesses around justice, the rule of law and policing, leaving the system open to exploitation by extremists.”
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These early findings, reported by multiple “mainstream” news outlets such as The Guardian, CNN and Newsweek, made clear the cause of this religion-based violence: a combination of broken political and social justice systems and the rise of religious extremism.
A stellar example of reporting? “The Impossible Future of Christians in the Middle East” by Emma Green from The Atlantic. It’s a story about history, persecution, displacement, American intervention, regional politics and geo-political motives. A harrowing but whole picture of Christian persecution the Middle East. Even through its context, the point remains that “Christians who live in these places are subject to discrimination, government-sanctioned intimidation, and routine violence.”
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Christianity Today and Christian Broadcasting Network often cover the persecution of Christians with heft, acknowledging that the persecution is felt by “non-Muslims”, not just Christians. They also note that the execution of Christian persecution is sometimes leveled by other faiths. They will then conclude that an unfair political infrastructure gave way for this violence to occur at its current rapid pace.
The New Yorker, The Atlantic, NPR and the liberal bastion itself, New York Times, cover the bombings in Sri Lanka and around the world with grace, care, context and — most importantly — ethics. Mainstream Christian media such as Christianity Today and Christian Broadcasting Network cover religious persecution with tact. The extreme, ultra-conservative Christian media who use xenophobic language to describe Muslims as “Christian killers”? That makes it onto your favorite family member’s Facebook feed. Unfortunately, these are the news outlets shared the most and do the worst damage to our witness.
After the bombing of two mosques in New Zealand, several news links traveled around Facebook purporting to report on a “massacre” of Christians in Nigeria. These stories made the rounds as a way to diminish the outrage toward the atrocities against Muslims.
This Breitbart article below is an example of what most of us witness on our Facebook feeds:
“Finally, the story simply does not play to the political agenda that many mainstream media would like to advance. How much mileage can be gained from Muslims murdering Christians, when Christians in America are often seen as an obstacle to the “progress” desired by liberals? The left sees Christians in the United States as part of the problem and seeks to undermine their credibility and influence at every turn rather than emboldening them.”
Anti-Christian bias has been rightly called “the last acceptable prejudice,” one that few bother condemning.”
The piece goes on to say that racism, anti-Blackness, anti-Christianity and classism are the reasons why mainstream media refuses to cover these stories. The irony of Breitbart lamenting racism, anti-Blackness and classism should be wildly apparent.
This is what we see on Facebook. Not CNN, not The Atlantic, not Christianity Today, not CBN. Never in those articles do we see that “Muslims kill Christians” or “Christians are being murdered by Muslims and the media won’t cover that fact.” Why? Because Muslims are not always responsible, Christians are not always the primary target of religious persecution by extremists and sometimes we believers in Christ persecute our own. Where do we see this? Breitbart, called the “bastion of the alt-right.”
But even when we ignore Breitbart, it sometimes can be done inadvertently by Christian media with the most benevolent of intentions. For example, In “Ongoing Slaughter of Nigerian Christians Receives Scant Media Coverage,” Faithwire’s Carly Hoilman writes:
“As the world continues the mourn following the devastating mosque shootings Friday that killed 50 people and injured dozens more in Christchurch, New Zealand, an eerie hush has fallen over the media regarding the ongoing mass slaughter of Christians in Nigeria. […] The question that remains, then, is why the media wouldn’t choose to cover other instances of gross injustice with the same vigor?”
She continues to say that, “terrorism, murder, racism and religious bigotry are evils that deserve our categorical condemnation. As we continue to reflect on the tragedy in New Zealand, let us resolve to fiercely denounce injustice wherever it lurks, remembering that every life — whether Muslim, Christian, black or white — is loved by a perfectly just God.”
To say that the coverage of violence against Christians is “scant” is clever particularly because it is covered — with context.
That very same Council on Foreign Relations recently took aim at Fox News’ coverage of Nigeria’s violence which compared the West Africa country’s violence to the recent attacks in Sri Lanka:
“The appropriateness of a comparison between Sri Lanka and Nigeria is not clear. Their ethnic make-up, social statistics, and post-colonial experiences are vastly different. Not least, Christians and Muslims are a tiny minority in Sri Lanka, a predominately [sic] Buddhist country, while in Nigeria, Christians and Muslims each constitute about half of the population. Identifying the perpetrators of atrocities in both countries is difficult. Although the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, it is not clear what its role was in the Sri Lanka bombings or, for that matter, what its role is in northern Nigeria.”
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The piece concludes that “Christians are certainly murdered in Nigeria, and in some cases, they are murdered because they are Christian. But, despite Boko Haram’s murderous hostility to Christians, most of its victims have always been Muslim, not least because the insurgency takes place in a predominantly Muslim part of the country.”
The issue I find for most is that mainstream news fails to call the explicit cause of this violence to be the victim’s Christianity. When missionaries on the ground report this violence, it explicitly declares that Christians are being slaughtered. To say that economics, land rights and politics play a role in the violence — and that the victims can also be persecutors —somehow dismisses their claim and the religious persecution of Christians altogether. I believe that to be wrong. I believe that it does not erase one the main factors for this violence. It adds context.
Context isn’t evil. It’s necessary. It prevents retributional attacks against Muslims. It provides a multi-pronged approach to ending this type of violence.
It’s dangerous to paint Muslims as the sole murderers of Christians and as anti-Christian because — in the simplest of ways — that’s not true. It’s the extreme of that faith who persecute us, not all. Just as the extreme of our faith kill abortion providers, shoot up synagogues and blow up mosques. But we don’t accept responsibility for those people even though they wear the same label as we do. It’s also dangerous to weaponize the emotions of Christians who possess a genuine care and concern for their Christian brothers and sisters around the world. That is what sites like Breitbart hope to do.
In order to understand why the persecution of Christians stokes high emotions from us in the body of Christ, we must address the origin and beginnings times of our faith.
Death threats against Jesus began before he could form coherent sentences. When King Herod heard that the true “king of the Jews” was born, he decreed that every boy under the tender age of two to be killed (Matthew 2:16). John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus, had his head severed from his body by Herodias (Mark 6:14–24). Jesus escaped death by mob. Due to his defiance of the Pharisees, he was ordered — and infamously — killed (Matthew 12:14, John 19:19–30).
Jesus told the disciples to “be careful […] be on guard for the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” declaring that “you will be hated by everyone because of me.” (Matthew 10:22, 16:6). He warned that he sent the disciples out “like sheep amongst wolves” and that they should be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves […] you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.” (10:17). All of the remaining disciples were either jailed, tortured or murdered. Paul, as Saul, who became the de facto first leader of the church, captured and killed followers of Jesus — collectively known as The Way — for a living before Jesus intervened (Acts 9). Paul then wrote many of the essential and influential letters to the Church from jail. The early Church was the religious minority of its day, operating in towns and cities dominated by Jews.
Persecution continued toward the early Church until around the times of Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and established many of the laws, orders and decrees that the Church still uses today. Through Constantine’s power, the Church grew to amass large swaths of people, thanks to the Crusades, the most notorious set of religious wars of our time. But as the region’s leadership changed, so did its religious makeup. The Middle East, East Asia and Africa are mostly comprised of Muslim-majority countries. The religious diversity of these regions is lost and as we know, the combination of religion and power brew corruption and no faith — Christianity, Judaism or Islam — is exempt from falling into that trap. So as we’ve seen throughout history, the pendulum of persecution swung back in the direction of Christians.
The life of Jesus and Scripture tell us that to be a Christian means to be persecuted. Openly expressing and living as a believer and follower of Christ will get you killed. The early church that we hold dear faced persecution that we as American Christians will never understand or experience. We acknowledge its bloody truth within our history and marvel at the fact that it continues today. What we sometimes fail to acknowledge is that we are not the only faith falling victim to persecution nor do we acknowledge the complexities of that persecution.
Speaking about religious persecution in an analogous way does not diminish the persecution of Christians in East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Adding context to the conflicts in Nigeria, Iraq and Syria does not dilute a fact that Christians are murdered by Muslims. Stating that Christians are sometimes the perpetrators of religious persecution and violence does not minimize or erase the moments when we are indeed victims of such crimes.
What it does it right the wrongs of a so-called “Christian media” who use these crimes to erase concern and mourning for Muslims slaughtered for their faith. Writing with context combats the despicable use of this violence to bolster racist and xenophobic narratives about Muslims. We should find ourselves in a state of worry and terror when our Muslim brothers and sisters die at the hands of religious terrorists. Why? Because if they are unsafe, so are we.
That contextual view of religious violence in the aforementioned The Atlantic piece is missing from most online coverage of the persecution of Christians. What’s shared on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms on social media, at least. What we do find is xenophobic propaganda against Muslims.
Too much quality journalism from Christian and non-Christian media exists to be shared on Facebook. Not the ultra-conservative, pro-Trump dribble that tends to make the rounds online in order to express our concern and prove our point.
It’s not about left-wing or right-wing agenda. It’s about right and wrong. It’s about pointing out xenophobic and anti-Muslim nonsense. It’s about calling out pseudo-journalistic garbage aimed at incinerating hate. It’s about lamenting why arson leveled against Black churches is met with silence until guilt is mustered up when pressed by social media to acknowledge its existence but a months-old “news” link is shared on Facebook to prove that “martyrdom” is real and that “no Christian is safe.”
I recently learned how large our sphere of influence is as Christians. The seeds we plant into our world are harvested in ways that we may never get a chance to see. Some of those seeds — our mission and ministry — are for good. In this case, our witness is tarnished — our seeds grow trees that bare no fruit — when we use non-contextual, hyper-political pseudo-journalism to bolster what we know to be true — through our Scripture and experience. We don’t need the bullshit to bolster facts.
We must ask these questions and silence the noise. Why? Because a pastor confessed that he wished for the violent erasure of Muslims in France. That is something we must address and atone for because Christian media — and Christians, in general — bares responsibility for influencing his thoughts. Who else could he have received this misinformation from? No one else but us.