The last couple of months have seen remarkable publicity given to Christian faith in Australia through the controversy surrounding the comments from Israel Folau about a specific group of people who are, in his opinion, destined for the eternal fires of hell.

At the same time, a report commissioned by the former British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, revealed that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.

On the street

Social historian Rodney Stark says that one of the major reasons for the explosive growth of the church in the first three centuries was their care for the poor, the destitute and the abandoned. PICTURE: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

As well as that, in December last year, when one of our major political parties announced that it would increase overseas aid to poor people if it won this year’s Federal Election, the outcry from thousands of Christians across the country was deafening in some parts.

History shows that when Christians get too close to power, our witness loses its cutting edge. It has been happening since Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and it is just as toxic today as it was back then.

"There is no evidence that the early Christians fought for their own rights. They did not seek to create a Christian society. They instead sought to be an alternative kingdom, drawing people in through love rather than through trying to win a culture war."

For the first 300 years of the church, the Sermon on the Mount was its guiding framework. It was a time of intense persecution when Christian faith was subversive, counter-cultural and challenged the status quo. It was also the time of the greatest growth in the history of the church.

When Christianity became the official religion of the empire however, commands to love our enemies and pray for those persecuting us didn’t fit so well with the empire’s narrative of violent military conquest, so those teachings of Jesus had to be reinterpreted or just plain ignored.

As Tim Costello pointed out recently, Jesus didn’t go around demanding legislation to protect his rights. Jesus didn’t advocate for freedom of religion legislation.

We see the same in the early church. They lived and literally died for their conviction that to be Christian was to love their neighbours, especially the poor. The social historian, Rodney Stark, says that one of the major reasons for the explosive growth of the church in the first three centuries was their care for the poor, the destitute and the abandoned. The Christian movement grew at such a rapid pace that by the time it became the official religion of the empire, literally half the population claimed allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth.

There is no evidence that the early Christians fought for their own rights. They did not seek to create a Christian society. They instead sought to be an alternative kingdom, drawing people in through love rather than through trying to win a culture war.

Christians are never called to fight for our own rights; we are called to fight for the rights of others. Just as the 'Friend of Sinners' was sent to the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, so He sends us.

True Christian faith always sits on the margins. That is the very nature of love, which as Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, sums up the whole Law.

Love is the only force in the universe that helps us see clearly. By focusing on ourselves, we slowly but surely become blind guides, turning ever more inward and away from love until we justify what was previously unthinkable.

The most extreme example of this in the last 100 years is the rise of the ‘German Christians’ movement in Nazi Germany. Following the disaster of World War I and the resultant decimation of the German economy through the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler’s rise to power came on the back of promises to make Germany a great nation again. The German Christians movement was a major backer of Hitler’s strategy. 

My parents grew up in Nazi Germany. They were both forced into the Hitler Youth, where they were taught the propaganda of Nazi ideology. My mother has spoken of happy times with her playmates during those days. Little did they know of the sinister underlyings of what was really going on. 

Much has been written of how such a civilised nation could support such atrocities as those the Nazis committed. But such is the seduction of power. When the metaphorical frog is placed in cold water, and that water is slowly brought to boil, the frog will stay in the water, completely oblivious to the fact that it is about to be boiled alive. 

"It is through suffering that the world is transformed, not through access to power. The early Christians discovered this. The entire New Testament was written in a context of suffering and persecution. It is largely from there that we learn what the Gospel is."

The German Christians movement was an evangelical movement, much like the vast majority of white evangelicals in the United States today who support Donald Trump. The silence from those evangelicals in the US following the President’s overtly racist statements about the four coloured Congresswomen recently was terrifying. It was even more terrifying when the crowd of supporters at a Trump rally screamed in unison, “send her back!” in response to lies by the President about one of those Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar.

Make no mistake about the parallels between the slow onset of the demonisation of the ‘other’ based on race in Nazi Germany and what we saw recently from the President of the United States. On the surface, the comparison sounds outlandish, and it is certainly not accurate to compare Donald Trump to Hitler. However the temperature of the water is rising, and the metaphorical frog of decency is slowly dying.

This is the price we pay for our obsession with our own rights and our seduction by the lords of power. All of this could be yours if you will only worship me, said the devil to Jesus in the wilderness. But Jesus stuck close to His Father. He remembered that the way to life was the way of the cross, the way of suffering, sacrificial love.

It is through suffering that the world is transformed, not through access to power. The early Christians discovered this. The entire New Testament was written in a context of suffering and persecution. It is largely from there that we learn what the Gospel is. 

Jesus said we would be known by our love. And while the early Christians certainly weren’t perfect, it is high time for us to once again learn how we can emulate their life of love within genuine persecution.