"Opposition," said George Eliot, "may become sweeter to a man when he has christened it persecution."
According to the Daily Telegraph this week, some Christians in Britain may be doing just that, rebranding a sense of lost influence in the community as persecution.
Paraphrasing comments made in a BBC Easter documentary, the Telegraph reported that, "Christians in Britain are feeling persecuted because of 'paradoxical' human rights laws and the ignorance of local councils."
The programme's host, Nicky Campbell, was quoted as saying that while British Christians are not being tortured or killed as some in parts of the world, "a minority believes they are being sidelined and victimised [and] by the standards of a liberal society that can feel like persecution."
It’s no exaggeration to say that on some issues within Britain's cultural life, traditional Christian positions have less traction than was the case a generation or two ago.
Attitudes to marriage and family have shifted, for example, with the very definitions of these terms being subject to debate in a way that would have been unthinkable in the nominally Christian Britain of a generation ago.
Sexual mores have changed, as have attitudes to social responsibility, with more emphasis today on individual rights than on public responsibilities.
In these and other issues, the Christian voice today has a much lower profile in the cultural conversation than it did two decades back.
For some Christians, this combined with recent stories about people who’ve lost their jobs while making a stand for their faith, is fuelling a sense of alienation.
However, any claim that British Christians are being deliberately or systematically persecuted is bordering on the ludicrous or self-deluded.
Try telling the Christian minorities in North Korea or parts of the Muslim world that British Christians are persecuted. Try complaining about Western persecution to Chinese Christians, or to those who face death or destruction of property at the hands of Hindu extremists in parts of India.
According to Open Doors UK, a group set up to represent persecuted Christians, 100 million face persecution worldwide. Other estimates put the number at 200 million, with a further 350 million people being oppressed for their faith.
British Christians, of which I’m one, are hardly a part of either constituency. Like beauty, it seems, persecution may be "in the eye of the beholder."
True, human beings have always had a certain propensity for treating minorities badly – even those minorities who were once majorities. But it would take a lot for people in Britain to jettison their basic "fair’s fair" approach and actively set out to denigrate, on a wide scale, people of any faith -- and particularly, I suspect, Christianity.
Far from becoming active persecutors of the faithful, most British people seem to want to avoid the subject of faith altogether.
Now, I’m not sure that this is a healthy thing. After all, much of a culture is built around its "cult"- that is, the religious worldview which forms its traditional core.
Without reference to its heritage, including the part religion has played in shaping its values, a culture risks losing its moral compass, and its sense of higher purpose. In times of rapid change and material challenge, such a sense of transcendent purpose is more important than ever, as people look to define themselves according to values beyond those of keep-up-with-the-Joneses consumerism.
Whenever material security decreases in a community, the drive for moral altruism skyrockets – as is evidenced by the increase in giving to charity during recessions. Linked with this altruistic drive is very often a renewed quest for personal spirituality, and a curiosity about the religious beliefs that helped shape the culture.
This Easter, Christ in the Centre, a passion play presented in the middle of Leicester, will attract up to 10,000 spectators. They will follow the drama as it moves down the high street.
Meanwhile, The Passion of Jesus will be staged at Trafalgar Square by a group of 107 actors, with props including three 14 foot crosses and a prefabricated tomb. Again, up to 10,000 people are expected to follow the action as it unfolds in the square’s precinct.
The Archbishop of Westminster, who will offer prayers in the square says: “The story of the passion and death of Christ is, at one level, a dramatic exploration of the use of power, of betrayal and of love unto death. These are themes recognised by all people, at all times… People will connect with this presentation at a profound level.”
Far from being angry with the church, it seems that many Brits are curious about its central narrative – at least when it’s presented in an engaging way and on neutral turf, as opposed to within church walls.
For the most part, those that aren’t so curious at least respect the part Judeo-Christian values and worldview have played in shaping British and Western culture.
Bottom line: there is no persecution. (It’s hard to imagine crowds turning out for religious Passion plays in a nation where persecution of Christians is rife.)
In the end, of course, claiming persecuted status is not only disingenuous, it is a bad move strategically.
Once you've thrown a highly emotive word like “persecution" into the public debate, where do you go next if you want to increase respect for your cause?
How do you build a proactive campaign for change if you’ve already declared that the world is your enemy? How do you enlist active support from the wider community while claiming that they’re out to get you to begin with?
The real problem here, I suspect, is that some Christians begrudge the church’s loss of political or cultural power in our society. Once Europe was synonymous with Christendom, but today it is a pluralistic melting pot of religious and cultural ideas, approaches and values.
This, however, puts Britain and Europe much closer to the world of the first century apostles – at least in terms of attitudes to religion. And it may not be such a bad thing, given the evident success of those early evangelists in spreading their message.
Paul, Peter, James and John didn't sit around moaning about the abuse of their rights. In fact, they basically had no rights - and many of the most loved books of the New Testament were originally letters from prison cells, written by men in chains.
As long as the law and other instruments of our society continue to recognise the freedom of belief, real and sustained persecution is unlikely.
As for opposition – and even bias – Christianity’s historical heroes have always chosen to draw from it the motivation they needed to become more innovative in their approach.
The late Francis Schaefer, pastor and philosopher, noted that: "Pluralistic secularism, in the long run, is a more deadly poison then straightforward persecution." If he was right, Christians have enough on the plate without making exaggerated claims about persecution.
Branding opposition as persecution may serve to make some Christians feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term it serves them and the wider community poorly.
Mal's radio interview for ABC Radio National on this issue
Mal's radio interview for London's Premier Radio on this issue