It is interesting that no New Testament writer nor Jesus ever talked about living life in a predominantly Christian culture. Maybe that was because the Romans were so powerful, so dominating that they could not imagine life beyond the Roman Empire (can those of us who live in America imagine a post-American world?). Or maybe this was a realization on their part that true Christianity will never be the dominant culture of a whole community. Christianity has always been and is intended to be a “contrast community” to whatever is the prevailing way of life. But what about medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was essentially the government? What about John Calvin’s Geneva during the Renaissance period? What about 1950s America? Weren’t these Christian cultures? I would still argue that you had enough humanity mixed in with the divinity that what existed was not completely what God intended. The medieval Catholic Church spawned the Crusades. The Calvinists marginalized non-Calvinists. The 1950s in America were a low point for race relations, even between Christians.
Were we really expecting that the way of Christ would be the norm? Christ himself was not accepted by the majority of people he encountered. Nonetheless, yes, I think part of the problem with suffering that comes from persecution is that we have been expecting Christianity to be the norm. We had convinced ourselves that our culture (I am especially thinking about western countries) was predominantly Christian in the past and this is the way it still should be. Of course, we were forgetting that American Christianity was heavily influenced by the hate of the 50s, the revolt against authority and the glorification of individual in the 60s, the lifestyle experimentation and redefinition of the 70s, the greed of the 80s, the rootless angst of the 90s, the exploitation and celebrity idolatry of the 2000s, and now the fear of outsiders in the 2010s. We pine away for the better days of yesteryear, but the reality of those days do not actually measure up to our memories.
Peter gives different instructions for what to expect from society, instructions that presuppose a different way of seeing reality, instructions that would be good to remember today in a world that is increasingly more hostile to institutional Christianity and the way God has called His people to live in this world.
Sanctify the Messiah as Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to make a reply to anyone who asks you to explain the hope that is in you. Do it, though, with gentleness and respect. Hold on to a good conscience, so that when people revile your good behavior in the Messiah they may be ashamed. (3:15-16)
Maybe part of our perceived suffering comes from false expectations. We are expecting to be the “moral majority.” We want to be the ruling class. We want our way of life to be the norm. That only makes any rejection of our ways feel like the beginning of the slippery slope to moral degradation. It makes demeaning caricatures of Christians on television feel like disenfranchisement. It makes us feel marginalized and persecuted. But maybe God has always imagined that his people will be a set apart people, a “chosen race,” a “holy nation,” “strangers and resident aliens” (2:9, 11) different from the cultural norm and therefore easy targets for derision, or questioning at least.
With that change in perspective our job in life is very easy: be ready to explain our alternative way of thinking and living. And by all means enter into that dialogue with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Leave the fiery rhetoric to talk show hosts. Refuse to stoop to the demeaning attitudes and labeling that our opponents use. Avoid any tactic that resorts to power and coercion and legislation to enforce our thinking and behavior. Above all, we should be the people who do all of this with such goodness that people will be ashamed at how ugly their approaches look in comparison.