First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
(2 Timothy 2:1-4)
We can be thankful that most Christians in the United States have faced little state-sponsored persecution because of their faith. Unfortunately, this general freedom from persecution has given Christians (and those who profess to be Christians) many opportunities to endanger the life, liberty, and property of others. Not sure what I'm talking about? Here's a short list.
- For decades, English settlers in New England encroached on the land of the Wampanoag. Major conflict finally erupted in King Philip's War of 1675-1676. In December of 1675, a group of colonists launched a preemptive strike against a peaceful settlement of the Narragansett, killing hundreds of men, women, and children and forcing many more out of their homes into harsh winter conditions.
- About 200 people were accused of witchcraft and about 150 were arrested in and around Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The ages of the accused ranged from those in their 70s down to the youngest, a four-year-old girl. Nineteen people were convicted and executed, one died during torture, and four died in prison. An infant born to one of the condemned women in prison also died. The Massachusetts colony reversed the convictions in 1711, but that was a little late for those condemned.
- About 500,000 people from Africa were brought as slaves to what became the United States. Since the colonies obviously did not have enough slaves by the 1780s, the U.S. Constitution allowed the slave trade ("The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit") to continue legally for another 20 years.
- The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced tens of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and other native tribes to leave their homes in the southeastern United States, endure brutal journeys west, and settle in the "Indian Territory" that became Oklahoma. Several thousand died.
- Latter Day Saints (Mormons) faced persecution in several states during the 1800s. The governor of Missouri issued an order in 1838 that Mormons should be driven from the state or exterminated. (The order was finally rescinded in 1976.)
The unwarranted invasion of Mexico (1846-1848) by United States troops led to several hundred civilian deaths and much destruction of property.
As white settlers moved farther west in the mid- to late-1800s, the U.S. government waged an aggressive war against the Plains Indians. The 1890 massacre of Lakota Sioux civilians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota is often considered the end of major violence, though sporadic fighting continued until the 1920s. An unknown number of Native Americans were killed during this period, and most of the survivors were herded onto reservations.
American plantation owners in Hawaii, with tacit support from the U.S. government, deposed Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii and established a new government. The islands were soon annexed as a U.S. territory.
The United States gained control of the Philippines in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. The U.S. opposed the desires of Filipinos who wanted to govern themselves, and three years of fighting ensued. Some 4,000 American soldiers died compared with 20,000 Filipino soldiers and 200,000 Filipino civilians. The Philippines became an autonomous commonwealth in 1935 but did not gain full independence until 1946.
During World War II, over 110,000 people in the United States who had Japanese ancestry were ordered to leave their homes on the West Coast. The government took them to live in internment camps. The majority of these were citizens of the United States. In 1988 the U.S. government issued a formal apology for the internment, admitting that the policy was motivated by prejudice. Legislation authorized the payment of $20,000 to each camp survivor.
Peaceful protesters during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s endured police brutality and faced imprisonment for their actions.
The War on Drugs has wasted law enforcement resources prosecuting nonviolent offenders who need help not prison, and it has led directly to the death of innocent people in botched police raids.
U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries have killed an unknown number of innocent victims--people who were merely suspected of having links to terrorists and people who simply ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dozens of innocent people have been sent to death row in the United States by overzealous police and prosecutors, lying witnesses, and prejudiced juries. Since 1973, over 150 death row inmates have been released from prison. How many innocent people have been executed?
I recognize that not all of the people involved in these atrocities were Christians or even claimed to be Christians. However, some of those involved were Christians, or least church-goers in good standing--from Presidents to police, from judges to juries. And there were many more professing Christians at the time who condoned what happened or took no action to protest.
The social and religious landscape in the United States is changing. The time may come when non-Christians use the power of the sword against Christians here, as they are doing in other countries right now.
Until that time, however, Christians in the United States should spend less time worrying about defending ourselves and our "rights" and more time working to protect others from all forms of prejudice, hatred, and violence.
Martin Niemöller was a Protestant pastor in Germany who initially supported the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Niemöller eventually saw the threat that Hitler posed to the church, spoke out against the Nazis, and spent seven years in a concentration camp. After the war he recognized the failure of God's people to stand up for other people, regardless of their faith or actions. He said:
Do you need to speak up for someone else today?