Harassment. It occurs in many forms, including religious. In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that incidents of harassment against Christians occurred in 143 countries in 2017. That number is slightly higher than for Muslims, significantly higher than all other religious groups, and marks a significant increase from a decade ago. In addition, in the majority of those countries, Christians were harassed by the government rather than by individuals.
None of this, of course, is new, and Jesus warned his disciples that such things would happen. Indeed, the disciples didn’t have long to wait, for harassment and persecution were already happening in the gospels and the book of Acts.
We’ve seen how Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch played to mixed reviews. Facing resistance from the Jews, who at first seemed positively disposed to hearing the gospel, Paul and Barnabas proclaimed that they had been commanded to bring the light of salvation to the Gentiles. Predictably, the Gentiles were happy with that declaration:
When the Gentiles heard this, they rejoiced and honored the Lord’s word. Everyone who was appointed for eternal life believed, and the Lord’s word was broadcast throughout the entire region. …Because of the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the disciples were overflowing with happiness. (Acts 13:48-49, 52, CEB)
And equally predictably, the Jews who were provoked to great “jealousy” (Acts 13:45) by the response of the Gentiles made life difficult for Paul and Barnabas:
[T]he Jews provoked the prominent women among the Gentile God-worshippers, as well as the city’s leaders. They instigated others to harass Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their district. Paul and Barnabas shook the dust from their feet and went to Iconium. (Acts 13:50-51)
Socially, the picture may have been this: while the city officials would all have been Gentile men, some of their wives attended synagogue to worship the God of the Jews. It’s easy to imagine the synagogue leaders stirring up these women against Paul and Barnabas, and the women in turn stirring up their husbands. This, coupled with a mob mentality, resulted in some combination of official and unofficial pressure that forced Paul and Barnabas out of the city of Antioch and the region of Pisidia.
They shook the dust off their feet in protest, as Jesus had taught his disciples to do (Matt 10:14). The gesture was an act of warning; as Jesus himself said, “I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city” (Matt 10:15). But even as Paul and Barnabas traveled east to Iconium, they probably knew they would be back, for they were leaving behind a group of new believers who would become the core of a new church.
Here at the beginning of a new year — indeed, in the United States, an election year — it’s worth remembering such stories of harassment. We must vote wisely and conscientiously, but never under the illusion that any candidate or political platform will bring the kingdom of God. We must do what is right and just, without the illusion that we will win in the court of public opinion for doing so. We must humbly exercise what influence we have, without the illusion that we can neither be tempted nor corrupted by power.
It is the church’s mission to spread the gospel, not simply by telling it, nor by legislating it, but by living it — by being people who know, embody, and speak the truth, in love.
That last part, “in love,” is crucial. It’s one thing to be harassed for bringing light to darkness, truth to a realm of lies.
But it’s another to be harassed for being unloving, impatient, overbearing, lacking in compassion, and just plain rude. That is not how we must bear the name of Christ.
The character of God’s kingdom is demonstrated in the character of God’s people, even and especially in the face of harassment. May our lives show what it means to follow the crucified One.