At a March 2023 public talk, journalist Greg Sheridan argued that 40 years ago, the press was friendly to church leaders. Then, it became neutral, and now it is hostile. Sheridan is not alone in holding this view.
Numerous Christians on the conservative side of politics claim the world is now anti-Christian, or that their freedoms are being curtailed. That is, they present themselves as a persecuted minority fighting for the right to sing Christmas carols in schools, prayer in government bodies, crucifixes in hospitals, or the ability to discriminate on matters of sexuality or gender.
The rhetoric that positions those on the religious right as victims is fairly new. According to a 2023 academic analysis of public discourse, as other marginal groups in Australia began to achieve equity, the Christian right shifted its rhetoric away from an appeal as the moral majority and towards claiming victim status. They describe themselves in ways that reveal an identity as a threatened group, apparent victims of a secularism intent on silencing or destroying them.
Christians positioning themselves as a powerless minority is as old as Christianity itself. We can find such views in the New Testament because, at that time, Jesus’ followers were actually a new, minority religious group viewed with a fair degree of suspicion. After all, they worshipped a Jewish man from an obscure town who was sentenced to death by crucifixion under the provincial Roman governor.
Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for non-elite members of society. Despite the nature of his death, Jesus’ followers claimed he was God and the only one deserving of worship. In doing so, they rejected all the other deities in the surrounding polytheistic culture. It was profoundly counter-cultural for its time.
While the crucifixion of Jesus lies at the heart of the Easter story, so too does his resurrection from the dead three days later. The former is historically plausible, the latter, of course, a faith claim central to Christianity. That Jesus was raised from the dead after his execution was seen by early Christians as both a vindication of him (by God) and a victory over death and evil itself.
These two dynamics – of the powerless death of a victim and the power of resurrection from death – are both present in the Easter traditions of the church. Different kinds of Christians will tend to emphasise one aspect of the Christian story over the other, although they cannot be separated from one another.
The biblical texts tell these stories using a variety of images. In the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, Jesus is portrayed as a slaughtered lamb who returns as a military victor with the power to defeat Rome and all that opposes God. The victim has become the victor. The one who was powerless now has total power.
Early Christian texts such as Revelation were written by and for an oppressed minority. Visions of Jesus returning in power were designed to encourage hope and perseverance in the face of sometimes significant suffering.
Because of their historical setting, these biblical texts can convey an “us or them” mentality, where Christians see themselves at war with a hostile and evil world. In their historical setting, such a worldview makes some sense. But there is a danger when the very texts that were written by and for a minority group are co-opted by the powerful.
This is precisely what Vladimir Putin did in early 2022 when he quoted this passage of the Bible to Russian soldiers in Moscow: “there is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends” (a paraphrase of John 15:13).
In its setting in John’s gospel, this is something Jesus says to his followers to help explain why he is going to die on a cross. Putin used it as a rallying cry for the violent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. He took a statement about death from a victim of state violence and turned it into a rallying cry for state violence.
It is unsurprising that Christians are shaped in their worldview by the biblical texts they read. Yet caution is needed in taking any ancient text out of its context and assuming its language or worldview is normative.
In the Christian tradition, the violence of the crucifixion was something willingly taken on by Jesus out of love for the world. His status as a victim, if we think of him in those terms, was a voluntary giving up of power and willing submission to human forces so that others might have life. The victim rhetoric we see used by the religious right in Australia, while based on similar Christian martyrdom traditions, has a rather different dimension.
While society has shifted in such a way that conservative Christians are no longer the moral majority, they are hardly powerless or without a voice. Such claims of victimhood, also lack a sense of Jesus’ self-submission to the world, that is, a willing adoption of victim status for a greater good.
Instead, the emphasis is on being the kind of victim who is being attacked by anti-God forces and therefore strives for victory in the political and moral realms. Such a worldview assumes the world is a battlefield and God is on their side. It fails to acknowledge others outside the group who are vulnerable or oppressed and seeks victory for itself.
And when it does, is has departed dramatically from the way of the cross where Christians see a man who died so that others may flourish and have life.