Look to the Pope to Rise Above Persecution

This editorial originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on September 20, 2015.

As a huge fan of Pope Francis and an evangelical, Protestant pastor, I raise the eyebrows of many in my church who find my interest odd, amusing or a non sequitur.

Last year on a whim, I invited the pope to speak at First Presbyterian Church. I knew he was not likely to accept our lowly request. Yet, sophomorically, the upside for me would be a rejection letter written on Vatican stationery that I could frame and forever keep in my office. (I am still waiting on that letter.)

The pope’s visit this week to the U.S. in the wake of the Kim Davis controversy, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, creates an interesting dissonance for the press. While the pope’s grace, openness and embrace of the poor is lauded by many in the press, Davis’ journey of faith and public stance is vilified.

I do not defend Davis’ actions, for civil servants need to serve as the law dictates or acquire an accommodation; furthermore, I do appreciate the efforts the pope has made to eschew the trappings of power and wash the feet of incarcerated youth.

Yet, the pope and Davis, ironically, share a similar view on Christian marriage. You’d hardly know it given the media reaction and public perception.

The more telling reality is that people of faith are perceived in today’s culture as backward, curious creatures, which causes them to feel peculiar, ridiculed and even persecuted. Perhaps the most telling difference between the two is the pope’s lack of paranoia rooted in both his confidence in love’s power and his depth of lived doctrine.

In response to the Davis situation, my peer, the Rev. Bryan Fulwider, recently wrote on these pages criticizing an American Christian’s sense of persecution. He wrote, “… [I]t’s deplorable that in the United States we whine about any imposition or inconvenience regarding religion as if it were persecution. By doing so, we make a mockery of real persecution and its real victims.”

What Fulwider fails to recognize, however, is the deep sense of alienation, shift in cultural values, and pace of change that everyday people of faith are experiencing. When one’s values and theological tenets align with the culture and the current political power structure, it is easy to mock another’s real sense of persecution.

May Pope Francis’ visit teach us all who feel persecuted for our convictions a confidence of faith that is free to love as Jesus loved, and courageous to sustain one’s convictions against the cultural winds.

Case Thorp is the senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

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