The last six months have been a stark reminder of the brutality that lurks at the boundaries of civilized society. The rise of ISIS has revealed the horrors that people are willing to inflict upon one another. For Christians, the destruction of their places of worship in Iraq and Syria, their physical expulsion from the region, and the torture, rape, and murder of those of their number who refuse to convert demands that we address the rhetorical inflation that accompanies words like “horrifying,” “chilling,” and “evil.” Christians—like members of other religious groups in the Middle East and elsewhere—are being actively and violently persecuted in Syria and Iraq.
Of course, persecution takes many forms, and the suffering of Christians in Iraq will not look quite the same as the suffering of Christians in America. Thankfully, the experience of Christian persecution in America can now be explored in depth: those with the desire (and the means) to undertake the harrowing journey can sign up for the 2015 Ligonier Ministries Caribbean Study Cruise, led by the Reverend R. C. Sproul. This year’s theme? “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”
For a week at the end of February, and for a cost of only $799 (for an inside cabin—those who want to suffer in style can pay $3,892 for the “Owner Suite”), you can sail from Florida to the Bahamas, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and back. Where famous pirates once wielded their swords against the innocent, you can enjoy “amazing beaches, gorgeous sea and landscapes and unbelievable duty-free shopping.” What better way to meditate on Jesus’s suffering as nails were driven through his hands and feet than with a deluxe mani-pedi as you gaze out at the (now blessedly pirate-free) ocean?
Rev. Sproul proclaims in his audio teaching series (available for download for only $3.20) that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree.” Who, finding that every poolside chair on the Lido deck is occupied, could disagree? Thankfully, though, Jesus “also promised that blessedness would be pronounced on those who suffered for Him.” Those suffering in Iraq may have to wait until the afterlife to experience the truth of this sentiment, but those arriving in the Bahamas need only gaze upon the “new aquatic facilities, nature trails and a ton of great places to just sit back, relax and enjoy a tropical drink.”
Like the monks who secluded themselves in the desert to contemplate their Lord; like the pilgrims who traveled with only the shirts on their backs to the shrines of their Savior; indeed, like the Pilgrims who took to the seas to escape religious persecution in the land of their birth, so too these privileged few will board a ship to escape secular America and celebrate Jesus on Royal Caribbean’s (Religious) Freedom of the Seas, where international maritime law will allow them to drink, gamble, and restrict others’ access to contraception without fear of oppression.
The basic premise that Christians should expect to suffer and be persecuted is not an invention of Rev. Sproul. It is a biblical idea: Jesus tells his followers to “take up your cross and follow me” and predicts that they will be dragged before courts and tribunals. Rich people authentically have problems too. And just because Americans aren’t risking their lives does not mean that they don’t experience pain, alienation, hardship, suffering, and grief. But the biblical “call to endure persecution” probably didn’t have in view the lines at the midnight buffet. Nor is the slipping Christian monopoly on the governance of the United States quite on a par with being raped and murdered.
This cruise is part of a larger trend of Christian hand-wringing that, through the rhetoric of persecution, implicitly suggests that the experiences of modern American Christians are comparable to those of Christians in Iraq. But no matter how objectionable some may find legislation about same-sex marriage and free contraception, American Christians are not being persecuted. When Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God's people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme. The authentic and heart-rending oppression of Christians under ISIS renders unworthy of the name whatever “suffering” those cruising around the Caribbean may claim. It’s not just that the optics here are abysmal; donning persecution drag, on a cruise ship or otherwise, takes the spotlight off those who need help. It is hard to imagine that the resources spent to explore the theme of enduring persecution couldn’t be redirected to actually help those who are enduring persecution.
It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big f#&k you to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.