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Why Young Christians Really Need to See the Film “Persecuted”

John Zmirak - published on 05/08/14

This crossbreed between “House of Cards” and “Lord of the World” needs your help to open nationally.

There is more than one kind of martyrdom.

The kind we know the best, which most closely resembles Christ’s, involved being tortured and dying for the faith. Apart from depictions of Jesus himself, there are countless images throughout the history of art that depict the deaths of Christians at the hands of non-believers. It’s a tragic irony that the twentieth century, which has yielded more Christian martyrs than all other centuries combined, has also seen such a decline in religious and figurative art that we don’t have many memorable images of Christians undergoing this ultimate witness for the faith.  (Remember that “martyr” means simply “witness.”)

There are some depictions of Maximilian Kolbe, some grainy photographs of Orthodox Christians murdered by the Bolsheviks, of Catholics dying in Mexico or China at the hands of revolutionaries. Some written accounts evoke the courage that God poured into his people’s hearts at such awful moments: With God in Russia by Fr. Walter Cizsek, The Gulag Archipelago, the last writings of Edith Stein. I was proud to oversee a book edited by Philip Lawler, When Faith Goes Viral, which depicts the courageous work of Christians persecuted in the Arab world and India. For those with a more futuristic taste there is Lord of the World, the Victorian novel by Fr. Robert Hugh Benson that shows the coming of the Antichrist in…a time very like our present.

What we see depicted even less often is something that used to be called “white martyrdom.” That term refers to the long, unbloody destruction of a Christian believer’s life by institutions and people who wish to see the Church shoved out of sight—but who may be too squeamish or savvy to go around outright nailing Christians to crosses. Instead, they want Christians to spit on them, or remake the cross in rubber, so it’s light and completely flexible. So it loses all its meaning, and becomes a mere decoration, like a sprig of mistletoe.

Accounts of this kind of martyrdom exist, of course. A few months ago, I wrote about how Jerome Lejeune, one of France’s greatest twentieth-century scientists, was treated as a dangerous crank by his colleagues and deprived of the funding he needed, because he was so reckless as to speak out against abortion. News reports tell of the brave Christian owners of businesses such as Hobby Lobby and Triune Health Care, who are risking their livelihoods rather than comply with the evil law that commands them to pay for abortifacients.  

But there are far too few dramatic films that tell such stories—that show the courage and steadfastness demanded of every Christian when he is forced into a corner, commanded to cooperate with evil or pay the slow, painful price.

That is why I was so excited to see a preview of Persecuted.

That gripping film depicts a time in the near American future when the state finally tires of having to accommodate the eccentric moral and doctrinal teachings that Christians hold dear. Those teachings prove “divisive,” and because they make claims of absolute truth they are hostile to “diversity.” So secular elites decide to bring the Christians into line—not with an iron fist, but a velvet glove. A glove full of money, a glove that pats believers gently on the head and shoos them into the background.

In Persecuted, a federal law is proposed that will foster “cooperation” between the federal government and the churches. And the synagogues, mosques, temples, and every other center of any kind of religion. They will work together, with ample federal funding for every religion that will play ball, in building a common future of peace and harmony. The price that the senators pushing this law demand seems modest, almost nominal: no church will present itself as having a special lock on Truth, or its faith as the one true means of finding God.

I don’t want to give the film’s story away, but suffice it to say that in Persecuted there are a few Christians who won’t pay this price. The most prominent is a televangelist, the piquantly named John Luther (James Remar)—an eloquent evangelical with a broad national following, and a sordid past of drinking and drug addiction. John has made many friends in powerful places, including the smarmy Senate Majority Leader Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison), who is sponsoring the “Faith and Fairness Act” intended to corral all the country’s believers and teach them to play nice. And John Luther won’t play nice. Neither will Fr. Charles Luther (Fred Thompson), a Catholic priest who—in a curious plot twist intended to strike a blow for ecumenism—had fathered John before his own ordination.  

It turns out that the Faith and Fairness Act is very, very important—not just to Senator Harrison, but to the President. The uniqueness of the Christian claim, its bold refusal to serve any agenda but its Lord’s, has often stuck like a bone in the throat of the state—from the days of Diocletian to our own time, when millions of Christians die every year from the jungles of India to the prison camps of China. Suppressing that claim (by corrupting the claimants) is important enough to the powerbrokers in Persecuted that they will destroy anyone who attempts to stand in their way.Not just kill—destroy.

Given John Luther’s rather sordid past, it doesn’t prove hard for them to frame him for a murder involving drugs and drinking. Considering the past scandals that have afflicted TV preachers like Jimmy Swaggart, people are all too ready to accept that he is a hypocrite.  With the bursting coffers of his ministry up for grabs, it is easy to find other ministers who are happy to take his place.  And there is no one to believe him—except Fr. Luther, his very own father, who gives him his personal rosary as a token to bolster his courage.

The film is modestly budgeted, but its actors are skilled and the story is quite compelling.  Anyone who has studied how Communist governments (and before them, the Nazis) made a practice of doctoring scandals to discredit their enemies will find the action all too plausible—and much more
menacing because it takes place in the strip malls and office parks of contemporary America.

To offer a point of comparison, Persecuted has the look and feel of Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards, and depicts quite a similar world: of Machiavellian men in power playing chess with human pawns. The difference is that House of Cards has no real heroes: every character, it seems, is equally self-serving, and there is no moral center against which the villains can really be judged. Persecuted suffers from no such vacuum. At its center stands the Cross, surrounded like Christ’s by hypocrites, thieves and soldiers. What hangs in the balance are souls.

Persecuted sees and starkly presents the creeping, inexorable pressure that Christian believers face, the sordid temptations that slowly corrupt us, and the implacable hatred that sincere faith always provokes. It does so in a way designed to bring Catholics and Protestants together in defense of the Christian claim.

I hope that it comes to a theater near you. You can help that happen by contacting its makers, and arranging a screening in your city. You can sign up as a “theater captain” and bring your friends to see the movie. I hope that many people reading this will moved to do just that—to issue a warning to fellow believers while we still have time to unite.  

John Zmirak taught screenwriting at Tulane University, has sold four scripts to Hollywood directors, and is co-author, with Jason Jones, of the upcoming The Race to Save Our Century.

Christians in the Middle EastMoviesPoliticsReligious Freedom
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