Apr 26, 2019
The death toll from the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka continued to climb all week. As of Thursday, the official count was 359 dead.
Reading and listening to reports about the attacks, it’s apparent that the number of victims in Sri Lanka isn’t the only uncertainty. Many people, especially politicians and media outlets, seem to be having trouble deciding how to identify the victims. I don’t mean individual names. I mean identifying what the large majority of victims had in common besides being Sri Lankan: They were Christians.
The default identifier by left-leaning politicians on Twitter was “Easter worshippers.” Seeing a phrase that hardly anyone every uses repeated by so many was, well, just weird. In fact, when I first saw the trending “Easter worshippers” controversy blow up on Twitter, I wondered aloud if this was a redo of the made-up controversy over Starbuck’s red cups at Christmas from a few years ago. Like then, I wondered if a few isolated examples were being blown out of proportion.
I don’t know who originally decided to use the expression “Easter worshipper,” but it definitely caught on. So much so that it almost looks like there must have been a memo somewhere advising people to use the expression instead of calling the victims “Christians.”
President Obama tweeted “The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity.” Leaving aside the fact that Christians, not “humanity” writ large, were the ones attacked, it’s still an odd choice of words.
Even odder was Secretary Hillary Clinton’s response: “On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I'm praying for everyone affected by today's horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.”
“Holy weekend for many faiths?” OK, Jews celebrated Passover on Saturday, but as the New York Times podcast “The Daily” pointed out from the start, the group behind the attacks targeted Catholic churches and attacked on Easter Sunday, which is holy to only one faith: Christianity. But even they struggled to identify the victims as Christians, preferring instead to call them “non-Muslims” on a number of occasions. And more than one NPR program I heard described how the rampant anti-Muslim environment of Sri Lanka contributed to the attacks.
Even if we dismiss the odd victim nomenclature as an anomaly, many commentators talked as if it were the buildings instead of the people inside them, and their beliefs, that were the terrorists’ target.
This seeming denial or at least ignoring the fact that victims were targeted because they were Christians is so odd that it prompts the question “Why?”
As Ross Douthat of the New York Times helpfully explained, at least part of the answer is that many Western commentators have trouble seeing Christianity and Christians as anything but privileged. However true or not that may be of Western Christians—and now is not the time to debate that—the events in Sri Lanka are, to paraphrase the opening line of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life,” not about us.
It’s about, as Douthat put it, “Christians like the murdered first communicants in Sri Lanka, or the jailed pastors in China, or the Coptic martyrs of North Africa, or any of the millions of non-Western Christians who live under constant threat of persecution.”
The reluctance to call them “Christians” trivializes their suffering; obviously, not in God’s sight or in ours, but in the eyes of the non-Christian world. It’s as if they died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like someone who gets run over by a bus while crossing the street.
Whatever gripes you have with American Christians, in much of the world Christians “live under the constant threat of persecution” and, as we saw this past Sunday, even death. Why? Because they are Christians.
As I’ve said before, the failure to do more to protect them is a disgrace. And failing to call them by their proper name, “Christians,” adds gratuitous insult to already-grievous injury.