I took my seat in an almost full cinema. The day had not gone well. So I was there to unwind. The coughing faded, the lights dimmed and the titles rolled. Half an hour later I walked out unable to take any more. I felt sick, confused and disorientated. Was it last night’s meal? Was it tiredness or a virus? No, it was the movie.
When I told a close friend he was horrified. “You mean you walked out ofThe Matrix?” he asked with genuine astonishment. He went on to explain that I had missed something very special. So what was my problem? Quite simply, I didn’t hang around long enough to get a sense of the bigger picture. As a consequence I saw only small seemingly unrelated scenes that made no sense.
In a similar way many Christians switch off when the subject of persecution is raised. Not seeing or understanding the big picture leaves many believers to cope with a jumble of stories and images of real-life characters in pain. Images and text in Christianity+Renewal and other publications may record dramatic and gruelling ‘scenes’ and the reader senses a grand epic unrolling. But do you walk away or do you stay and seek to engage? In a fast-moving world concerned more about pensions than persecutions, where the focus is on style rather than suffering – the temptation is to turn the page.
This month instead of our regular ‘Persecuted Church’ page we try to paint the bigger picture of what is happening to the worldwide church – and how we can develop a theology of persecution, so we can respond to the pain and suffering of persecuted believers with integrity.
See the big picture
So where does the bigger picture lie? Let’s start with the teaching of Jesus in John 15:20. The immediate context is the application of the truth that ‘no servant is greater than his master’ (20a). Back in 13:16 Jesus applied this principle to humility and service, here he applies it to opposition and persecution. His disturbing statement, ‘if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ (20b), contains the essence of the story we seek. Jesus’ words are stark. ‘Persecuted’ and ‘persecute’ rooted in the same Greek word, indicating identical or similar experiences. ‘You’ refers to the (potentially) persecuted church. ‘They’ refers to the persecuting world. ‘Me’ is a statement of reason for persecution. In his commentary on John’s gospel, contemporary theologian Don A Carson, writes: ‘Those who preach Jesus’ gospel and live in progressive conformity to his own life and teaching will attract the same antagonism he did.’
Such a radical identity with Jesus Christ implies a stand against the world – a life that is different, and the difference is only explainable in terms of Jesus. The text clearly says if ‘me’ then ‘you’, all ‘because of my name’ (v21) or, as in Matthew 5:11, ‘because of me’. These words provide the church with perspective and reason. Persecution is linked to the person and work of Christ. How people react to us, positively (20b) or negatively (20c), is ultimately determined not by who we are but who Jesus is.
The early church faced all sorts of persecution. Acts is crammed with stories of Jewish antagonisms against Peter and John (4:1,17), the other Apostles (5:17), Stephen (6:9, 7:1-60) and the church in general (8:1). Herod Agrippa II killed James and imprisoned Peter (12:1) and Paul’s journeys are full of incidents (13:50f, 17:5f, etc.), particularly in Corinth (18:15), Ephesus (19:24) and Jerusalem (21:27). The refusal of the early church to permit emperor worship among its members aroused virulent Roman opposition. Christian ceremonies with elements of secrecy – such as the Lord’s Supper – were viewed as a threat to the State. Christianity was bad for some trades (Acts 19:23). The believers were called ‘haters of mankind’ for not attending public spectacles and refusing to eat food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8). Their moral standards made them stand out. By preaching against the sins of paganism they made few friends!
The historical story over the earliest centuries of Christianity offers similar but perhaps more sophisticated reasons for antagonism. For Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius (AD 163) persecution provided a useful means of enforcing unity in the Empire. For Domitian (AD 95-6), Trajan (AD 98-117) Diocletion (AD 303) it was the calculated response to a fear of treachery, conspirators and secrecy. For Decius (AD 250-1) it offered a way to retain the emperor’s own claim for worship and to revive the religion of their old gods.
In the modern world, most, if not all of these earlier motivations for antagonism still provoke persecution – suspicion, fear, religious and political strategy, and protection of old beliefs and customs.
The Persecuted Church column in recent editions of Christianity+Renewalhas included examples of persecution as a response to conversions to
Christianity and church growth in countries such as Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan and China.
Many forms of persecution have evolved over time – physical, social, psychological, economic and legal. But to biblically think ‘big picture’ is to think radical identity with Christ. The church may ‘suffer’ for many other reasons. Pride, politics, class, stupidity, distraction, fear, general rioting, anti- Western backlash to name but a few. But it is only strictly ‘persecuted’ when this revolutionary relationship with Jesus Christ is in play. It is part of a radical servant-hood. As young Timothy was taught, ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3:12).
So persecution comes with the spiritual territory of a real and vibrant Christianity. But wait; surely, there is an unresolved tension here. For true Christianity does not require persecution. If that were so, then the Christianity of millions of quiet, godly persons serving Christ effectively throughout the world with no overt hindrance or opposition would be under question. And, clearly, it is not.
Returning to John 15:20, the question arises why did they persecute Jesus? The text implies a spiritual dimension. As in Job, God and Satan are at war.
There are spiritual realities beyond the naked eye. So, on one level, they persecuted Jesus because of His presumptuous claims and revolutionary teaching. Jesus was different in society and dangerous to the status quo. Jesus was a popular subversive, undermining ancient institutionalised religion.
On another level, they were, unknown to themselves, the movers of darkness against the majestic and breathless plan of God to defeat Satan and liberate believing humanity.
Similarly behind the flesh and blood detail of the stories and photographs of believers persecuted for their faith today – right now in North Korea and scores of other countries, there is spiritual war. The ‘Persecuted Church’ column and periodicals such as Enough magazine and the publications of organisations which work to support persecuted believers – these are war dispatches.
In John 15.20b an extraordinary dignity is invested in the connection made between Master and people. As Peter put it, ‘if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name’ (1 Peter 4:16). Importantly too, there is a stark inevitability about it all. The persecuted, like the poor, shall always be with us. ‘We kept telling you that we would be persecuted’ (1 Thessalonians 3:4). No surprise then that much of the history of Christianity is one of persecutions and outrageous growth through persecution, as in China since the 1960s.
This biblical ground allows us to challenge several misconceptions and conventional patterns of thought that have produced a largely diminished and weak Christianity in the democratic Western world.
- Challenging a two-dimensional view A biblical understanding of persecution challenges the thinking of contemporary Christians with a purely rational, twodimensional worldview. Life in God is always more than flesh and blood. There is a spiritual dimension in the persecution of Christians, past and present. Perceive what is unseen and the picture gets bigger. Persecution is never random but linked to a visible and radical identity with Christ. So, it is inevitable if the body of Christ is living correctly, in bold obedience to the Head.
- Challenging supporters of the persecuted A biblical understanding of persecution also challenges the thinking of supporters and their role in the pastoral care of the persecuted church. The ministries of persecution (lessons from believers in extremes) are invaluable to the present church on earth. They provide us with the most costly forms of discipleship known to Christianity. In this sense, they enrich the whole body of Christ. But persecution also wounds the body. So the unaffected parts (non-persecuted) are called on to minister to the affected (persecuted) parts of the body. In this sense, we are a part of the ‘story’ ourselves and invest in their support. So to appear apathetic, or to avoid these realities, or to be arrogant in response to such pain, sacrifice and hope is simply unthinkable.
- Challenging preachers and teachers A biblical understanding of persecution goes on to challenge the thinking of educators within Christianity about the need to teach persecution as integral to the gospel. Persecution is a solid discipleship teaching that should be included in popular courses on the
Christian faith such as Alpha and Christianity Explored. Teachers who develop courses of theological education and Bible College training also need to be challenged.
Finally, it challenges the thinking of local churches engaged in ultimately unimportant matters to recognise the perils of ‘losing the plot’ altogether.
Whatever the imagery, the church can never afford to drift without a sense of eternal purpose or be distracted with trivial matters, the egos of prima donnas or the quest for celebrity.
As I found in my brief encounter with The Matrix, to walk away is to miss out and never fully understand what others are getting excited about. So time spent reflecting on the bigger picture is never wasted. It gives the realism, perspective, reason, motivation, and cause for hope necessary for the best of actions. Unlike The Matrix, the story of persecution is unlikely to break box office records or fill our multiplex theatres. But the persecuted church forces the thinking Christian to centralise the divine plot – and so enables us to view the world ever more biblically. These are radical lives in hard places, sent to be our teachers.
So what can you do?
The first step is the hardest... Galatians 6:10 says ‘We should help people whenever we can, especially if they are followers of the Lord.’
Faced with such a huge issue, it’s easy to think that there’s nothing we can do to make a difference. But the fact that we can’t do everything is no reason for us to do nothing. Perhaps the most important thing we can do, therefore, is to do something, to take the first step. Here are 15 responses you could make...
15 Ways that YOU can make a difference
1. Get informed
Ignorance is not bliss, it’s... er... ignorance, actually. So first, find out what’s going on. Get in touch with one of the Christian agencies listed overleaf and request their news and prayer letters. And then, when the letters arrive, actually read them. Also subscribe to Enough magazine - a sister title to Christianity+Renewal. This free bimonthly magazine regularly features stories about persecuted believers and ways to respond. The latest issue includes examples of persecution in China with unique photos taken under cover of Chinese security forces interrogating Christians, plus an Interview with Brother Andrew of Open Doors. It isn’t a comfortable coffee table read - this will stir your soul! Get a subscription posted to your home FREE (UK addresses only) by completing the form opposite. Do it now and get informed.
2. Talk to the experts
Get a representative from one of the agencies to visit your church. Find out from them what is going on and what you can do about it.
3. Pay attention to the news
Spurgeon used to say that the wellbalanced Christian had the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other — and read them both. Find out what is going on in the world. Read a newspaper. Visit the BBC website. Listen to the radio. Find out what is going on in the global village.
4. Don’t just care about Christians
This isn’t the Freemasons; we don’t just look after our own. Galatians 6:10 says ‘especially’ followers of the Lord, not ‘only’ followers of the Lord. So speak out, pray, take action on behalf of all those who are persecuted.
5. Pray for the persecuted
Pray for the persecuted church. Pray for strength and courage and faith. And pray for the persecutors, for God to change their hearts, and turn around their lives. Pray for individual cases.
6. Organise a prayer meeting
Take over your church prayer meeting (and if your church doesn’t have a prayer meeting, start one). Line up lots of prayer topics and let God’s people loose...
7. Tell the public
Speak out on behalf of the suffering church. Write to the newspapers. Put up a stand in your High Street or Village Square. Make a noise. Why is it that we hear more about endangered animals than endangered humans?
8. Tell your Church
Speak to your church about issues and concerns and encourage their prayer. Put items in your church magazine or newsletter. Become a Church representative for one of the Christian agencies listed over.
9. Tell your MP
Your MP has been elected to represent you in Parliament. So make sure they do. Write to them. Go to a surgery and tell them about specific cases. (You can also write to the Foreign Office and nag them as well.)
10. Write to persecuted believers
Many Christian agencies have schemes so you can write directly to Christians or churches that are facing persecution. Imagine how encouraged they would be to know that someone on the other side of the world knows and cares about what is happening. And that someone is also praying about it.
11. Write to those responsible
In some cases it can help to write to the leaders, or the ambassadors of the country where the persecution is taking place. It’s best not to write about specific cases, unless the agencies ask you to do so. Instead, write in general terms. Just let them know that ‘we know what you’re doing...’
12. Give your money and time
Organisations cannot support persecuted Christians without the resources to do it. Give them some money. (And use gift aid, while you’re at it). As well as money what about giving your time? Some agencies have schemes so you can take action as a volunteer. Open Doors, for example, have a scheme in which individual Christians take Bibles out to needy churches. Talk to the agencies about how you can actively get involved.
13. Change the way you shop and spend
Don’t support repressive regimes. Try to buy goods which are fairly traded and from companies which don’t collude with oppressive regimes. And let the companies concerned know why you are leaving their goods on the shelf. (For an example of this in operation look at the Burma Campaign at www.burmacampaign. org.uk/). Enough magazine regularly features stories about companies that trade fairly.
14. Get Bible-wise
The Bible has lots to say on the issues of injustice and persecution. You might want to start with the following passages: John 15:18-16:4; Acts 12:1-19; 1 Peter 4:12-19; Hebrews 10:32-39 & 13:3. And why not lead a Bible study for your house or youth group? Many Christian agencies have a range of resources to help including Bible studies, videos, literature, etc.
15. Housegroup discussion
Discuss the issues raised in this article with your housegroup/ cell/ small group.
- Think over these statements - ‘true persecution comes with the spiritual territory of a real and vibrant Christianity’ and ‘true Christianity does not require persecution’. Does an unresolved tension exist here?
- What are the implications if the Christian Church fails to teach its pastors and people the theology and practice of persecution?
- How can a healthy consciousness of the spiritual dimension (warfare) enhance your church life?
‘Don’t turn the page - do something!’ is the first in a six part series entitled ‘Word of Truth’ produced by Release International (RI), which are designed as a personal study guide explaining persecution from a biblical perspective. RI seeks to develop a Theology of Persecution in order to inform and develop its ministry. If you would like to receive the series e-mail: email@example.com or phone: 01689-823491 to receive the series accompanied by (free) news about the persecuted church from RI. To subscribe to Enough magazine FREE, complete the form on page 13 or telephone: 01892 652 364.
- Release International, Tel: 01689-823491, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Amnesty International, Tel: 0207 413 5500.
- Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Tel: 020 8942 8810, Email: email@example.com
- Jubilee Campaign, Tel: 01483 894 787, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Keston Institute, Tel: 01865 311022, Email: persecution@Keston.org
- Open Doors, Tel: 01993 885400, E-mail: email@example.com
- The Barnabas Fund, Tel: 01672 564938, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Christian NGO Advocacy Forum has a wide range of links and articles on related topics
(For the pictures, see the magazine) Xiangdong Cai is being tortured at the police station of Kongzhuang town, Xiayi county, Henan province at about 11 pm on August 11, 2002. The abuser is the political director, Mr. Zongqiang Xie (who retired on March, 2003) is 56 years old. He and three colleagues including the deputy director Mr. Qiong Yan participated in this Christian man‚s torture. These disturbing photographs are not published lightly - see page 9. The names of the policemen and the Christians have been independently verified. The photographer, an "insider," assured the police that these photos of their work would go to their superiors as record of their "conscientious work" with the possibility of a "promotion." The photographer is now in hiding and will be for some years. The Chinese authorities deny the claims of torture and authenticity of the photographs.