Archives For persecution

Love Your Enemies (Part 2)

Greg Strand – April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

We are called to love our enemies. This is not something we can do on our own. It is a supernatural enablement given to Christians through the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. And the transforming work of the Holy Spirit is rooted in the finished, completed work of Christ.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus teaches about the nature and character of the transformed individual and community. In contrast to what the world would say about and act toward one’s enemy, Jesus teaches that his kingdom is marked by those who forgive others and love and pray for them.

In the Lord’s Model Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to seek forgiveness but also to forgive those who have sinned against them: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). And even beyond forgiveness, Jesus spells out later that they are to love others, even enemies. One of the marks of this new community in Christ is that they not only love those who love them, but they love those who are not merely passive to them, but actively opposed to them. Jesus contrasts the response of the world with the Spirit-prompted response of his disciples (Matt 5:43-48).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same? “And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Many today refer to these passages of Scripture to claim that any view that affirms Jesus’ teaching here for the believer to forgive is inconsistent with an understanding of God who will not just forgive but requires something, and will respond to those unforgiven with wrath and retributive punishment. Not only is this inconsistent with an understanding of the truth that God is love, they claim, but he is inconsistent in that he asks of us to do what he does not do himself. It is a case of the creator of the universe saying to his created beings, “do as I say, not as I do.” This is, I believe, the view of those who claim to have a more sanitized, reasonable view of God, who is in our image. I would also add that those who espouse this view have not likely experienced atrocities committed against them.

There is also a group that finds no place for forgiveness, but rather lives with a persistent need to get even. Often what happens is that there are religious, political or ethnic groups that shift in the balance of power. When one is in power they treat those subservient poorly and often make them suffer. When the tables are turned, and the once subservient is now the one in power, they will return in kind what they experienced at the hands of those once in power.

And the cycle continues. How would that cycle stop?

The only way ultimately is through the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. His life and ministry centered on bringing vertical peace between God and man, and horizontal peace between one another. At his birth the angels celebrated with “peace on earth” (Lk. 2:14). When he died on the cross he made peace (Eph. 2:14-16), so that some of the first words he spoke after the resurrection were “peace be with you” (Jn. 20:21). And those who are now justified have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). This is his ministry begun and will be brought to a conclusion. We have peace, albeit in places and imperfectly, and will have peace that will not end, but that will not happen until the end – the return of the Lord Jesus.

The only way penultimately is through forgiveness, which evidences now in the present an end-time community created by God and justified through faith in Christ. Not only can we forgive, we can love. And the reason we do these things is because we have been and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Based on the new life he has given us we have the strength to do what we could not do on our own. It is a supernatural response. Furthermore, we can live this way and not take matters into our own hands because we can trust God to do what is just. He will ultimately and finally do what is just and right.

Yesterday we read Jesus’ words (Matt. 5:43-48). Today we hear from Paul (Rom. 12:17-21):

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Because of what God has done in Christ, we can forgive and we can love. We do not respond to evil by being evil or getting even, but we overcome, not only respond to, evil with good. We can do this because of our new life in Christ and our trust in God and his promise. He will address this and he will do so much better than we ever could. We are to “leave it to the wrath of God,” because  the Lord says, “vengeance is mine, I will repay.”

God will right the wrongs. It is his promise. This does not make God inconsistent. It means he will address it perfectly, which means we do not have to address it. It does not have to be addressed twice, once by us and once by God. Once by God is sufficient. This frees us to love God and others without anger, wrath or malice. Will we trust him?

Although the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians occurred a couple of weeks ago, I continue to ponder what this means to these Christians immediately affected, and also to us, albeit more indirectly. We affirm with Paul, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Furthermore, we can affirm with the writer of Hebrews that “In your [our] struggle against sin you [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4), but we also affirm that some have and some will.

Related to the death of these Coptic Christians is the perpetrators of this death. One ponders the rise and spread of ISIS and the implications of their brutal and gruesome and heartless atrocities committed against fellow human beings, those created in the image of God.

Ramez Atallah, general director of the Bible Society of Egypt and vice chair of the Lausanne Movement, responded to the martyrdom of these Christians with a biblical reference: The World Was Not Worthy of Them. The full context of this expression is important to read (emphasis mine): “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them” (Heb. 11:37-38).

In the immediate wake of this news, Atallah arrived at the Bible Society office distraught and discouraged about what had occurred. He was a bit taken aback when a young coworker stated she was “very encouraged” by what happened. In her words,

I am encouraged, because now I know that what we’ve been taught in history books about Egyptian Christians being martyred for their faith isn’t just history but that there are Christians today who are brave enough to face death rather than deny their Lord! When I saw those young men praying as they were being prepared for execution, and then many of them shouting “O Lord Jesus” as their throats were being slit, I realized the gospel can still help us to hold onto the promises of God even when facing death.

If the earlier Hebrews texts applies to what they experienced from others, this text from Hebrews explains how they responded the way they did, and it provides a way to pray for them, and us.

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (Heb. 10:32-39).

Atallah lists these prayer requests:

  • Pray for comfort for the families of the victims.
  • Pray for effective mass distribution of a Scripture tract we’ve just produced, that God’s Word will comfort and challenge the many who will receive it.
  • As I write, there is news of more Egyptians being kidnapped in Libya. Lord, have mercy!
  • Please pray for Egypt as we pass through this painful period.

From a fellow Christian removed physically but engaged spiritually, Tom Schreiner provides a biblical and pastoral response from one here in the United States: “A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS Execution of 21 Christians

  • We Are Not Surprised (Jn. 15:18-20; 16:2; Lk. 14:26)
  • We Are More Than Conquerers (Rev. 2:10; Matt. 5:10-12; Acts 4:41; Isa. 43:2; 2 Cor. 9:8; Rom. 8:37; Rev. 12:11; 20:4)
  • We Grieve with Those Who Grieve (Phil. 1:21; Rom. 12:15; Phil. 2:27)
  • We Pray for Both Our Enemies and Our Suffering Brothers and Sisters
  • We Plead for God’s Just Judgment (Rev. 6:9-11; 22:20).

Finally, I include a powerful response/statement by Ramez Atallah, mentioned above, who seeks to live faithfully in the midst of this martyrdom of fellow Christians. He recognizes God is sovereign, and this terrible slaughter provides a unique providential opportunity, although divine but not one humanly chosen, for the spread of the gospel.

Shortly after the martyrdom of the 21 Christians, Atallah and his partners in the gospel at the Bible Society of Egypt wrote and printed a Scripture tract. This brief yet incredibly amazing story is captured in the article How Libya’s Martyrs Are Witnessing to Egypt The article begins,

Undaunted by the slaughter of 21 Christians in Libya, the director of the Bible Society of Egypt saw a golden gospel opportunity.

“We must have a Scripture tract ready to distribute to the nation as soon as possible,” Ramez Atallah told his staff the evening an ISIS-linked group released its gruesome propaganda video. Less than 36 hours later, Two Rows by the Sea was sent to the printer.

One week later, 1.65 million copies have been distributed in the Bible Society’s largest campaign ever.

The tract is entitled Two Rows By The Sea, the content I have included below. Click on the link to see and read the tract, which adds powerfully to the words.

I thank the Lord for the faithful witness of these dear brothers and sisters. Even if one is in chains, the gospel is not bound (2 Tim. 2:9), so may these tracts bear gospel fruit (Jn. 15)!

Two Rows By the Sea

Two rows of men walked the shore of the sea,
On a day when the world’s tears would run free,
One a row of assassins, who thought they did right,
The other of innocents, true sons of the light,
One holding knives in hands held high,
The other with hands empty, defenseless and tied,
One row of slits to conceal glaring-dead eyes,
The other with living eyes raised to the skies,
One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.

A Question . . .
Who fears the other?

The row in orange, watching paradise open?
Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?

Which Row Pleases God?
Matthew 10:28, 32, 33

Which Row Understands?
1 Peter 4:12-14; John 16:2-4

Which Row Sees?
Acts 7:54-60

Which Row Will Prevail?
Romans 8:35-39

Often we hear that persecution, inevitable though not desired, is the seed that builds the church (to slightly edit Tertullian’s (160-220) dictum: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”).

We often hear that Japan is the example where persecution resulted in the opposite end – the decimation and almost obliteration of the church.

Phillip Jenkins recently wrote about Japan’s “Hidden Christians”. I include excerpts from his article.

Notionally, the Christian church was utterly destroyed by about 1650, and the authorities sought out possible underground believers by making them defile the cross. Yet their success was not as total as they believed.

Japanese isolation ended in 1853, when a US warship forced the nation to open to external trade and contact. Christian missionaries were among the other Europeans who arrived over the following years. . . . In remote fishing villages and island communities like Narushima, these Kakure Kirishitan, “hidden Christians”, had somehow maintained their clandestine traditions, together with other shreds of faith. One moving documentary from the 1990s, Otaiya, actually allows us to hear very old believers reciting Catholic prayers that first came to the region over four hundred years ago, some in Church Latin and sixteenth century Portuguese.

The story is awe-inspiring, but we have to put it in context. Not surprisingly, the total separation from an organized church meant that this catacomb church strayed far from mainstream Catholicism, and many of its practices make it look almost like a Shinto sect: their Eucharistic elements are rice, fish and sake. They knew nothing of the wider church, believing themselves to the world’s only true Christians. Also, the numbers involved were tiny, perhaps in the low ten thousands by 1865, and even those faced a renewed persecution once their presence became known.

More recently, the hidden Christian community, a pathetic remnant of the communities of the seventeenth century, has shrunk almost to nothing as a result of Japan’s demographic stagnation.

For practical purposes, Japan eliminated its Christians quite as thoroughly as medieval Europe destroyed its Albigensians, and the limited development of Christianity in modern Japan belongs entirely to the period after the 1850s.

I asked Harold Netland, former missionary educator with EFCA ReachGlobal in Japan and present Director of the PhD (Intercultural Studies) and Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at TEDS, this question: “What do you think of this brief statement about the ‘Hidden Christians’ by Phillip Jenkins.”  Netland replies:

This is a really fascinating and tragic chapter in Christian history. The hidden Christians and the persecution of Christianity provide the basis for Shusaku Endo’s haunting historical novel, Silence (based on actual people and events).

The percentage of Christians in the early 17th century is actually higher than the percentage today. The Bible was not translated into Japanese (only portions) and there was no real Japanese clergy, yet thousands were baptised. You cannot simply dismiss these as “rice Christians” or political converts, because in most cases there were few benefits to conversion. Moreover, at least 6000 were martyred for their faith, after enduring terrible tortures. So whatever their level of understanding they were clearly strongly committed to their faith.

Whatever the level of theological understanding among the original hidden Christians, by the time the tradition was discovered in the late 19th century it had become quite syncretistic, mixing elements of Japanese folk religion and Buddhism with Christian teaching and symbolism. This is not to make a judgment about the spiritual state of any of the hidden Christians or to question their commitment, but just to note that the tradition that survived is not clearly Christian but rather a syncretistic mix.

Yes, I do think that the church was effectively wiped out by the Japanese persecution. Undoubtedly some genuine believers continued for some time, but for all practical purposes the church was eliminated. This is a side of Christian history we do not like to acknowledge, but the fact is that opposition and persecution do sometimes wipe out Christian communities. Persecution sometimes strengthens local Christians and the church grows; at other times they are eliminated.

To this I replied:

Thank you for this insightful response. I appreciate your analysis and assessment.

It is, as you note, a side that not many know or like to hear about, a dark side of persecution of Christians. But, even with this reality, it is still important to remind oneself, God is still sovereign and providentially guiding toward an ordained, good end.

How the decimation of the bride like this in Japan fits into this plan I am not certain. There is, I confess, some unknown and some mystery. But there is also much we do know about God and his plan revealed in the Bible. That we trust. What we must be careful not to do, on the one hand, is to fill in the unknown and the mystery with conjecture and definitive statements about God, his purposes and his ways. And, on the other hand, what we must be careful to do is to rest in the known, speak it and live it with trusting humility, which is the heart of true faith.

Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being martyred for their faith. The numbers and the atrocities are astronomical. One incident with few deaths would be too many. But the incidences of this “slaughter” recur with the deaths of many Christians. And many of these murders are committed by Muslims.

Kirsten Powers, “A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent,” writes of these atrocities and impugns the church in the America for its deafening silence.

Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity. One would think this horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening.

Powers refers to the book Saturday People, Sunday People, the title which is an Islamist slogan, “First Saturday People, then the Sunday People.” To the Muslim this means that “first we kill the Jews, then we kill the Christians.”

The recent attacks on this Sunday People, Christians, have occurred in Egypt, Pakistan, Kenya, and Syria. These brutal attacks on Christians because they are Christians ought to be condemned, particularly by Western Christians. Christians in the West are able to collaborate and cooperate on moral and ethical issues of concern. “Yet,” writes Powers, “religious persecution appears not to have grabbed their attention, despite the worldwide media coverage of the atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.”

Molly Hemingway also addressed this vital and important issue: “Can We Finally Start Talking About the Global Persecution of Christians?.” She notes, quoting from Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,

Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today. This is confirmed in studies by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, the Pew Research Center, CommentaryNewsweek and the Economist. According to one estimate, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, 75 percent of acts of religious intolerance are directed against Christians.

Hemingway points to the silence of the media to address these heinous acts of evil committed against Christians, and then if/when they do publish anything about them, their explanations of the evil acts are often cloaked in politically correct language so as not speak anything negative against Islam. In fact, not only is there a fear of saying anything negative about Islam, the general tendency is to say something positive that may be partially true or not true at all.

Not only is this the general approach of the media, it is also of politicians. Regarding the commonly stated solution to this Muslim violence against Christians as an aberration because Islam is a religion of peace, Hemingway notes,

One problem with this approach, and I’m not even talking about the 1300 years of history that speaks to the use of violence in pursuit of the spread of Islam, is that the politicians claiming Islam is nothing more than a peaceful religion usually aren’t exegetical experts.

In order for a conversation to occur regarding the “persecution of Christians and others at the hands of Muslims,” Hemingway lays some groundwork for journalists, politicians and the Christian Church. I conclude with her words to the church.

However much we may wish Muslim violence against Christians would resolve itself or go away, being in denial serves no purpose. To combat the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, we must first acknowledge its existence. And we need to be clear about exactly who is perpetrating violence against Christians and what is motivating them.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed, lived, wrote and died, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

God has the last word on this matter as recorded in the Word.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

“Remember . . . those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3).

Killing of Christians in Nigeria

Greg Strand – December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

It is not news to anyone, but we are now living in a post-Christian culture. One of the implications of this is that any individual or group that experiences unfair treatment (sometimes only perceived or based on feelings) report their experiences as victimization and “hate crimes” and the perpetrators are punished. This is not to deny that hate-crimes exist and people and groups are hurt by them. I acknowledge it happens, it is hurtful, it is wrong and offenders ought to be punished.

However, I also find there is an often and obvious exception. When this happens to Christians, rather than providing a consistent response, the Christian or Christians are accused of bringing this on themselves. There is little sympathy or protection for them. And what we experience here is nothing in comparison to what Christians in other parts of the world experience, where persecution, suffering and death is the all-too-common experience of these dear brothers and sisters.

Recently I read a statement (HT: World) made by Emmanuel Ogebe, Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans, responding to the media reports that Christians were retaliating against radical Muslim attacks.

It’s very difficult to look at churches being blown up and say this is tit-for-tat. One side is doing the killing, and one side is doing the dying.

These are the sorts of unfair accusations that are being made, and more regularly. As unfair and frustrating as this is, if this is the way our Lord and Savior was treated, we ought to expect nothing different (Jn. 15:18-20). The preacher of Hebrews reminds his readers to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are in one body” (Heb. 13:3). Though our experiences have not reached this point, we are to remember them.

At the local Free Church where I am a member, we pray specifically and explicitly for some member(s) of the persecuted church every Sunday. It is our attempt to affirm that we are “one body” and that this is an important way in which we are relating to them as though we are “with them.”

What are you doing? What more can you do?