Christians must struggle energetically to bring relief to the church suffering persecution while recognizing that persecution is indeed constituent of the life of Christian faith. In other words, we should approach persecution with a sort of bifocal perspective. On the one hand, we are, contrary to Cain’s protestations, our brother’s and sister’s keeper, and we owe to them not only our prayer but our actions on their behalf. On the other hand, we recognize that the life of the follower of Jesus Christ is ordained by God to be one of persecution and sorrows, following the life and death and resurrection of the Savior who came before us. Our Lord reminds, “‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20)
To put it in another way, we are called in Scripture to uphold solidarity with the people of God, divine justice, and union with Christ, solidarity with one another as members of the body, and union with our Lord, the lamb who was slain, the head of the Church.
Solidarity with The Body
First, let us consider solidarity with the members of the body. Not much time needed to pass after the fall of humanity before persecution and martyrdom enter the picture. Cain’s jealous murder of his brother Abel after Abel’s righteous offering of the best of his flocks is an immediate and pure example of true faith leading to persecution and indeed martyrdom. Having encountered brutal persecution himself, the apostle John evokes the memory of Abel’s death as just that, an act of martyrdom, drawing a conclusion for Christians of his day, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:12).
In the Hebrew Bible, the persecution and martyrdom of followers of the Lord are presented as an expected outcome for anyone audacious enough to proclaim the truth about God. Persecution of the faithful is on display throughout the ancient text, where we read of Israel’s suffering in the hands of their Egyptian slavers, Canaanite oppression of the tribes during the time of the judges, Samuel’s fear of reprisals from Saul, and Elijah’s and Elisha’s rejection by their own king and countrymen because they spoke the word of the Lord. In Elijah’s day things had gotten so bad, that the 7,000 prophets who had not given in to the Baal-worshiping sensibilities of their day had to hide lest they be found and persecuted (1 Kings 19:18). The canonical prophets were persecuted in their day. Jeremiah is mocked and imprisoned for his inconvenient truths, Daniel and his Judahite friends suffer fits of rage from their kings, imprisonment, and two unsuccessful executions because of their faith in the Lord.
The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews memorializes these martyrs, writing “…others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two [referring to an extrabiblical account that Isaiah was martyred in this way], they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— [those] of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb 11:36–38).
The Lord knows acknowledges their suffering because he identifies with the faithful who suffer. Moses’ repeated injunction to care for the “orphan, widow, and the sojourner,” those disenfranchised from social, political, and financial support structures, highlights divine care for suffering. Each of these social types would have been members of the covenant community (the sojourner would have been a converted Gentile living within the community, but not a part of the land distribution enjoyed by the people of Israel). And the Lord identifies with them, saying that if Israel will not care for the orphan, widow, and the sojourner (Deut 10:17-19), then he will, and the implication is that the people who neglected the sufferers will not fare well if the Lord has to step in.
The sense in the Hebrew Bible is that whether it is Israel as a whole, the prophets, or king David himself giving voice to persecution, their suffering will not go unnoticed by him. In a psalm attributed to David, the psalmist writes,
Deliver me from my enemies, O my God;
protect me from those who rise up against me;
deliver me from those who work evil,
and save me from bloodthirsty men. Psa 59:1–2
He goes on to describe how his oppressors come to find him in the night to do their evil in an account that sounds eerily like the accounts of some Christians I have spoken with who escaped from ISIS-held territories in 2016.
Each evening they come back,
howling like dogs
and prowling about the city.
There they are, bellowing with their mouths
with swords in their lips—
for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?”
The men who come in the night do not care how much noise they make because they believe no one will hear them or care. Such reckless lack of regard belies the guilt they are heaping up for themselves as the psalmist cries out to the Lord to notice his suffering, even when no one else does.
For those acquainted with the New Testament accounts of Jesus Christ, the divine care for the persecuted finds poignant and vivid expression in the life and suffering of the Messiah. Jesus is presented as the embodiment of faith itself, the very Word of God (John 1:1), but he is nevertheless born into persecution under King Herod, forced to migrate to Egypt as a refugee, dogged by religious and political police throughout his ministry, and ultimately crucified as an enemy of the state. He truly was, as the prophet Isaiah foretold, a “man of sorrows” (Isa 53:4).
Christians believe that, as the preeminent man of sorrows, Jesus fully acknowledged that the persecution that he faced was not an arbitrary fact of culture and history (Matt 16:21,24; 17:12). He was born into persecution because of who he was, the revelation of God incarnate, and the world could not tolerate his presence. He also knew that those he sent out would suffer because of their association with him. He also knew that the greatest act of persecution the world has ever known, the unjust crucifixion of the Son of God, would result in the greatest act of redemption that the world has ever known, the salvation of all who believe in him.
A recent Institute on Religion & Democracy conference asks the provocative question, “why don’t Christians care about the persecuted church?” Let me answer the question of why they should.
God is a God of justice. And those of us who claim to follow him should find ourselves more and more enamored with justice as well. We cannot claim Christ only to form our lives around the comforts and conveniences of modern Western life without paying mind to the injustice of Christian persecution around the world. “To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48)
We have been given much in the form of financial security, education, freedom, and for those in the West, particularly the United States, we have been given a part in one of the most powerful countries in the world. How can we say that we participate in the gospel of Christ, when we do not deliberate about how these resources can be used to the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering for the sake of the gospel. After all, it was Jesus who taught that, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21).
How are we expending our treasures of time, money, and influence for the sake of his followers.
Union with Christ
There is another reason why Christians should care about those who suffer for their faith. The Apostle Paul describes Christians as those who are “in Christ.” In his letter to the church in Philippi he writes that those Christians who are persecuted, are “participating in the sufferings of Christ” (Phil 3:10). Around the world, Christians are given opportunity to actually be the body of Christ in his sufferings, and so we in the West should seek opportunities to come alongside and care for those who experience persecution more acutely than perhaps we ever will. We should consider it a privilege to do so (Acts 9:16; 14:22; 1 Thess 3:3; 1 Peter 2:21; 3:9,17).
As a result, it cannot be enough for us to complain about the annoying anti-Christian forces in our own culture, to wish that we were properly represented in the centers of cultural production like the academy, media, and government. We are called, instead, to initiate what resources we have to the encouragement of the global gospel movement. When that calling means that we must sacrifice, we can be thrilled that we have opportunity to suffer for the same cause as our Lord.
What can we do? We can pray, and I do not treat that lightly. Intercession for the persecuted church is the most powerful tool at our disposal. We should pray first for our own hearts that they would desire safety and peace for those who suffer persecution, and second we can pray for the power structures of this world to be foiled in all of their efforts to persecute the body of Christ. We can financially support ministries that work with persecuted Christians, we can research the persecuted church, learn their stories so that our hearts our enlarged to love them as our Lord loves them and we can use our political influence as voters and yes as legislators to support policies that foster religious liberty.
Over the course of my work with persecuted Christians from North Africa, the Middle East, China, and Indonesia, I have experienced again and again the incredible witness of men and women for the sake of the gospel. As the hymnwriter John Newton wrote, “when we’ve been there ten thousand years…” we will be leaning into “no less days to sing God’s praise” alongside our brothers and sisters from around the world, many of whom gave up their comforts, wealth, reputations, and even lives for the name of Jesus. I do not want to wait to make their acquaintance. I want to get to know them now.
Scott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He regularly blogs at sunergoi.com.Google+