The Seed of the Church
In recent days, we have all been horrified by the persecution of Christians (and others) that we have seen in the news and on the internet: massacres in Africa and the Middle East; kidnappings of Christians – especially girls – in Syria and Nigeria, with many of them sold into sex slavery; destruction of churches; expulsion of Christians and Yazidis and Kurds from their homes; and, of course, those snuff videos in which black-hooded murderers speaking in British or Australian English cut off the heads of prisoners or burn them alive.
Now, persecution of Christians has gone on for a long time, but we have been reluctant to see it. It doesn’t fit our view of the modern world. Several years ago, at some World Council of Churches meeting, in which the usual pompous prelates were saying that, really, all religions are just the same, a delegate from the Anglican Church in Indonesia stood up and said that he was glad to hear this, and did this mean that he could go home and tell his church members that they didn’t have to die for their faith anymore?
So this is nothing new, it’s just that it’s more in-your-face than it’s ever been before. And most affecting of all of these in-your-face videos is probably that of the twenty-one young Coptic Christians who were herded onto a beach in Libya to have their heads hacked off by the terrorists of the Islamic State.
They did not submit; they died with the name of Jesus on their lips. And so, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church – Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II -- has declared them to be martyrs of the faith, and their death day will be remembered hereafter by Coptic Christians throughout the world.
I think ISIS may have overplayed its hand with this. Not with our government, God help us, or the other Western governments, who have shown all the firmness of a roasted marshmallow too overdone to stay on the stick; rather, it is the Muslim governments of the Middle East who are horrified by what is happening in their midst, and some of them are discovering a new interest in protecting their Christian neighbors. (And may it be so!)
But that’s not what I mean when I say I think that the terrorists have overplayed their hand. For in showing their brutality – especially in showing the killing of those who commended their souls to Jesus even in the moment of their deaths – they have aroused a great curiosity that will be playing itself out all across the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia.
There are people over there right now, who are asking, “Who are these people, who can die like this?” And some will say to themselves, “Man, I want to know what they know.” And from there, it is but a step to say, even if only in their secret hearts, “I want to know this Jesus they died for.”
It’s an old story, repeated many times over the centuries of the Church’s existence. I think we will ultimately see a fair number of conversions from this – even in the Muslim world – because ISIS has shown this video, and others like it. Long ago, at the dawn of the 3rd Century AD, the North African theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” And however brutal and bloody the reign of terror we now see might be, I think it will eventually be overthrown, and in the society after their passing, there will be a stronger Church.
Right now though, in the time of their testing, our Christian brothers and sisters in those lands need our prayers: First, that they may be spared; but second, if they are not to be spared, that they may be faithful witnesses in death as well as in life, that in all things Jesus Christ might be glorified. Meanwhile, I know that many people who contemplate these things are giving thanks that such doings are not seen in our land. And many more comfort themselves, not with acknowledging the Providence of God, but with indulging the pleasant fantasy that “it can’t happen here.”
Well, you know what: it can happen here – does happen here, in fact, but we only notice it as garden variety crime when it does. A lone nutjob shoots up an office or attacks somebody in a park, and we edit out the triumphant “Allahu Akbar” they cry as they do it. We only notice the violence. And the police are soon called, and things run their normal course.
Still, it’s not a constant worry, and we don’t have whole gangs of murderous thugs taking over territory here as an act of jihad; nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that the Church here is not under great pressure. I hesitate to say that we face persecution -- not because I’m afraid that I’ll sound paranoid, or like a conspiracy-monger – but because I’m not sure we should dare compare ourselves to those heroic young men on that beach.
I look at them and wonder how we would carry ourselves in similar circumstances. And in doing so, I doubt our strength of character, our unity, our commitment to Jesus. For if we are unlikely to be threatened with death by the forces arrayed against us, we are all too likely to be faced by far lesser terrors, and we show a distressing tendency to fold, all too easily.
Recently, a young friend posted something on Facebook: a meme, as they call it, some pre-made thing like an electronic handbill, that invites you to push a button and “share” it with everybody on your friends list. We all do this, which is why some wag defined the Internet as an invention for the dissemination of cat photos. Well this wasn’t a cat photo – it was a statement. And it said, “I may lose some friends for this, but I just gotta say, I fully support gay rights.”
Well, okay. Good for you. I don’t want to debate that issue. But I do want to make the observation that I seriously doubt – given the temper of the times – that anyone I know would lose any of their friends for posting such a meme. Now, if you tried posting anything for the other side . . . If you criticized any part of the agenda of those who define “gay rights,” I’m guessing you just might lose some friends.
For the Church in America (and the West) finds herself operating in a culture where certain questions are presumed (by those who matter) to have only one, legitimate answer – questions of race, of economics, of gender, of sexuality, of “science” – and if you dare to claim a point of view different from the “right” one, you won’t lose your life. But you might lose your job, or your home; certainly you will lose friends, and you may be pursued by a howling mob that means you have to completely abandon your old life.
Brendan Eich gave a thousand bucks to Proposition 8 in California– the constitutional amendment to ban Same-Sex Marriage that passed by overwhelming margins some years ago. Opponents of Proposition 8 found his name in the list of donors and made such a storm of protest that he wound up getting fired from the job of CEO of Mozilla, a multi-million dollar company he founded.
Dan Murphy, a baseball player with the New York Mets, is currently in the news for saying something about lifestyles he disagreed with. If his career survives, he sure won’t be saying anything like that again.
Recently, a professor in a graduate seminar who opened the topic of black-on-black crime so offended a white grad student by merely bringing it up that she said she felt traumatized, and the professor was disciplined while the university apologized to the student.
Justine Sacco, a young professional on a family trip to South Africa, just before boarding her plane for the eleven hour flight, made a lame joke about AIDS on her Twitter acct which offended somebody, with the result that thousands of angry, violent messages awaited her by the time her plane landed in Johannesburg and she turned her phone back on. She lost her job, and her family almost rejected her.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., has said, more than once, that those who deny that Global Warming – or Climate Change, or whatever – is real, should be put in prison.
Out west, one of those cake decorators who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding was not only sued in her professional capacity, but in her personal capacity, and now stands to lose her home.
Finally, I read a news item last week about a young man who happens to resemble somebody a young woman accused of assaulting her on campus. Resembled somebody -- the young man in question has never harmed anybody – and the college has told him there are places he can’t walk on campus, lest his resemblance to the guilty party trigger some sort of PTSD in the female victim.
We all gripe and grumble about “political correctness,” but the fact of the matter is, the field of free expression in our society is shrinking in an alarming manner – and there is frequently a nasty, authoritarian edge to those who see themselves as on “the right side of history.” In academia and in corporate life and in government and in school and in entertainment, we are treated to a constant drumbeat of received opinion that brooks no rivals. Anything which could challenge its dominance is attacked with fury and anyone who stands against it is delegitimated.
And while religion, as such – or Christianity, as such – is not necessarily on this side or that side of many of these arguments, nevertheless, the fact that religion exists as an outside source of authority -- something which could cause somebody to stand against what all “right-thinking people” agree with -- means that it is a threat, and must be tamed. And if not tamed, then eliminated.
I expect this to get worse – a lot worse – in the years ahead. And I wonder: how many of us will continue to profess our faith in Christ – continue to teach the doctrine and morals of the Bible – even when we are branded as bigots or when our churches are in danger of losing their tax-exempt status or when our friends and neighbors all pile on our social media to denounce us as vile and backward?
Not many, I would guess.
And so, even as we pray for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and Africa, I think we need their prayers far more than they need ours; for we are in far graver danger than they are. They face, pre-eminently, physical threats; but we face the loss of our legitimacy to say what we believe and the rejection of our own intimate social networks if we don’t show ourselves to be in favor of whatever is currently approved. They risk losing their lives. We risk losing our selves.
In his last letter to his young friend Timothy, the Apostle Paul, facing his own death in a Roman prison, wrote to him:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people.And he points out that you’re not going to escape all this just by lying low and hoping to get along with everybody. As he writes,
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted . . . But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it . . .This was something church leaders like Martin Niemöller had to learn the hard way. Pastor Niemöller spent the last seven years of the Nazi regime in a concentration camp for criticizing the takeover of the churches by the State. He said later,
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—I pray for the Christians who live in the Middle East and Africa. Some of them I know personally, but all of them need prayer. And I pray for our church, and for The United Methodist Church, which faces enormous pressures in the run-up to General Conference next year.
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I pray for each of you. I pray for my family. We are all under increasing pressure to conform to the dominant opinion, especially when it comes with a hint of consequences if we don’t.
And I pray that I may always say what God wants me to say, and stand for the right as he gives me to see the right, even when the cost is fearfully high. Because sometimes, it will be.
Jesus, be our aid. Amen.