We’re in a series on ‘The Bible And Current Concerns’ and the issue this morning is ‘Persecution’.
‘200 million Christians (that’s one in ten in the world) are living under the shadow of persecution, discrimination and disadvantage.’ So says The Barnabas Fund – an agency which helps persecuted Christians, and which I’d encourage you to support.
Let me give two examples. One is the plight of Christians in northern Nigeria. Last year, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram declared ‘war’ on them. They said they wanted (quote) ‘to eradicate Christians from certain parts of the country… We will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.’ Since then, church services have been bombed, church buildings burned down, and in one northern state, 95% of Christians have fled.
Example number 2 is the church in China. As you may know, the Chinese government requires churches to be registered and submit to a high degree of control. And Christians who’ve refused have met instead in ‘house churches’. The authorities reckon there are 50 million in house churches; Christian sources reckon it’s more like 100 million. And last April, one of the largest house churches in Beijing was evicted from its building. So since then, very boldly, the congregation has met openly in a city plaza – resulting in many of them being arrested and detained, and losing jobs and homes. The Chinese government has said the house churches are (quote) ‘unstable social elements which threaten a harmonious society’.
But then what about the UK? After those examples you may feel it’s ridiculous to talk about persecution here. And it’s true that we don’t presently face anything like what one in ten of our brothers and sisters do. But there’s a book on modern-day persecution called Their Blood Cries Out, by Paul Marshall. And he says that before you define religious persecution, you have to define religious freedom. And he (rightly) defines religious freedom as freedom both to choose and to change your religious belief; but then also as freedom to manifest your religious belief in public life – including freedom to speak and propagate your beliefs, and freedom of religious assembly. And he then defines persecution as the denial of any of those freedoms – however that’s done.
And on that definition, we are seeing the thin end of the wedge of persecution. If you want some examples then pick up a copy of the booklet by the Christian Institute called Marginalising Christians. It includes the example of Lillian Ladele, the Christian registrar sacked over her conscientious refusal to register civil partnerships; and also the example of Christians handing out literature in a Muslim area of Birmingham, who were told by police that they were committing a ‘hate-crime’, and were threatened with arrest. Now it is the thin end of the wedge. But wedges get thicker. And in future, the choice for Christian doctors may be either to facilitate abortion, or leave the profession; and the choice for church leaders may be either to ‘bless’ same-sex unions or face legal action. And so on.
So persecution is not just an issue about others (although it is presently far worse for the one in ten of our brothers and sisters). And I want to ask three questions about it:
First, WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON BEHIND PERSECUTION?
Would you turn in the Bibles to Acts chapter 9, verse 3. Saul –who became the apostle Paul – is at this point not just a non-Christian, but a persecutor of Christians. And here, on a mission of persecution,
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. (Acts 9.3-5)
So on the surface of it, Saul was persecuting Christians. But the Lord Jesus asked him, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ I.e., Saul was ultimately reacting against Jesus – but since Jesus was no longer physically here, the reaction had to be aimed at his followers. And the Lord Jesus said the same in that reading we had from Luke 21:
“ … they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. (Luke 21.12)
I.e., ‘It won’t be because they don’t like you – but because they don’t like me, who you stand for.’
So why this reaction against Jesus (which the Bible says is actually in the heart of all of us, by nature)? Well, for the simple reason that he is Lord and Saviour. And by Lord, the Bible means he’s the only ultimate, rightful ruler of everyone on the planet. And by Saviour it means he’s the only way by which anyone can be put right with God and saved from God’s judgement. And the fact that he’s Lord and Saviour is a deep threat to us, by nature – until we’re converted. Which is why, by nature, people react against Jesus and persecute those who stand for him.
That happens at the individual level. I still remember a medical student here coming to faith from a highly alcoholic existence. And the Lord Jesus changed him remarkably and rapidly. And he came back after his first holiday home as a Christian and told me it had been an ordeal. Because although he went out with all his old drinking mates, he would no longer get drunk. And they couldn’t stand that; and turned very nastily against him. He hadn’t said anything about Jesus or drunkenness. But the very existence of Christians, let alone their evangelism, reminds people of a rightful Lord they’d rather forget – so they react.
But that happens at a government level, too.
Let me just pull into a lay-by to say something about the relationship between religion and the state – because that above all affects what religious freedom there is. The Lord Jesus was once asked by some Jews whether they should pay taxes. After all, wasn’t God to be regarded as their sole ruler? And Jesus replied, Mark 12.15:
“Bring me a denarius [one of the coins of the day] and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12.15-17)
So Jesus was saying that the picture is not that the believer has one, sole ruler – namely God. It’s that the believer has God as his ultimate ruler, while also living under the rule of government – but that government should be seen as ruling under God. So the Biblical picture is government under God.
Compare that to the picture in China. That’s an example of where government is ‘god’ (in inverted commas). It’s communist and therefore atheistic and therefore thinks it’s the sole and supreme authority
So no wonder, where that’s the picture, that the state is threatened by Christians who won’t recognise it as ‘god’. As Paul Marshall says in Their Blood Cries Out:
Christians embody an attachment to ‘another King’, a loyalty to a… spiritual allegiance apart from the political order. This fact in itself denies that the State is the all-encompassing or ultimate arbiter of human life. It means that Caesar is not God. And that confession… sticks in the throat of every authoritarian regime and draws an angry and bloody response.
He then quotes the Chinese state-run press, discussing in 1992 how Christian influence had played a key part in the fall of communism in Europe. It wrote:
The church played an important role in that change. And if China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.
And then compare that to the picture in a thoroughgoing Islamic state, where ‘god’ (believed to be Allah) is the government, and what’s believed to be God’s law (sharia law) is imposed as the law of the country.
And that’s the picture that Egyptian Christians are fearing. After his election, the new President, Mr Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he would be a president for all Egyptians and that the Prime Minister would be a non-Islamist. But during his campaign he said (quote):
We will not accept any alternative to sharia... the Quran is our constitution.
But under sharia, there is no real religious freedom. Non-Muslims have to accept a 2nd class status (called ‘dhimmi’) which gives them some protection at the price of very limited freedom. And Muslims face the apostasy law which means that those who choose to leave Islam can be forcibly divorced, deprived of access to their children, disinherited and subject to a death-penalty. So the so-called ‘Arab Spring that the BBC has been trumpeting could be anything but for Christians – and indeed for all other non-Muslims. It could become like Narnia under the White Witch – always winter but never Christmas.
So let’s pull out of that lay-by, with the lesson that only where you have that Biblical picture of how God and government relate is it possible to have religious freedom for all.
So, the fact that Jesus is Lord is a threat that provokes persecution. But so is the fact that he’s Saviour. That especially is a threat to all other religions. Because in the gospel, Jesus comes along and says, John 14, v6:
‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14.6)
So my dear Mum once said to me, ‘You don’t evangelise Muslims, do you?’ The assumption being that it’s OK to evangelise people who don’t currently believe in any way to God – but that it’s offensive to evangelise people who do. After all, what are you saying about their way to God? And the answer is: you’re saying that it isn’t in fact the way to God. You’re saying that the five pillars of Islam aren’t the way to God; the cross is. You’re saying that trying to work off your bad karma in Hinduism isn’t the way to God; the cross is. That’s what Paul, in Galatians 5, called ‘the offence of the cross’ – and it is an offence, however gently or wisely we try to articulate the message. And that’s the other underlying reason why Christians get persecuted.
So that’s what’s going on behind persecution.
Secondly, HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND TO THE PERSECUTION OF OUR FELLOW-CHRISTIANS?
And here we’re thinking especially the one in ten who are ‘living under the shadow of persecution, discrimination and disadvantage for their faith.’ In Their Blood Cries Out, Paul Marshall quotes Michael Horowitz, an American Jew and author. Having become aware of the scale of persecution against Christians, he sent a letter to over 150 Christian groups in America. He wrote:
As an American Jew, I’ve been deeply grateful for the fellowship and support of the Christian community in recent struggles against anti-Semitism. I very much doubt, for example, that the rescue of Jews from the former Soviet Union [in which his own family was involved] could have taken place without the morally rooted and committed assistance of Christians. I am writing because I am pained and puzzled at the relative lack of interest shown by many within the Christian community towards fellow Christians who are now increasingly persecuted.
And I for one was convicted by that. Because although I’m a Barnabas Fund supporter, recently I’ve been deleting their e-mail updates unread because I’m just so busy with other things. Now fair enough – none of us can do everything. But each of us must do something. And for the reason I say that, turn back to Matthew chapter 25, verse 32. The Lord Jesus is speaking here of when he’ll come, as we said in the creed, ‘to judge the living and the dead’:
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right [they’re the ones whose profession of faith has proved genuine] and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
[Which most likely refers to those in prison for their faith – but some of the other needs could also be as a result of persecution.]
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25.32-40)
And by contrast he says in v45:
“... whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 25.45)
So, just as the Lord Jesus said to Saul, ‘If you persecute Christians, you’re persecuting me,’ here he’s saying, ‘If you care for persecuted fellow-Christians, you’re caring for me; but if you neglect them, you’re neglecting me.
So how should we respond to the persecution of our fellow-Christians? My practical, three word answer is: The Barnabas Fund. Go to their website and you’ll find up to date information on the persecution of Christians around the world; background briefings on all the countries involved; projects you can give to; families you can sponsor; and direction for prayer. If the internet is beyond you, then you can find Barnabas Fund literature at the back of church and get yourself on their paper-mailing list.
Now I said each of us must do something. And remember that the ‘something’ is often close to home. E.g., through our international ministry here, you may know of believers going back to hard situations, and come to know of other believers in the same boat, through them. Well, there’s your something. Commit yourself for the rest of your life to staying in touch; encouraging; praying; maybe visiting, if you can. Or, e.g., some of our JPC mission partners are working in places where believers are under great pressure – like Sri Lanka, North Africa, Nepal. So, keep your eyes peeled for individuals they mention in prayer letters, whom you can adopt in your prayers. And come and hear Peter and Elspeth Gray at the summer series the week after next.
THIRD, HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND TO PERSECUTION OURSELVES?
I’ve already said we don’t presently face anything like what one in ten of our brothers and sisters do. We have considerable religious freedom – albeit under increasing threat. So our first response should be to protect that freedom – not just for our sake but for everyone’s sake. Because it’s a fact of life that where Christians are free, everyone is as free as they can be. Just make one last turn in the Bible to 1 Timothy chapter 2 and verse 1. Paul says:
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness [ie, that we may be free to live and speak for the Lord – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of more people coming to know him through us, v3:]. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2.1-4)
So that’s saying we’re to pray for religious freedom (not just here – but, e.g., for our Egyptian and Nepali brothers and sisters who face constitutional changes that could make life very hard). But what we pray for, we should also be willing to work for. And in a democracy, we can work for that picture of government under God which we saw earlier – and therefore work against our government when it behaves in a totalitarian way (as it’s currently doing in its attempt to impose a totally false and novel redefinition of marriage on us. That’s government playing god; that’s totalitarian).
So, we need to work for good changes of law – e.g., the current campaign to remove the word ‘insulting’ from the Public Order Act, so that people can’t stop responsible evangelism on the pretext that they feel it ‘insulted’ their beliefs. We also need to work against bad changes of law – like the Incitement To Religious Hatred bill that was defeated a few years back – which would have had a very bad effect on freedom of speech. And, like Paul did (as we see in the book of Acts), we need to appeal to existing laws where our religious freedom is threatened – as, e.g., various university Christian Unions have successfully done, when Student Unions have tried to remove them from campus.
Those are responses to do with politics and law. But most of what we have to respond to comes from individuals who don’t like us living or speaking for Jesus – witness the example of that medical student I mentioned. So let me end by summing up how the New Testament (NT) teaches us to respond to that kind of thing – most of which we’ve just covered in Home Groups in 1 Peter.
Firstly, the NT tells us not to try to avoid persecution by going quiet about the gospel or compromising our behaviour to fit in (see Matthew 5.10-16).
Second, the NT tells us not to be surprised by persecution – not to go looking for it, but equally to expect it to feature in our lives in some way, at some times. And 1 Peter even tells us to rejoice in it because it shows that people can see enough of the Lordship of Jesus over our lives to provoke a reaction (see 1 Peter 4.12-16, 2 Timothy 3.12).
Third, the NT tells us not to retaliate – not to repay evil with evil, but to respond by continuing to do good and praying for those causing us ‘aggro’ (see Matthew 5.43-45, Romans 12. 14, 17-21).
Having said which, fourth, the NT tells us that we can and should use public means of justice where we’ve been mistreated. E.g., if at work you’re mistreated because you’re a Christian, you’re not to hit back personally at the person involved. But you may use a complaints procedure not only to get wrongs righted for you, but also to set a precedent that protects others (see the contrast between personal vengeance in Matthew 5.38-39 and public justice in Romans 13.1-5; see also the example of Paul using his legal rights in Acts 16.37-40).
And fifth, and most important of all, the NT tells us to have an eternal perspective. In Mark 8, when the Lord Jesus is spelling out what it means to follow him, he says:
‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross…’ (Mark 8.34)
Which means, ‘He must say no to the right to rule his own life and he must accept the possibility of rejection for siding with me.’ As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred in Germany, said, ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’ – die to self, die to popularity, die to comfort, die to self-protection, die possibly to liberty, and possibly literally to die (as Bonhoeffer did). Which begs the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ And Jesus answers that question at the end of Mark 8. He says:
‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8.38)
So we have to weigh up which matters most: the acceptance of the world now; or of Jesus on the day of judgement and beyond. And how we weigh that up will determine whether we keep going in the face of whatever persecution comes our way.