"Standing with the Persecuted"

Luke 21:5-19

November 13, 2022


Worldwide, Christians are the most persecuted religious group, and it is getting worse. Even though we Christians in America seldom suffer persecution, we cannot read Scripture long before discovering that persecution is often the result of being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. But whether we personally are persecuted or not, we need to stand, in every way that we can, with those who are.


The following appeared in "Dear Abby" a while back:


DEAR ABBY:

I do my grocery shopping in a large supermarket. There is one checkout woman who has been there for years. Yesterday, when she checked out my groceries, she leaned toward me and said, "I lost my beloved Ricardo after 48 years of marriage; he had a massive heart attack with no warning." I didn’t know what to say except, "Gee, I’m really sorry."


Abby, I don’t even know this lady’s name! She certainly did lay a depressing bit of news on me. I left the store feeling down in the dumps. I didn’t need to hear that kind of news from a total stranger.


--IN THE DUMPS


DEAR IN:

Perhaps you didn’t need to hear that kind of news, but apparently, she needed to talk about it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a person is to listen. A little compassion, please.


It seems that Ms. In-the-Dumps was a bit short on both compassion and empathy, but perhaps we can understand her attitude. There is often news that makes us feel not only bad, but also frustrated because we can’t do anything about it. "If it has nothing to do with me," we say, "then why talk about it and just deepen my frustration?"


For many of us, that frustration applies when we come across biblical passages about the persecution of Christians. It’s hard for us to connect with those passages because, living here in a free society, most of us have never experienced persecution for our faith.


But if we are to consider the fullness of Scripture, we cannot just say, "Well, that doesn’t apply these days," and skip over it. The possibility of persecution for one’s faith is a theme woven into the New Testament.


Consider today’s reading. Jesus was in the temple with some of his followers. The structure, the third temple to stand on that site, was begun some 40 years earlier under King Herod. Though still not completed when Jesus was there, it was already an impressive, magnificent edifice.


The very power of the structure led some with Jesus to comment on its beauty. But Jesus responded, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." This startled Jesus’ followers, but time proved Jesus’ right. About 40 years later, Roman forces burned the temple and leveled its walls.


His comment about what was to happen led Jesus to say more about coming troubles for his followers, including persecution. Jesus clearly said that some who walked with him would suffer horrible things because of their faithfulness to him.


Now we can try to discount this Scripture portion as having no claim on us. After all, Jesus was talking about maltreatment that was to come to his first-century followers. We could try to discount it, that is, if it weren’t for the all-too-abundant evidence of persecution of Christians in our own day. The fact is it hasn’t gotten better; it’s gotten worse. Christian Solidarity International, a human-rights organization, claims that more Christians were murdered for their faith in the 20th century than in all other centuries combined. They report that more than 150,000 followers of Jesus Christ are martyred every year and that nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where Christians are persecuted.1 And the thing is, when you start watching the news for it, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that those figures could be right.


Case in point: This past December, the Chinese government sent troops into the Wenzhou area of its Zhejiang province to crack down on unauthorized religious activity. Wenzhou was known for its thriving religious community, but the government destroyed hundreds of places of worship, including several small Christian churches founded in the 18th and 19th centuries. Explaining the onslaught as only a committed propagandist could, an official spokeswoman for the communist government said that the action had been taken to "protect religious freedom."2


Case in point: Just a little over a year ago, in the Egyptian community of El-Kosheh, a three-day rampage took place during which 21 Christians were murdered and 260 homes of Christians were looted or destroyed. The only Muslim who died during the uproar was shot accidentally by another Muslim. The trial that followed, conducted by a Muslim judge, and concluding just this past February, found all the Muslims defendants not guilty of murder and blamed three Christian priests for the troubles. Four Muslims were found guilty of lesser charges, but that was it.3


And hear this statement: "The greatest threat to Christians [today] is posed by two hostile ideologies: communism and militant, politicized Islam." That statement comes not from a religious magazine, nor from the annual report of Amnesty International, nor from a Christian television show. No, it comes from no less a disinterested source than The Wall Street Journal,4 as recently as late 2016. That same article, quoting Nina Shea of Freedom House, an international human-rights group founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, pointed out that "Few Americans know that Christian’s today are the most persecuted religious group in the world and that persecution is intensifying."

Yet another example, Freedom House points out that Sudan, a mostly Muslim country, has abducted or killed more than one million of its people in a so-called holy war against non-Muslims. Young Christian boys, held captive, are often forced to convert to Islam and then sold as slaves. Two reporters from the Baltimore Sun, uncovering this story, verified it by going to Sudan and purchasing two boys for $500 each. (The reporters then returned the boys to their families.) Bear in mind that many of the outrages committed against Christians are by a radical radical Muslims, and that these hostile acts are not characteristic of Islam as a whole, but they are happening, nonetheless.


All of this brings us back to Ms. In-the-Dumps. Hearing reports of persecution makes us feel bad, but also helpless. How can we here do anything about Christians suffering in politically closed societies in Asia, or in African countries where Muslim radicals have gotten the upper hand, or in Central America where missionaries have been murdered by armed rebels?


I cannot fully answer that. I only know that a full reading of Scripture requires us not to ignore persecution.


Sure, there are a few things we can do, such as support the efforts of groups like Freedom House. We can write our congressmen when human-rights abuses are present in countries the U.S. trades with. We can teach our children to view persecution of any sort as a vile thing. And of course, we can pray for beleaguered Christians.

Given the history of the world since the time of Jesus, however, it’s unlikely those things will eliminate persecution. The problem may be bigger than any human force can correct.


But know this for sure: Christians living safely here must not say, "If it doesn’t affect me, don’t tell me about it." There’s something larger here. The issue is not just what does this mean for me, but what does this mean for Christ’s church?


And we must answer: It means a lot. Historically, the intensity of persecution has been geared to the faithfulness of the Christian witnessing. The brighter Christians burned with faithfulness to Jesus, the more likely they were to be persecuted.


During the Nazi rise to power in Germany, the Nazis subordinated the church to the government, in effect placing loyalty to Hitler above loyalty to God. In response, a pastor there named Martin Niemoeller started the Pastors’ Emergency League to defend the church. Angered by Niemoeller’s rebellious sermons and popularity, Hitler had him arrested. Niemoeller spent more than seven years in concentration camps and wasn’t freed until Allied forces liberated him in 1945.


While Niemoeller was imprisoned, an American, in contact with his parents, expressed sympathy about their son’s plight. The elder Niemoeller replied:


When you go back to America, do not let anyone pity the father and mother of Martin Niemoeller. Only pity any follower of Christ who does not know the joy that is set before those who endure the cross ... Yes, it is a terrible thing to have a son in a concentration camp ... But there would be something more terrible for us: if God had needed a willing martyr, and our Martin had been unwilling.


Persecution has a way of backfiring on the perpetrators, for it often refines and empowers Christians who suffer it. It may well be that the most committed of the next generation of Christian witnesses will emerge from the persecuted church in China or Sudan or Afghanistan. We cannot be faithful to Christ ourselves without standing in whatever way we can with Christians paying for their faith with their lives.


There’s an old story about two businessmen riding a commuter train into a large city on their way to work in their downtown offices. On the way, the train passes through an impoverished ghetto area of the city. One man reaches out and pulls down the window shade saying, "We can’t change this. I don’t want to look at it." But the other man puts the shade back up, saying, "We may not be able to change it, but at least we can keep the shade up."


We need to be at least there regarding persecution of our fellow Christians. We may not be able to stop it, but at least we can keep the shade up.


1 National & International Religion Report, February 20, 1995, 7.

2"China destroys churches in provincial onslaught," Christian Century, January 3-10, 2001, 11.

3 Barbara G. Baker, "Judge acquits Muslims after rampage," Christianity Today, April 2, 2001, 30.