The Complex Problem of the Persecuted Church
November 3 has been set aside to pray for the persecuted church, and it prompts a good question in many minds: How exactly should the American church help our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world? A recent spate of articles has accused U.S. churches of not speaking out or sufficiently expressing concern. But the real problem is not silence, either in the United States or around the world. The problem is a lack of workable solutions.
This is a complicated issue, made even more difficult by our failure to adequately define just what constitutes persecution. I would argue for three broad, general categories we have in mind when we use the term: suffering, marginalization, and martyrdom.
The first and broadest classification is suffering, which can include things such as war, poverty, sickness, or natural disasters. Persecution involves suffering, but not all suffering is persecution. We should be careful, then, about what we include in this category. While Christians are often caught up with wars and disagreements that have religious overtones, such conflicts are also sometimes driven by political battles, economic conditions, and tribal rivalries. Take the Rwandan genocide where Christians killed Christians. Is that martyrdom, or does it have to come at the hands of someone of another faith? The point is not to downplay the death of Christians, but for us to realize that it is not always easy to determine what should be considered persecution.
The second category involves marginalization that causes physical, economic, social, and psychological pain, distress, or loss inflicted on Christians because of their beliefs. Plenty of Christians can't get permission from local officials to hold events or build churches. Some Christians lose their job because of their faith. But not all cases of marginalization are because of a Christian's faith—it could also be because of their tribal, ethnic or racial identity. Again, nailing down the exact reason for hardship is not simple.
The third category is the one most often associated with persecution. Martyrdom is when Christians suffer death for their witness and refusal to renounce their faith.
Despite the variety of types of persecution, many Americans tend to advocate for the same, overall solution: greater involvement by the U.S. government.
But what sort of intervention would help our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe? And what exactly should that involvement entail? What would they suggest, for instance, that our elected officials do in North Korea? Create even more sanctions that lead to even more suffering? Or what about China and Saudi Arabia? These governments engage in terrible acts, but intervention is entangled with all sorts of other concerns.
While the U.S. government may be able to pressure other nation-states, most attacks do not come down from governments, but from individuals as in Kenya and Pakistan, for example. Syria and Egypt are even more complicated—should we try to remove a brutal dictator in favor of a group that promises to persecute Christians even more? State intervention can sometimes be necessary, but it is rarely a sufficient answer to the problem. Often individuals and organizations must directly intervene to strengthen local churches.
Many younger Christians are beginning to recognize this need. Skeptical that the solution can come from governments, they are instead working through the grassroots level to affect change. While you might not find pastors advocating for international justice or starting non-government organizations, you might see the people in their churches doing so—and the pastors and leaders directing funds to organizations that aid, relieve, and support the persecuted church. These organizations have been involved in multiple avenues of aid, including advocacy. You won't find their staff or volunteers listed anywhere because it would put them in danger. You might also be uncomfortable with some of the actions of these organizations. But their work shows that the American church has at least observed the persecution taking place around the world.
By getting involved in such organizations we can better see the need to give up the false dichotomy of Western church versus global church, and move toward the global church serving the global church. Those of us in the West are not the only ones aware of the persecuted church. We can all stand in solidarity with each other when we realize the West needs help too.
Pattern and Power of Prayer
So what can we do right now? Start by simply praying. Sometimes we roll our eyes when we hear that we should pray for the persecuted church, as if praying is nothing. But consider how the early church prayed when being threatened (Acts 4:22-31). They affirmed who God was, quoted Scripture applicable to their situation, and then asked God for boldness and confirmation of their message.
We can learn a lot from following their pattern, and from recognizing that God is the only one that can truly protect his people. Let's cry out with the saints across all time: How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?