I have a dear friend whose husband is a career military officer. Over the 18 or so years he's been on active duty, they've had seasons when he was assigned tours of duty in combat zones while his family stayed stateside. During other seasons, he was assigned to risky non-combat zones where his family could not join him; at still other times he was assigned to international posts and lived there with his family. Along the way they have also been blessed with several tours of duty at various posts stateside - seasons when they lived in houses off base and he drove in to his job just like you or I might do every day.
Throughout all these tours of duty, though, he was always a soldier. Since most of his service has been post 9/11, he has always remembered that just wearing the uniform made him a target. Even when serving in the "safest" job stateside, he knew that he was part of something bigger than himself. He knew that he shared common enemies with his fellow soldiers throughout the world. He never forgot that the tour of duty to which he was assigned did not define him. Even today, he knows he is a soldier and is willing to follow through on all that means.
Among the many analogies scripture gives us about our faith, the analogy of a soldier is one linked directly with suffering:
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. (2 Timothy 2:3-4)As we discuss various definitions of persecution today, I ask you to keep this analogy in mind. By the end of today's lesson, I hope that we can each better identify with the "persecuted church" as we realize that we are also involved in the same battle.
What is persecution? Legal definitions
Most modern nation-states look to Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a United Nations document, for guidance on their legal definitions of persecution. This document uses the phrase "violations of religious freedom" and guarantees that all peoples should have the following rights:
- The right to believe
- The right to practice those beliefs
- The right to transmit those beliefs to their offspring
- The right to spread their faith
- The right to change religions
Article 18 is not limited to violation of Christian religious freedom. This is important to note, for while Christians are heavily persecuted, minority religions throughout the world often face persecutions in similar patterns. For example, more Muslims than Christians have died at the hands of Muslims. Muslim sectarian violence often follows similar patterns that we will discuss when we look at the pattern of persecution. As we become aware of potential "hot spots" for persecution, we should watch for ways any minority religion is treated. For the purposes of this study, however, we will consider definitions of Christian persecution for the remainder of this post.
From a legal perspective, and even within the church, there is no common agreement on a definition of persecution. One reason for this is that the word "persecution" has political consequences. For example, Chinese authorities accused of jailing Christians to "persecute them" will defend themselves by saying, "This isn't persecution. They have broken the law." Another challenge to legally defining persecution is that from a legal viewpoint, there is a difference between the right to believe (generally considered absolute, as even oppressive societies will claim they give citizens this right) and the right to exercise that belief (always conditional, even within the most free society - someone whose religious beliefs require human sacrifice, to give an extreme example, would find themselves limited in the ability to practice those beliefs). (Boyd-MacMillan, 85-90). The line between religious freedom and the responsibility to society is constantly fluctuating within any culture.
Two broad legal approaches to persecution have emerged. One school of thought uses the word to describe any violation of religious freedom. An example of this approach is David Limbaugh's book Persecution, which highlighted abuses of the "separation of church and state principle" (Boyd-MacMillan, 90). The second school of thought limits the definition of persecution to "extreme, gross violation of one's religious freedom, such as torture and imprisonment". Michael Horowitz, a Jewish lawyer who has advocated for Christian liberty and helped with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, prefers this second approach. He sees the struggle American Christians face as no different from the fight for rights that goes on with any minority group within a democracy, and that Christians have a mechanism to fight those violations. He states, "To whine about persecution here [in the United State] only dilutes the desire to do something about it elsewhere....The idea of equating what we go through with what they go through in North Korea or China or Pakistan or Sudan or Cuba is wrong." (quoted in Boyd-MacMillan, 91).
These different approaches have led to inconsistent usage of the term "persecution". Organizations that work within the world of persecution are beginning to delineate "phases" of persecution, including disinformation, harassment, discrimination, reductions in religious freedom, as well as outright hostility and systemic targeting of religious populations. It's also worth noting that even those who advocate a broader definition of the word "persecution" recognize that there are different degrees of persecution. It's important to realize, though, that a consensus of the definition of "persecution" is still evolving (Boyd-MacMillan, 92); as we read about persecution we should be aware of the perspective of the author to best understand the meaning behind his or her words.
Article 18 of the UDHR lays out a legal foundation. However, it completely ignores the spiritual dimensions of Christian persecution. A Biblical understanding will round out the definition.
What is persecution? A Biblical Overview
[Suffering for Christ] begins when one leaves close relatives for the service of Christ. For some, it means selling their possessions and giving them to the poor, which often means giving them for the propagation of the gospel. For others, suffering for Christ may mean agonizing in prayer for the cause of Christ, or agonizing and toiling for the building up of the body of Christ and the perfecting of the saints….suffering for Christ is not a self-inflicted suffering (Tson, 1997:424).
Weak Christianity is very often the result of cheap evangelism….God’s plan is to establish the testimony of Jesus firmly in the world today….World evangelism means spiritual warfare. When we enter into spiritual warfare, we begin to understand why whole areas of the world are closed off from the preaching of the Gospel, why whole nations seem to be in the grip of the evil one, why there is persecution….If we don’t see the spiritual warfare, then by failing to see it we tend to switch over to alternatives within our reach. Then we fail to attempt the impossible (Andrew, 1979: 140-141).
The reality of suffering unites believers in non-persecuted countries with those who are being persecuted. Alan Neely aptly observes that a genuine Christian mission “in due time will involve suffering” (Neely, 2000: 915-916). Paul emphasizes that while suffering is part of discipleship, it is also a method of witness (2 Cor. 4:8-10). The regular emphasis on the body and blood of Christ in the Communion meal reminds us of the reality of Christ’s suffering – and should also remind us that this suffering “happens repeatedly outside as well as inside the walls of the church” (Neely, 2000: 915-916).
Summary DefinitionThis is not so strange. So radical are the claims of the Gospel, so sweeping are its demands on the faithful, so uncompromising does it render those who yield themselves fully to it, that opposition and even persecution are to be expected….the dislike and the persecution which grew out of it were evidence that, as Jesus had said, in the Gospel something had entered the world with which the world was at enmity (Latourette, 1975: 81).
So, as we move forward through this study, how should we define persecution? My study of the New Testament leads me to agree with Boyd-MacMillan that Scripture makes NO distinction between a persecuted church and a free church. Some experience suffering in different degrees, and those not suffering as severely are called to help those in difficult situations - but there every indication I see is that "persecution" or "suffering" is the normal life for a Christian. Boyd-MacMillan presents six reasons for his all-encompassing definition of persecution (pages 114-117):
1) The New Testament does not limit the word to extreme physical suffering. Instead, the verb form of persecution, "to pursue," focuses on the fact of the pursuit, not the results of it.
2) Scripture makes clear that every Christian should expect persecution (2 Timothy 3:12; Acts 14:22; Matthew 5:11; 1 Peter 4:12-13; 1 John 3:13).
3) Persecution is an outgrowth of a spiritual battle and as such, is not limited in location. He observes, "The hatred that spiritual forces bear toward Christ does not diminish in democracies." (p 115)
4) Throughout history, the church has embraced all types of hostility as forms of persecution.
5) Just because we are all "the persecuted church", we are not absolved from helping the "severely persecuted" who need our urgent assistance. In fact, recognizing that their suffering is an extension of the same battles we face should drive us further to action. As Boyd-MacMillan says, "The terrible danger is that Western Christians, who do not regard themselves as part of the persecuted church, often fail to see themselves in a spiritual battle at all. And those who are not aware of the fight are losing it."
6) If we limit the definite of persecution to its most extreme forms, we fail to address the causes of persecution. When we hold a broader definition, we are able to recognize patterns and address the roots of persecution.
I thoroughly agree with these summaries. However, my biggest reason for a broad definition, outside Scripture itself, comes from the words of an elderly North Korean who fled the country in 1997: "If you limit persecution to those who are in jail or being beaten or having their property stolen, you are saying that all other Christians are dead. You see, the best and only way to know you are alive in Christ is when you are persecuted. The persecution proves Christ is within." (Boyd-MacMillan, p. 118).
Going back to the analogy we started with so many words ago: We are all given different "tours of duty" by our commanding officer. Those duty stations may change many times over the course of our lives. But always, always we remain engaged in the same battle as our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
So, I will conclude this post with two broad definitions of persecution: Ronald Boyd-MacMillan's, and my own. As we move forward, please keep these in mind.
Ronald Boyd-MacMillan:"Christian persecution is any hostility, experienced from the world, as a result of one's identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitudes, words, and actions." (p. 114)
Rosa: Christian persecution is any suffering that would not occur apart from a radical commitment to Christ - a radical commitment attracts an intentional pursuit of the Christian in a spiritual war.
YOUR TURN: What do you think about these definitions? What is your definition of persecution? Talk to me through the comments!
Adeyemo, Dr. Tokunboh.
1979. Persecution: A permanent feature of the church. In Destined to Suffer? African Christians Face the Future, ed. Brother Andrew.