Friday, August 02, 2013

Lessons From the Arena: What we Learn from Persecuted Followers of Christ (Persecution 101, #9)

This post is #9 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9

It's hard to believe we've made it to this point - the final post in this series on the persecuted church. I hope that God has done a work in your life like He's done in mine as you have studied about a subject so dear to His heart. As I have prayed for, studied about, and written about the persecuted church over the past few months, God has imprinted these truths on my heart in ways I cannot express adequately. Even the aches and pains that go with living in this body of flesh have become reminders to me of the suffering that is occurring in the body of Christ. I never want to forget what I've learned.

I also never want to make the mistake of just thinking that the relationship with the persecuted church is one way. It's true - they need to feel connected to the wider body of Christ, to know we are praying and helping in practical ways. But also - and maybe even moreso - we need to feel connected to them. We need to receive from them the ministry and lessons only they can teach.

As we discussed when we defined persecution, we are all "persecuted believers" to some extent. Whether through spiritual warfare, marginalization, mocking, or a whole range of other non-physical forms, we know what it means to be attacked for no reason other than our faith in Christ. Yet there are those whose persecution reaches far more severe levels, who live daily with the possibility of imprisonment or death, who face choices far more drastic that I've ever seen. And I have learned through these studies that I need them more than I ever realized. We - the church in the West - need them more than we know. So here are some lessons that those who've worked most closely with them have learned - and a few that I've learned along the way. (Some of these are pulled from Boyd-MacMillan, 304-349, with my own thoughts incorporated.)
  • A cross-centered life. Persecuted believers who endure don't minimize the cross. Instead, they exemplify a cross-centered life. Their theology is focused on Jesus - on His life, on His suffering, on His resurrection, on His victory. They connect their suffering to His, identify with Him in the "fellowship of His sufferings" even while they wait for the "power of His resurrection" (Phil. 3:10).
  • A relationship-oriented life. Often their testimonies reflect the lesson that relationship with Him is more important than tasks for Him. Wing Mingdao, a Chinese pastor, learned this when he spent 20 years in a cell with no ministry opportunities at all, and not even a Bible to study. He found himself with nothing to do - "Nothing to do except get to know God. And for twenty years that was the greatest relationship I have ever known. But the cell was the means." (Boyd-MacMillan, 308). A cross-centered life focuses on God, and lets Him take the reins for any tasks. The success, and speed of victory, are His to determine. As Boyd-MacMillan says, "How sad it is that so many of us work in the garden for the Creator, but never walk through the garden with the Creator! This invitation to walk with God in His garden, say the persecuted, is one we must pay any price to accept." (p. 310)
  • A Bible-saturated life. A persecuted believer hungers for God's word. If he's had a little of it, he wants more. If he's had a lot, he recalls it for sustenance. Suffering also brings clarity to confusing Bible passages, yielding lessons about God that we don't learn until we are in the trenches. A Chinese pastor described to an American pastor why Revelation was his favorite book of the Bible. Surprisingly, it wasn't because of the hope for heaven and victory to come. It was because of the encouragement he received to resist idolatry. He saw Revelation as describing the way his world was - full of idols and things trying to draw him away from Jesus. (see Boyd-MacMillan, 316-318). Scriptures depths can be plumbed for a lifetime and we will still have lessons we can only learn from each other, because God has set up His body to need each other.
"The ultimate challenge of the persecuted church is to teach us things about God that we can incorporate into our daily walk. If all we do is pray for the persecuted, support the persecuted, march for the persecuted, then it's still a question of us helping them. We have not actually allowed the persecuted to change our lives." - Boyd-MacMillan, 305
  • An empty/full life. Persecuted believers are forced to accept their weaknesses. They give up trying to do things in their own strength, and allow Him to fill them. Suffering empties us of ourselves and allows us a deeper filling of Him. An Egyptian believer recounted his persecution, and how it brought him to a place of seeing the depth of his sinful nature. In the midst of that dark moment, he realized how much Jesus loved him at his worst, and then: "Christ rushed in and filled me, and the filling was so great because I was so empty." (Boyd-MacMillan, 320)
  • A risky life. Radical Christianity invites hostility, because as we saw earlier Satan hates Jesus and lashes out at us because of Him. Whether the attacks come spiritually, or more overtly through our cultures, families, laws, neighbors, or even authorities in power, obedience to Christ is not a "safe bet". One believer in California related how his radical giving and simple lifestyle became offensive to his law firm partners, costing him a partnership. Brother Andrew observes, "Persecution is because of the radical life, not the other way around. Why are we not having persecution? Because we are dodging it." (Boyd-MacMillan, 326). That doesn't mean we go "looking for trouble". It simply means that as we live out our faith, and confront darkness in Jesus' name, there will be a reaction. Boyd-MacMillan highlights how broad this reaction can be when he writes, "the pressure of the world, the flesh, and the devil comes from so many sources that we can safely say that every Christian will experience it, no matter if their culture is formally hostile to Christianity or fundamentally formed by it." (p. 326)
  • A God-glorifying life. Persecuted believers remind us of God's power to deliver, as well as His power to equip us to endure. They testify to His faithfulness. They remind us that we don't have to know the results of our efforts, because He will see the job through. Missions was His grand idea, after all, and He just asks us to help Him out for the short time we walk this earth. Persecuted believers can teach us to exalt God.

By far, the single biggest lesson I have personally learned from reading stories of persecuted believers and praying for them is simply this: Jesus is worth it. He is enough. This truth was driven home to be in a powerful way though a story I read. A pastor in the former USSR was being tortured by KGB agents to give up information. He refused, but then they brought in his son. As they tortured his son to the point of death, the father started to waver. Just before he would have given in, his son urged him to stand firm. "I can see Jesus coming for me," the son said as he encouraged his father not to give in. "And He is so beautiful."

I don't have to know how things will turn out. I just have to know that He's worth holding on to - and that He's holding tighter to me than I ever will to Him. HE IS WORTH IT.

YOUR TURN: What have you learned from studying the persecuted church along with me?

Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church.Revell, 2006. 

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Helping the persecuted in tangible ways (Persecution 101, #8)

This post is #8 of a series. For other posts please see here: #1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #7 - #8 - #9

In the last post, we talked about helping the persecuted through prayer. Since that's their number one request, I felt it was appropriate to discuss it separately.

Prayer as the priority does not mean prayer alone, however. As Christians through the centuries have learned, God quite often invites us to be part of the answer to a prayer, moving the action from our hearts into our hands and feet. This lesson will focus on tangible ways to get involved, as well as some general principles to consider. We'll start with the principles, to lay a foundation for better understanding the specifics.

Helping principle #1: Be careful not to do more harm than good.
Any time we have a stirring of the heart to "do something", this becomes a risk. When that stirring is directed toward helping the persecuted, the risk is very often literally life or death. We need to do the background research to get it right.

Ronald Boyd-MacMillan cites a tragic example from a few years back. Christians in Sudan, especially children, were being kidnapped and sold as slaves by Muslim traders. Certain organizations started a "buy back slaves" campaign, raising large sums of money along with increasing awareness. As the months passed, concerns arose about bogus slave traders collecting cash and massive sums of money flowing into extremely poor areas. What began as an attempt to "do something" ended up fueling the slave trade by make it an extremely profitable, viable business. (Boyd-MacMillan, 232).

In this particular case, simply thinking through basic human nature and the economics of poverty could have led to more creative solutions. Identifying possible ways that harm can occur isn't always that easy, though. That's why principle #2 is vital.

Helping principle #2: Actively engage local persecuted believers to identify viable options.
This task is more difficult than it sounds. Often the problem is locating the believers to begin with! Establishing trust, and learning whom to trust, are other factors. The more I have studied, read, and prayed, the more I realize the importance of this principle - but a counterbalance is needed. I cannot simply plop myself down in Iran and start looking for Christians. Effective engagement of the persecuted church requires long-term relationships where trust can be developed both ways. The wider body of Christ is served by agencies who specialize in the persecuted church, who maintain ongoing relationships and a presence "on the ground". My part in principle #2 is to pray for discernment and wisdom for those who are doing the legwork of engagement, and to exercise my own discernment in reading reports and information from the field. (The purpose of this blog is not to promote any one agency, but I realize that this principle will beg the question "Who can I trust?". In my opinion, the organization doing the best job of this principle, staying true to Scripture and accountable to local churches in the process, is Open Doors International.)

Helping principle #3: Focus on serving the persecuted, not using them.
Let's face it: We've all seen a good cause become disjointed from the people it's about. The cause becomes the cause, rather than the people affected along the way. My husband and I are currently reading an excellent series of historical fiction books about the Civil War, and I've been reminded afresh that many abolitionists were just as prejudiced as slave-owners. They had a Cause, but didn't want anything to do with the people they supposedly were trying to free.

Similarly, "the persecuted church" can become a politicized cause, a PR cause, a fundraising cause - anything but individuals loved by God who are part of the body of Christ He asks us to serve. Boyd-MacMillan relates a tragic story of a Chinese house church pastor who was called to Washington to receive a human rights award. Politicians joined the gathering, and speeches highlighted abuses of power that failed to relate to the current situation in China. The pastor told Boyd-MacMillan that no one had asked him his story or tried to get current information; instead, "they just wanted to hand me the award." (p. 236-237)

This story would be bad enough on its own, but Boyd-MacMillan's next words caused me to really sit up and take notice:
"This experience has been multiplied in advocacy contexts a hundred times. I am weary of looking into the eyes of the persecuted believer being honored and seeing the question, Why doesn't anyone take an interest in my story." (p. 237)
Turning the persecuted church into a Cause leads directly to violating principle #1: extreme statements, misinformation, and other poor advocacy tactics can lead to a cost in influence, reducing credibility for genuine concerns and giving ammunition for government anti-Christian propaganda. A good agency will be careful to get the story right and will always, always, always serve the person rather than the cause.

How are the persecuted "used"? Boyd-MacMillan highlights four key failures (pp 238-253) that should be avoided if we truly wish to serve the persecuted church. Since he goes into much more detail and includes some great examples, I once again commend his book to you for more information than you will find here.

  • Overheated Publicity - representing extreme cases as the norm, or exaggerating the situation.
  • Tactical Polarization - attacking those who have a different approach. This does not preclude a dialogue about what tactics work and what might cause harm, but it does mean not attacking agencies or individuals whose viable methods are different than another's.
  • Propoganda Parroting - This primarily occurs when a visitor to a persecuted nation swallows the government's propaganda lies and repeats them. This is especially an issue for religious VIPs and some political leaders.(Others fall victims to "overheated publicity", the opposite extreme.)
  • Focusing on Urgent instead of Strategic -  High profile releases, short-term fixes, and other urgent tactics have their place - but an overemphasis on these misses long-term, strategic opportunities. For example, in some Indian villages Hindu extremists launched a plan in the 1990s to offer free education (they provided the teachers, of course). Parents who could not afford school jumped at the chance to educate children - who are being taught the radical Hindutva ideas along the way. A "50-year plan" to provided Christian schools is not as dramatic a sell as "give now to help release pastor X", but in the long run might be far more helpful.
So - what does work? Other than the most important - prayer - what can the contemporary Christian in a relatively secure country do to help his or her brothers and sisters who are suffering? Based on Boyd-MacMillan's assessment of tactics in chapters 10 and 11 (254-299), here are some additional ways YOU can help, starting today. (As always, prayer comes first. If you aren't praying regularly for the persecuted church, start there!)

  • Share their stories. Once you find an organization that you trust, share the stories of the persecuted church. A wise agency will be careful about photos and names, but will always have general stories about "a believer in Nepal" or "the underground church in Iran" that you can pass on to others. Raise awareness with solid information presented in a way that helps rather than hurts the church. We need to get the story out, and it's hard in traditional media because of "secular myopia" (p. 263) and because for security purposes the stories come from unnamed sources. Use social media, use your church prayer group, use whatever means God puts at your disposal to educate others who might not realize that persecution didn't stop with Acts 28.
  • Advocate wisely. Private representation, often from western government leaders or trusted businessmen who have developed relationships with the persecuting government, has worked when used wisely and quietly. Ronald Reagan asked a state department official to bring up the names of specific Jews and Christians who were seeking to get out of the USSR; another story claims that he actually brought the names of Christians in Soviet Gulags to his meetings with Soviet leaders, quietly asking for their individual release. None of this was public at the time; he wisely recognized that he could help more by advocating quietly. While most of us do not have this level of influence or personally know anyone who does, we can keep our elected officials informed and ask them to wisely and cautiously intervene if they get a chance. When a trusted agency releases the name of a persecuted believer, we can make sure our leaders know that name.
  • Write letters. Letters written to persecuted believers and persecuting authorities have had a demonstrable effect. Boyd-MacMillan notes that often, prisoners who the government gets letters about are treated better; consistently, prisoners who receive letters note that they are encouraged by them even if they could not read the language.
  • Legal intervention. Supporting laws that will help the persecuted church, and watching for laws that could harm them, is an important role that Christians in a democratic society can play. Be aware and discerning, then use the voice that God has allowed you to have to speak for those who have no voice.
  • Illegal tactics. This is controversial, but based on Acts 5:29 many agencies embrace tactics such as Bible smuggling, sneaking in teachers, etc. Our role should be to pray for these efforts and understand where these choices come from.
  • Political pressure. Individuals or states can exert political pressure, and there are times this is effective. However it is probably the most overestimated tactic, so we must not expect too much from this arena.
  • Positive engagement - building up the society where persecution occurs. The rush of Christian NGO's into Afghanistan after 2002 illustrate one example of this method. This helps the church in that society in practical ways, destroys caricatures of Christians, and nudges the country forward. The drawbacks, of course, are always present; there is no way to avoid working with the persecuting authorities and short-term sacrifices might have to be made for long-term gains. Much prayer and wisdom is needed, but these projects are often very worthy of support. 
  • Financial support. While it's generally unwise to give cash directly to persecuted believers (they will be accused of being "bought" by the west, among other things), giving to agencies that work with the persecuted is one of the best ways we can help the persecuted church. But how to pick a worthy agency? Besides taking into account the principles above, we should avoid agencies that seem to focus on grandstanding, celebrities, and emotional manipulation. Instead, look for the following:
  • Encounters with the persecuted. Whether through stories, emails, opportunities to write, or even trips - do you have a chance to encounter the persecuted believer for yourself? The best agencies provide chances for donors to go to the field.
  • Prayer. A solid agency will make prayer a priority, providing multiple ways for you to pray continually for the persecuted church.
  • Financial accountability and integrity. Are the books open - can you get a full financial statement? Is the organization a member of the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability or a similar agency? Are the leaders known for integrity? Is the board independent, or under the authority of the president/founder?
  • Does the agency cooperate with other organizations? Work with the persecuted church is a work to bring unity between parts of the body of Christ, so the organization should certainly be in unity with other agencies.
  • Does the organization include long-term strategies in its approach? Does it seem to be aware of the complexities and challenges faced by persecuted believers?
  • Does the organization intentionally serve the church? 
  • Does the organization have a solid track record, and is it willing to face controversy rather than compromise its values?
  • Let yourself feel the burden for those persecuted. Boyd-MacMillan noted: "I'm convinced that the best donor of an organization who seeks to help the severely persecuted is a person who is burdened for, informed about, and a witness to the suffering church." (p 287)
The bottom line is that as you pray, God will guide you. Connecting the wider body of Christ to the persecuted church was His idea to start with, after all :). Whatever you do to help the persecuted church, keep seeking His heart for them:
Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. - Hebrews 13:3, NLT

Your turn: How are you feeling led to be involved with the persecuted church?

Boyd-MacMillan, Ronald. Faith that Endures: The essential guide to the persecuted church.Revell, 2006.