How should we pray and prepare for faithful suffering?
Walking across the plains of Nineveh 2,500 years ago, you may have noticed a grumpy prophet sheltering in the shade of a tree. Much has happened since then. In recent centuries, it has been home to one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. But when ISIS swept through this place, around 125,000 Christians were forced to flee the city of Mosul and the surrounding area.
Persecution and suffering for Christians in today’s world takes many forms — and it is no stranger to the students and staff of IFES.
The recent edition of the IFES journal — Word & World — focused on this issue and explored a variety of situations and questions: Is it right to fight back and defend your loved ones? How are abandoned homes connected with our identity and faith? What can we learn from the many martyrs who have gone before us? What about when God remains silent? How do we grieve the things we have lost?
We’ve pulled together some short highlights here for you. If you have a bit longer, do have a look at the full issue of World & World and think about how you could use the articles it contains to start discussion, reflection and prayer in your student group or church gathering.
“What is most dangerous about persecution is not threatening someone’s life, but rather threatening someone’s faith.” Nazek Matty
What does suffering look like today?
Sister Nazek Matty, Iraq:
“It was unexpected that ISIS would enter the area that Christians for ages believed was well protected by its churches, shrines, and saints. No one would believe that the town would be cleared of Christians in a few days. Christians had to face a reality they never predicted. They are away from their land, and they are in the exile weeping the past and fearing the future.”
Bishop Benjamin Kwashi, Nigeria:
“For the last thirty years or so, northern Nigeria has seen a series of riots, persecutions, and destruction. Sometimes whole families or communities were decimated; sometimes it was individuals who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who refused to deny Christ, choosing rather to be killed. In the vast majority of instances, the names of these martyrs will be known and remembered only by their close relatives — and by the Lord. Some were those who were working for peace and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians; some were pastors; many were church members.”
Groupes Bibliques du Gabon:
Staff of GBG Gabon were caught up in the violence following a disputed election in August 2016. Opposition leader Jean Ping lost to incumbent Ali Bongo by fewer than 6,000 votes, and Ping claimed he won and demanded a recount. The violence that ensued arose from what a major newspaper calls ‘deep-seated popular anger’ arising from Bongo’s repressive methods and alleged corruption. Ping supporters burned the parliament buildings, and the military burned Ping’s headquarters. Nesmy Bersot Mvé Nguéma, GBG General Secretary, first wrote from Gabon for the IFES blog here. Soon after he wrote, the constitutional court completed a review of the election, announcing that Ali Bongo was the winner.
How should we respond?
Nesmy Bersot Mvé Nguéma, Gabon:
“Matthew 5:10 says ‘Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ The verse establishes an inseparable link between happiness, justice, persecution, and suffering. But it also raises two key issues about our martyrdom (witness): what type of persecution do we suffer from? How do we understand the notions of persecution and suffering for justice’s sake?
“I struggled with this notion of justice for two years. I knew what God’s will was for me, but I was afraid of losing the comfortable social situation I had gained since I started working part-time in the ministry. I was afraid of lacking means and sufficient power to make things happen. I was also afraid of being guided by my own pride and ambitions. I needed God’s guidance to put all the pieces together.
“My credo is, ‘If I must die, it must be for a just cause.’ And the only one is the gospel. Even if our God does not deliver us, we by far prefer to die out of obedience than live through betrayal.” Read more.
Michael Jensen, Australia:
“Christian martyrdom does not come with an anaesthetic. It is not spared grief, pain, despair, or doubt. It is ugly. It journeys through hell itself. But it is empowered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
“The testimony of the martyrs is not just for those living under the threat of violent persecution. It is for those Christians who get to live in comfortable homes and work in air-conditioned offices just as much. The Christian life is cross-shaped. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: ‘The cross is laid on every Christian’ — and that includes the ones who do not face being killed for their faith.
“Christian martyrdom shows us the Christian life is always and everywhere a dying to self — and that the glory of this dying to self is very much hidden. Our small, everyday moments of saying ‘no’ to the world or of carrying the burdens of others or of pouring ourselves out in service are not often applauded. The cost of them to us, if not as great as dying itself, is tangible. The Christian life hurts.” Read more.
Hwa Yung, Malaysia:
“It has been noted that we are facing religious persecution directed against all faiths on an unprecedented scale today and especially at Christians. In many places, these persecutions have escalated to genocidal proportions. Yet, the dominant narrative that the global church uses in response to persecution remains that of faithful endurance. Despite the important role of the just war tradition in Christian history, little work has been done to apply the same principles to genocide in persecution.
“In a discussion with some Nigerian Christians who were facing premeditated church burnings and large scale killings, a friend of mine suggested that they may need to consider applying the just war tradition for the purpose of self-defence in such situations. Surprisingly he was told that they had never heard of it! The just war tradition is generally accepted by a majority of Catholics and Protestants, particularly against immoral aggression and in defence of the innocent.
“This is an issue not just on a regional or national level, but also at the local level. For example, anecdotal evidence from various places suggests that churches were less likely to be burnt and communities attacked if these were protected by Christian vigilante groups. But the ever-present danger here is to slip from the just defence and protection of vulnerable religious communities into revenge and uncontrolled aggression on the persecutors.” Read more.
Bishop Benjamin Kwashi, Nigeria:
“A gospel which has no effect in peoples’ lives, which has no transforming power, is not the true or full gospel. Whatever the conditions around us, let us never forget: we have a gospel worth living for and a gospel worth dying for!” Read more.
What does persecution and suffering look like in your context, or another context you are familiar with? How can you make time to pray for the persecuted church around the world?
Read more, think more and find discussion questions on this theme in issue three of IFES Word & World.