‘Martyrdom we can accept, but not genocide!’

Hwa Yung

Is faithful endurance the only paradigm for Christians under persecution?

BBC Magazine last year reported on a Christian militia specifically formed to protect Christian villages near Mosul, called the Babylon Brigade.* It was funded by the Iraqi government and fighting alongside other Muslim militias. The leader of this group was quoted as saying that they were left with no choice because ISIS specifically targeted Christians. The journalist went on to pose the question, “What about the commandment: Thou shalt not kill?” To this, the militia commander responded, “We have to fight. We have to defend ourselves.” Regretfully, the tone of the article was somewhat patronizing, as if it was wrong to fight — because the writer could not remember from his schooldays Bible studies when Jesus ever told his followers to arm themselves! Would the journalist have asked the same question on the sixth commandment of soldiers fighting at Dunkirk and Normandy or members of the French Resistance during the Second World War? Is it right to defend nations against ruthless dictators like Hitler but wrong to protect innocent lives and communities against violent persecutions that verge on religious cleansing? The above sums up a major challenge confronting Christian communities under persecution.

Studies have shown that persecutions against peoples of all faiths have been on the rise and are widespread globally today, with Christians most targeted.* Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea assert:

“Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today. This is confirmed in studies by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, the Pew Research Center, Commentary, Newsweek, and The Economist. According to one estimate, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, seventy-five percent of acts of religious intolerance are directed against Christians.”

*Similarly, Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out against widespread persecutions, especially in the Middle East where the continuing existence of historic Christians communities is being threatened among Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites, and Syriac Catholics. “Where is the conscience of the world?” he asks.* Regretfully, for reasons too complex to discuss here, various observers have noted that Western political leaders often have been reluctant to act or failed to act.*

Estimates of the number of Christians killed vary. Todd M. Johnson from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, using a broad definition of martyrdom, suggests that some one hundred thousand Christians are killed annually from 2000 to 2010.* But others more conservatively speak of between seven and eight thousand.* Nevertheless, these figures do not tell us the gravity of the problem, especially in relation to the massive displacement of whole communities and exile from ancestral lands, wherein they have lived for centuries, if not millenia. For example, of some one and a half million Christians living in Iraq before the 2003 war, less than half a million are left today. Another example from a very different context is the displacement of minority Christian tribal groups by the government in Burma.

Historically the manner by which Christians have responded to persecution has been largely defined by some key texts in the New Testament. These include “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt. 5:39) and “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23).* So when the Jewish authorities began the first major persecution in Jerusalem, Christians “were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). And in the book of Revelation, when the slain martyrs cried out for justice and vengeance, “They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete” (Rev. 6:11). In general these passages have been interpreted to counsel acceptance of persecution and martyrdom, escape if possible, and leaving the issues of justice and vengeance against evil to God who is sovereign. We can sum up this approach as “faithful endurance.” *

There can be no doubt that the New Testament call to faithful endurance remains the fundamental paradigm for the Christian church in every age in its response to persecution. It is too deeply rooted in both the mystery and the power of the cross for it to be set aside for something else. Nevertheless, are there good reasons why it should be questioned whether this approach says all that needs to be said about the Christian response to persecution? I would like to suggest that there are.

We begin first with the persecutions in the early church under the Roman Empire. Actually, these never involved the huge numbers of popular imagination. Based partly on the work of early church historian W. H. C. Frend, Rodney Stark has argued that the number of martyrs is only hundreds and not thousands.* The sporadic waves of persecution that occurred usually targeted bishops and leaders only. What make them memorable is not the numbers but the horrific sufferings the persecuted went through and the quiet radiance with which many faced death! In contrast, what is happening today in various places around the world is of a totally different order. The numbers are much higher and the persecutions much more persistent, intense and violent. This has led to some Syrian bishops saying in the context of the present crisis, “Martyrdom we can accept, but not genocide!”

Secondly, whether they be mob violence or state-directed persecutions during and after the apostolic period, all these took place in the context of an empire with a relative high degree of law and order. The Acts account (16:35–40; 19:35–40; 22:25) clearly shows Christians receiving or claiming protection under the law from local officials. But persecutions today often occur in contexts where law and order have broken down, or where government authorities are either negligent or even directly behind the attacks. Many of these have resulted in violence on a colossal scale along with sexual slavery, murders, genocide, and the dislocation of communities.

Thirdly, within the Western tradition itself, the Christian response to persecution has not always been restricted to the faithful endurance paradigm. Take for example the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Would Luther have survived and succeeded if it was not commonly known that Frederick the Wise, as well as other German princes, was standing by him, with arms if necessary? Or what would have happened to the Scottish Reformation under John Knox had English forces not intervened?

Fast forward four centuries to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s painful decision to join the plot to eliminate Hitler, in the context of an immoral war and genocides of unprecedented proportions. Just before returning to Germany from the U.S. in 1939, he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr the following: “Such a decision each man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security.” * He could not have written this if faithful endurance is the only paradigm for Christians under persecution or for Christian civilizations threatened with annihilation!

This then brings us to the question of whether it is ever right for Christians to resort to the use of arms in defending their loved ones, communities and civilization. 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-defense 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 defense of the innocent. As summarized by John Stott in Issues Facing Christians Today, seven conditions have to be met if a war is to be just: “formal declaration, last resort, just cause, right intention, proportionate means, non-combatant immunity, and reasonable expectation.” *

However, there are serious Christian thinkers who have challenged the just war tradition in favor of a strict pacifism. In recent years, Richard B. Hays has probably made the most sustained critique of this from a biblical perspective. *His position can be summed up as this: “From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it…. The New Testament offers no basis for ever declaring Christian participation in war ‘just’.” *

But is Hays right? I will simply offer two comments. First, what does he make of Romans 13:4 which speaks of the ruler who bears the sword as God’s servant? He writes, “Though the governing authority bears the sword to execute God’s wrath … that is not the role of the believer.” * But what happens when the ruler is a believer? Hays does not say. Furthermore, if it is the government’s responsibility to rule and to maintain law and order, what happens when the government fails, and law and order have broken down? Is the Christian simply to accept the chaos and suffer whatever consequences thereof? It appears that Hays has oversimplified the problem.

This leads to the second comment. Hays notes that someone may well ask him what would happen if Christians had refused to fight against Hitler in the Second World War? His response is a counter-question: “What if Christians in Germany had emphatically refused to fight for Hitler, refused to carry out the murders in concentration camps?” * Hays may well have a point with respect to Germany, but he misses it completely on the other side of the globe — only a tiny handful of the Japanese armed forces were Christian! And if Hays is wrong about the Japanese aggressors during the Second World War, he is even more so in the battle against ISIS today.

To sum up, 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. This brief paper does not pretend to make a comprehensive case for it. Rather it seeks to challenge the Christian church to see that there exist a lacuna in our thinking about persecution today, and that this warrants a major effort to develop a more adequate moral theological response to it — a theology of just defense, if you like.

To do this effectively, some thorny issues must be addressed. First, are there sound biblical and theological grounds for the principles of just defense to be applied to persecuted communities? Second, there is clearly a continuum between individual martyrdoms and genocide of whole communities. Under what conditions would be it be appropriate for Christians to move from faithful endurance to just defense for the protection of family, community and civilization? This is an issue not just on a regional or national level, but also at the local level. For example, anecdotal evidences from various places suggest 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 defense and protection of vulnerable religious communities into revenge and uncontrolled aggression on the persecutors.

Thus, thirdly, codes of conduct governing just defense must be carefully defined so that Christian actions for good will not end up paving the way for greater violence or, even worse, a religious war! Finally, given that persecutions of Christians occur in a whole variety of contexts globally, we need to work out guidelines to help churches to think through when just defense is appropriate and needs acting upon, and when it is foolhardy and would lead to even greater disaster for the church and gospel. An example of the latter is the situation of churches under certain Marxist regimes today. In any case, the problem is urgent and the challenge unavoidable.


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[1] Owen Bennett-Jones, “The Christian Militia Fighting IS,” BBC Magazine (11 April 2016); http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35998716.

[2] Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, Nina Shea, Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013); John L. Allen, Jr., The Global War on Christians (New York, NY: Image, 2013).

[3] Marshall, et. al., 4.

[4] Cindy Wooden, “Pope Francis: ‘International community must act to stop anti-Christian persecution,’” Catholic Herald (1 Sep 2015); http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/09/01/pope-francis-begs-international-community-to-act-to-stop-anti-christian-persecution/

[5] E.g. Marshall, et. al., 292-300.

[6] Todd M. Johnson, “The case for higher numbers of Christian martyrs,” at http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/csgc_Christian_martyrs.pdf

[7] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24864587

[8] Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) throughout this article.

[9] Cf. the thrust of Ronald Boyd-MacMillan’s book, Faith That Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church (Ellel Grange: Sovereign World, 2006).

[10] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 179f. It should be noted, however, that this refers only to the church under the Romans and not to the church in Persia, which had as many as 190,000 martyred in the fourth century. But that is not the tradition that I am addressing here. See Samuel H. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia. Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1500 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 136-145.

[11] Quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 321.

[12] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., rev. by Roy McCloughry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 106.

[13] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996), 317-346.

[14] Ibid., 332 & 341.

[15] Ibid., 331.

[16] Ibid., 342.

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