Blessed are the Persecuted?

Buried in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, just after the “blessed are peacemakers” and before “turn the other cheek” is this less than comforting saying of Jesus.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

This from a man who was soon afterwards ran afoul of the authorities and was crucified. For Jesus, and his early followers, "take up your cross and follow me" meant painful physical death.

This saying comes to mind after reading this piece on Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) from the LA Times magazine.

It's a dynamite feature that does what all good religion journalism does. It asks tough questions.

Like these:

Is the fascination and focus on “the Persecuted Church” and “extreme devotion” among American Christians just about catharsis—about getting a spiritual, emotional high without doing something concrete to eliminate religious persecution?

Does the focus on persecuted Christians ignore the persecution that Buddhist, Muslims, and Hindus also face? And does it reduce complex situations, like the war in Sudan, into simple “Good Christians versus Bad Muslim” scenarios.

Has the notion of being a persecuted Christian become a romanticized ideal for 21st Century America Christians whose faith is so compromised that it's rendered almost meaningless?

While author Claudia Kolker is to be commended for tackling these tough questions, she falls short in understanding the religious nuances of this story.

Take the lead-- the piece has got a compelling lead—some VOM workers visit the widow of a murdered Pakistani pastor. They offered support—money and prayers—but here’s the kicker.

“But there was one thing VOM could not—would not—offer Christians like her. They would not try to make the persecution stop.”

What does this mean? How are they supposed to stop it? We're not told. And while Kolker says that other groups that advocate for persecuted Christians take a different approach, she never outlines what that is.

Here's what she says VOM believes.

The persecution of Christians is something the organization would rather embrace than prevent. It is their suffering, VOM believes, that inspires other Christians and helps the church to grow.

“We don’t see [persecution] as a problem that we can protest or help and make it go away,” explains spokesman Todd Nettleton. “It is always going to occur, because Christ promised it would. Our mission is to fellowship with those enduring persecution, support them when and where we can, and be a blessing to them. In turn, we are blessed with their testimonies of God’s faithfulness.”

The piece then outlines VOM's good works—building wells in Bangladesh, distributing aid in Iraq, giving Bibles to Christians in countries where the Christian Scriptures are illegal--followed by another kicker.

VOM, according to director Tom White, wants to create a world where everyone is Christian--an approach Kolker appears to think is questionable at best. She casts suspiction on White as some kind of a flake by following up with an anecdote of White director of VOM hiding film, a la Papillion, in his colon during one of his overseas trips.

Here's the crux of Kolker's criticism of VOM:

On a larger scale, lending too much weight to the plight of Christians can suggest insincerity about advancing the cause of religious freedom for everyone.

But VOM--unlike Amnesty International for example--isn't necessarily interested in religious freedom. They aren't a human rights group, they are a religious group concerned about the fate of their fellow believers. So they are doing what Christians have done from the beginning--praying for their brothers and sisters in need, and offering material (financial and otherwise.)

Kolker's piece also misdiagnoses the fascination that Ameriican Christians have with the persecuted church. Some of it is familial concern--and some of it is plain old guilt.

American Christians, in their best moments, know that their practice falls far short of the demand of their faith, the demand to take up their cross and follow their master.

You get glimpses of that in the piece, like this quote from a VOM worker.

"In America,” he says, “the Christianity we know is watered-down and user-friendly. The brothers and sisters in hostile nations who are dying and beaten because they’re willing to risk their lives for their faith? That attracts me.”

At it's core, Christianity is a religion of confrontation. Why were the early Christian matyred? Because they worshipped a king of kings, instead of the Roman Emperor. That kind of faith is a threat to totalitarian regimes of any kind, and makes Christians a real threat in places where the state demands ultimate allegiance.

Kolker does make an insightful comparision between radical Islam and persecuted Christians--both understand the power that martyrdom offers. When people are not afraid to die, they have the ultimate weapon in their hands.

It can be a force for evil--suicide bombings come to mind, or it can be a force for good. What made Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer so influential--they were not afraid of death, because they knew God was with them--so they risked everything, even their lives, to do God's will.

In their best moments, Christians remember that doing God's will means sacrificing for their neighbors.


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