With the click of a button, we can read about what is happening across the globe or across our own street without ever having to leave the comforts of home. Yet there is a great irony here. This age of information could just as easily be described as an age of willful ignorance. We pick and choose what we read; and too often our interests and concerns do not extend much further than our family, our work, or our local neighborhood.
We choose to ignore the fact that the “typical” Christian, in terms of sheer statistics, is no longer a white male living in the southern US. No; today’s “typical” Christian is more likely to be an African woman from Nigeria who walks two miles every day for water or a male farm worker in Brazil, toiling in the fields before heading to evening Bible study. Despite what many in the US have come to believe, Christianity is not in decline. Indeed, it has experienced unprecedented growth over the past 100 years, growth that has occurred most rapidly in the global South including such places as Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America.
Interestingly enough, these places of rapid growth are also places of increased persecution and suffering for Christian believers. Take a moment and use the “age of information” to discover more about today’s new “age of persecution.” In preparation for this article, I was just one mouse click away from all these story headlines: “India: Pastor falsely accused”; “Uzbekistan: believers arrested”; “Belarus: church evicted”; “Nigeria: pastors beheaded.”
A friend recently asked me, “Do you think that the absence of persecution in many places in the world means that the church has compromised so much that there is nothing to persecute it for?” It is an interesting question, but one based on a faulty and dangerous assumption. We should never assume that persecution only rears its ugly head in response to Christian faithfulness. True, the world too often has resorted to violence when faced with a people who love God before all else—be that nation, country, king, or president—but it is also true that the world resorts to violence for just about everything else as well.
Violence is present in this world because of sin, not because of faithfulness. Violence is the fallen world’s way of “getting things done”; and it has always been in stark contrast to the Way of the followers of Jesus who proclaim peace, pass the peace, and worship the Prince of Peace. Christians should not long for persecution, which is why many in the early church warned against the vainglory of desiring martyrdom. Honoring God in the face of violent opposition was one thing; going out of one’s way to incite authorities to engage in such persecution and then eagerly running toward it to prove oneself faithful was quite another.
So what do we do in a world where some Christians prosper while others suffer persecution? We can and must pray for one another, and not just generically. It should be our business to know what is happening to our baptized sisters and brothers in other parts of the world. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one of us rejoices, we all rejoice. Prayer binds us together in both our joys and our sorrows.
But there is more. The presence of persecution today reminds all Christians that we are called to share in Christ’s sufferings. There is a cost to discipleship, and following the difficult path of cross-bearing love does not come easy. Some Christians enjoy the freedom of religious liberty but fight the perils of idolatry toward money, possessions, titles, and prestige. Some Christians enjoy the freedom of spiritual liberty but fight the very physical perils of arrest, imprisonment, and death. Others experience both at once or separately at various times or seasons in their life. Christians are not called to pursue persecution so we can wear it like a badge of honor and proof of our faithfulness, but neither can we dismiss the real possibility that one day we may have to face suffering because of our faith.
Contemporary Christians, regardless of whether we are considered “statistically typical” or not, regardless of whether we live in affluence or poverty, regardless of whether we are threatened daily for our faith or promised daily that we will receive God’s favor—we all share one crucial thing in common: We have been baptized into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That is certainly a shared joy and a shared grace, but it is also a shared suffering that demands we never forget our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who are being persecuted for Jesus’ sake. “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).
This article was adapted from "The Persecution of Christian Believers", which originally appeared in Adult Bible Studies.