Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom: Part II
Part Three: Reflections from History and Case Studies
Though comprised mostly of stories from individual countries and regions, this section highlights realities and themes that apply across chronological and geographical boundaries. The nations and areas described include Turkey and the Middle East, Japan, Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, the modern secular West, Nigeria and Rwanda, China, Sri Lanka and India, Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan.
The themes that emerge from this inductive study include the following:
Suffering, persecution, and martyrdom are the “normal” conditions under which most Christians have lived. The current state of peace and freedom enjoyed in the West and some other places is an historical anomaly that could soon come to an end. We may as well prepare ourselves to join the ranks of Christians throughout history and around the world today who are paying the price to follow Christ.
Tragically, persecution has all too often been inflicted upon Christians by fellow “Christians,” beginning with the early church and continuing through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the reign of “Bloody Mary” in England, religious conflicts in Europe, the Rwandan massacres, and modern and current persecution of Protestants in Eastern Orthodox countries, especially Russia and the Soviet Union.
Christians face persecution when they are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to pose a threat to social and political stability. You can see this in the death of Jesus Christ, the persecutions of the Roman Empire, and in modern totalitarian, communist, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu states. When Christians join revolutionary or independence movements, they are (rightly) seen as an existential threat to the state and face fierce persecution.
In the modern secular West, Christians who refuse to approve of abortion on demand or homosexual practice and same-sex marriage; educate their children at home; or dare to challenge the reigning myth of evolutionism, already encounter hostility, especially in schools and universities; this could soon turn into state-sponsored persecution. To some degree, this has already begun, with legal action being taken against Christians for public displays of their faith or disagreement with government policies.
Religious persecution takes place where another religion is fundamentally opposed to Christianity and contains within its core teachings the duty to restrict the growth of Christianity or even to eradicate Christians altogether. Today’s chief example is persecution from Muslims, but ideologically motivated persecution has also taken place in Marxist nations.
When Christians seem to have close ties to other foreign powers, they may expect the ire of nervous or nationalist governments. China and Russia are two of today’s outstanding examples. This perception can be heightened by the culturally and politically insensitive actions of well-meaning but ignorant, and often arrogant, Christians from the West. Again, China and Russia are two outstanding examples in the 21st century.
“Missionaries” of all sorts from outside a “closed” country may call down unnecessary persecution upon themselves by foolish methods of evangelism. Those going to sensitive places must be thoroughly trained and instructed in how to be effective witnesses of Christ, and they must be discouraged from seeking quick results or publicity for foolishly bold actions. Understanding the local culture is a prerequisite for effective cross-cultural ministry.
Short-term “vision trips” are useful in educating people from outside and furthering prayer, but short-term “mission trips” seeking speedy numerical results usually cause great damage.
Sometimes, persecution has been a factor in the further growth of the church, as in modern China; at other times, persecution has been so severe that entire groups of Christians have been wiped out or reduced to minuscule minorities, as in the Asia Minor (modern Turkey) of the early church, sixteenth and seventeenth--century Japan, and, apparently, Iraq today.- One cause of the disappearance of Christianity can be the failure to translate the Bible into the local language or to raise up indigenous leaders.
State-sponsored persecution of all sorts in the modern era has usually been accompanied by a comprehensive propaganda program aimed at alienating the populace from Christians. In the secular West, this has been greatly assisted by the leaders in the news and entertainment media and in education.
Christians avoid, and survive, persecution best when they (1) meet in small groups, especially in homes; (2) develop strong leadership that is not dependent upon clergy or upon foreigners; (3) have the Bible in their own language and commit large portions of it to memory; (4) worship in ways that reflect their culture without compromising biblical truth; (5) emphasize the cross of Christ in evangelism and in teaching believers the duty of suffering for followers of Christ.
Christians may give a strong testimony for Christ even in prison or when they lose property or the lives of loved ones, if they meekly reflect the love of Christ and show their faith in his promises. Armed or violent self-defense never advances the cause of the gospel.
International advocacy for the rights of Christians can sometimes help, as in the case of Vietnam; at other times, if the advocacy is seen as part of Western, especially American, attempts to interfere in domestic policy, it can bring added pressure on Christians by further “confirming” suspicions that Christians are agents of unfriendly foreign governments, especially the United States.
To be effective, advocacy must be conducted patiently, prayerfully, moderately, truthfully, intelligently, and in constant dialogue with local Christians and their government. Loud, exaggerated, and hasty advocacy usually backfires, though it may bring in funds to the organizations involved.
Since the publication of Sorrow and Blood in 2012, conditions in China have changed. Most dramatically, large church buildings in the city of Wenzhou, “the Jerusalem of China,” have been either demolished or had crosses removed from their rooftops or steeples. Since these churches include both Protestant and Roman Catholic, and both registered and unregistered congregations, this campaign represents a significant move away from protection for officially sanctioned churches. Though the Communist Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province is said to have ordered the demolitions, because he is close to President Xi Jinping, such a major departure from previous policy in a highly visible place could hardly have been undertaken without prior knowledge, perhaps even permission, from the top, observers say.
Church members have responded to these attacks on their buildings by forming human shields to prevent damage; then protests, some of them leading to violence by police and arrests of protesters; then a public chorus of written protests; and lately a counter-move of putting little crosses on their clothing, in their homes, in offices, and elsewhere. They have also objected to new requirements that church members be given political instruction.
Elsewhere in China, a few other church buildings have been torn down and crosses removed, but not many. In general, however, the nationwide tightening of security and central control have included a few more detentions of house church pastors, greater scrutiny and more restrictions on house church meetings, and a general sense that Christians must be very careful not to provoke unnecessary attention. Still, the vast majority of Christians continue to gather without interference from the government.
There is no widespread persecution of believers in China.
Among those who have been most affected are civil rights lawyers, many of whom are Christians. The government has detained more than one hundred of them, including those who have offered legal advice in Wenzhou or represented the case of churches affected by the government’s assault of church buildings that violate codes or are otherwise considered “too large.”
At the same time, however, leaders of unregistered churches and Christian organizations also report friendly meetings with officials, who realize that house church Christians are mostly non-political, except that they want legal recognition and rights.
Part Four: Preparation, Support, and Restoration
Rich both in theory and in practical guidelines, Part Four deals with several major themes: How to prepare missionaries and their families, short-term mission teams, churches and mission agencies for service in places where suffering and persecution must be expected; how to handle crises when they arise; how to minister to the persecuted church, both locally and through advocacy, as well as how to learn from them; how to help victims of trauma find healing; and how to support, and learn from, the hard but mostly unsung work of those who conduct research.
All Christians, but especially those engaged in cross-cultural ministry, must understand that “Christ’s vicarious suffering means . . . for his followers not deliverance from earthly suffering, but deliverance for earthly suffering. . . He is our pattern and example. His suffering requires us as his followers to tread a similar path (1 Pet 2:21)” (317). Such suffering brings a special intimacy, and leads to eternal glory. Rather than indicating that God has abandoned us, suffering for Christ is evidence that he loves us (318)!
In fact, “[m]ission, of necessity, encounters adversity and suffering” (318). “Christians deny themselves in order that they may give themselves fully to God for his purposes in the world. If Christians say ‘no’ to their own lives, it is so that they may affirm the lives of others” (319). That does not mean that we rashly seek to suffer, but that we are ready for it when it comes.
Like Christ, his followers must have an attitude of self-denial and of servanthood. “Sadly, most Christians have values similar to those of the world and development of a Christian character is not being taught in our churches” (320). Missionary training must, therefore, emphasize character development, so that they may learn that “Jesus’ way of dealing with evil and suffering is the way of the cross – of self-giving love, obedience, and service unto death” (321).
We need to learn to persevere, but also to accept the limits of what people can endure, and not push others father than they can go.
Still, we must remember that “God’s way of action is through weakness, suffering, and self-sacrifice” (321). Our weaknesses can become the platforms for a powerful testimony of God’s grace. Page 322 contains a summary, “What does this mean to missionaries today,” that should be read by all professing Christians.
Since many modern churches are “a product of modern showmanship evangelism or the so-called prosperity gospel, “ their members are “not prepared and willing to pay the price of taking the gospel to the unreached or least evangelized people groups,” where they are the most likely to encounter hostile opposition (343). “Other churches, especially in the western hemisphere but also in some of the regions of the Majority South of the world, have become comfortable and complacent over the years. They have lost evangelistic fire and missionary zeal and certainly are reluctant to venture out of their comfort zone” (343).
In times like these, we need to “awaken and prepare the church and mission agencies to face the challenges of missions in the twenty-first century. This necessarily entails preparing them for suffering, persecution, and martyrdom” (343).
As part of their training, this generation of Westerners needs to learn to live at a much lower standard of living, not only to reduce costs but to draw near to the people and show them what self-denial looks like. They must also learn to respond to hatred with love, persecution with prayer, and cursing with blessing, while teaching their converts to react in the same way Jesus and the apostles did.
At the same time, they must learn to obey legitimate laws, conform to local regulations and customs, and avoid actions that would unnecessarily provoke hostility.
Responding to crises, ministering to victims of persecution, and using research.
These chapters are so full of practical and godly wisdom that I would be foolish to try to summarize them, but all involved in cross-cultural ministry – from church and mission leaders to missionaries preparing to go overseas or already on the field – should read them carefully. In particular, theological educators, foundation managers, and mission leaders should ponder the implications of the chapters on “The place and function of academics,” and “The place and function of research.”
Briefly: All aspects of the theological curriculum should show the central role of suffering in the Bible, church history, theology, ethics, and missions; and those making decisions should invest time in reading what researchers have learned, lest they make costly mistakes with money and manpower.
The body of the volume concludes with a call for “Accurate Information, Urgent Intercession. Thoughtful Advocacy, and Courageous Action.”
Part Six includes six appendices of invaluable resources.
I cannot recommend this book (except for my chapter) highly enough. It came to me as a reminder of what my wife and I were told before we left home for Asia with OMF in 1975. As mission leaders instructed us to prepare a current will, they said, “a missionary must be prepared to preach, pray, or die at a moment’s notice.” About a year later, at a conference for new workers in Taiwan, a senior missionary summed up what he had learned in these words: “Effective missionary service will include hard work and suffering.” It seems that very little has changed since then.
For some suggestions on how we should apply the lessons from Sorrow and Blood to our evangelism and discipleship, go to Reaching Chinese Worldwide.