The people of God seem always to struggle with exactly how to relate to powerful governments. Israel hated her slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh, but promptly wanted to go back to Egypt after landing in the wilderness. At least in Egypt she could have melons. This longing to go back to Egypt and trust in her chariots and horses haunted Israel of old. Thus, the prophet Isaiah later warned (Isaiah 30),
“Who execute a plan, but not Mine,
And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit,
In order to add sin to sin;
2Who proceed down to Egypt
Without consulting Me,
To take refuge in the safety of Pharaoh
And to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
3“Therefore the safety of Pharaoh will be your shame
And the shelter in the shadow of Egypt, your humiliation.
When the cultural vessel of our existence becomes pressurized by the heat of persecution or political oppression, faith will rise like the steam of boiling water seeking the quickest, most natural outlet. The question for us is what is most natural? Where does our faith rise? What is our outlet under pressure? Two recent responses to the crisis in Mosul, Iraq have me thinking about this question.
On the one hand, there has been a call from the Italian Bishops Conference to pray for the persecuted church. And, on the other hand, there has been a sizable protest in Australia specifically on behalf of Christians in Iraq. Without being critical or cynical, we might clarify what is our faithful response to the crisis of Christian persecution in Iraq and around the world.
In Italy, the bishops have drafted a plea for the Church throughout Europe to pray on behalf of suffering saints around the world. The statement is powerful in its indictment of slothfulness concerning our suffering sisters and brothers:
‘If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him ‘(Rom 6:8). These are words that we should also shake the conscience of our Europe, which has become distracted and indifferent, blind and dumb to the persecution which today has claimed hundreds of thousands of Christian victims”.
While the document rightly focuses attention on Christians in Iraq and Nigeria—two of the absolute worst places for Christians right now—it perhaps wrongly appeals for Christian action on the basis of human rights, history, and culture. From the Italian bishops,
Faced with such an attack on the foundations of civilization, human dignity and human rights, “we cannot remain silent. The West cannot continue to look the other way, under the illusion of being able to ignore a humanitarian tragedy that destroys the values that have shaped it…
This statement is not at all false. In fact, Christians must engage culture and improve (like salt and light) the civilization in which it exists. Yet, Christians must own as first priority the fame of Christ and the spread of His kingdom. Our appeals, then, should first be for Christ’s reputation instead of western values. While we can and should join as cobelligerents with the Italian bishops advocating for aid on the basis of a “humanitarian tragedy,” we must pray for Christ to be exalted through the witness of His faithful saints. We must pray that our suffering sisters and brothers would hold fast to that which has been given to them because Christ is coming quickly and bringing his reward to those whose garments are not stained with the sin of the surrounding society.
While Christians should advocate politically for religious freedom for all, we should also remind each other to recognize the difference between religious freedom and persecution. The Constitution speaks of religious freedom; the New Testament speaks of persecution. One is a human right, the other a divine blessing.
As Christians continue to feel the pressure of persecution in Nigeria and Iraq, the steam of faith should rise up through the prayers of believers to Christ in heaven. Our hope is anchored there, in Him—not in America’s chariots or the U.N.’s horses—not in Europe’s civilized past nor in the present “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” We must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who lives to make intercession for us.
(To be continued…)