They Suffer for Our Faith

“This will give you an opportunity to testify.” (Luke 21:16)

By D. Stuart Dunnan

The New Testament passages appointed for this Sunday remind us of those heroic early days of the Church when the first generation of Christians lived in dangerous times and at great risk because of their faith in Jesus, their belief that he was the Christ, the Son of God, sent to reveal God’s way of love for us to follow and to serve with our lives.

In the passage from St. Luke’s gospel which we just heard, the evangelist quotes Jesus predicting a time of great persecution which he experienced himself: “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues because of my name. … You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

And this all seems very far away from us, not our time at all.

But is this true? Certainly, this is not our experience in America, but it would be our experience if we lived as Christians in Syria or in Egypt, in northern Nigeria or in Pakistan. This is their experience right now; this is how they suffer for our faith.

And have you noticed? We don’t really talk about it, and our media are largely silent about it, as is our church, by the way. And I suppose there are several reasons for this, some good and some bad.

The first good reason is that we are now very aware that Christians have been guilty of this kind of persecution of others in our past, which is a horrendous sin against Christ, so we don’t want to make that mistake again; we don’t want to start some modern “Christian” crusade. We also don’t want to talk about what is happening to Christians in Africa and the Middle East because it is fundamentalist Muslims who are attacking and persecuting them, and we don’t want to fan the flames of anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice, which is always just below the surface in the secularized West.

I am personally very conscious of this at Saint James, where we have a substantial group of talented Muslim students who are fully respectful of our Christian traditions and culture and who view such acts of bigotry and violence as entirely contrary to the teachings of their religion as well.

So, for these reasons perhaps, we can tell ourselves that we are acting as Christians: we are turning the other cheek and showing self-restraint to preserve the peace of God for all his children. But is this true? Are we really turning our cheek? Or are we rather turning someone else’s cheek? Some terrified family cowering in their simple home in an Egyptian village attacked by the Muslim Brotherhood or in a Syrian town terrorized by al-Qaida, emerging after the rioting to see their church and school burned down, their shops destroyed, their family and friends murdered. I wonder if we would show the same restraint if this were our village or our town.

No. I suspect that we are not really noticing all of this, let alone responding to it, because it is happening somewhere else, not here, and because as Americans we generally don’t do a very good job of even visualizing the rest of the world, let alone actively caring about it. We also don’t like news that is complicated because that requires our attention to understand and to do something about what is wrong, or even just to help those in need of our help.

Therefore, much of our “news” coverage these days is just sensationalism: upsetting stories about domestic murder trials and creepy criminals hidden in our midst. And all stories are “dumbed down” to a simplified struggle between the good guys and the bad guys. Any crisis, debate, or issue that requires a deeper understanding of both or more sides, contributing factors, or the broader context of geography and history quickly taxes our imagination, intelligence, and empathy, and we lose interest.

This is even true of our recent wars, which quietly dropped out of our news as they progressed and lingered on, despite the great financial cost and terrible human sacrifice they required, because we came to appreciate that the issues we sought so clumsily to address were in fact very complicated and that there was no easy or cheap solution we could quickly find.

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

I was watching CNN the other evening and caught an interesting moment. Anderson Cooper was giving a report from the Philippines, obviously moved by what he saw around him. Wolf Blitzer was serving as the anchor in the studio. Wolf was asking the questions and Anderson was attempting some answers when Wolf did that usually seamless maneuver when the anchor claims some time to tell us about the next story on the docket.

He then cut back to Anderson, who looked visibly annoyed. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I was just distracted by that story about the mayor in Toronto.” The look on his face said it all: “Really? You really are going to go from this important story to that ridiculous story? You’re really going to cut me off to talk about some stupid, out of control politician? That is news?”

I give it about two weeks before we forget about the crisis in the Philippines all together, because it is too complicated and too difficult to resolve, too depressing and unattractive to keep our interest, and too far away; we will just move on. There will be some ridiculous self-entitled celebrity, some silly self-promoting political fight, some hyped-up “massacre” or outrageous “scandal” closer to home, which will make for much better ratings on the evening news.

And meanwhile, relief workers, nurses and doctors, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and strangers will quietly do the work of God: far away and unnoticed, entirely forgotten by those of us who claim to believe in God, and pray for his kingdom to come on earth, even as it is in heaven.

The week before last, we had a visitor at Saint James: Father Ernest from Nigeria. Father Ernest is principal of an Anglican seminary, which is what they call a high school in what we used to call Biafra, the Ibo region in the southeast of his country, which many may remember was devastated by a brutal civil war in the late l960s. During the week he stayed with us, he was very quiet, clearly astounded by the dazzling vision of our great abundance, needing time to process the difference, to take it all in.

Later that week he spoke to our Developing Nations class about the religious violence in Nigeria, and our students asked if he had ever experienced any of this violence himself. “Yes,” he answered; when he was a student studying in the North, he had been surrounded by a Muslim mob which burned him out of his apartment and was keen to lynch him because he was a Christian, and he barely escaped with his life.

“Why is this happening?” they asked — and remember, several asking were Muslim, as incredulous as their Christian friends and classmates. “Ignorance,” he said. “The people who are doing this on both sides are not educated, and they can be led by agitators into violence.”

I was not at that session, but I heard about it from some of the students who were there. When I asked one of them what she thought about what he had said, she answered that she was impressed that he did not hate anyone himself. I think her words were that “He does not hate them back.” I also thought about his work as a teacher and a headmaster and about his hope for peace that so urgently inspires him.

Before he left, he gave me a prospectus of his school, with glossy pictures of smiling boys in their one-room dormitories, the much-prized water tank, the simple classrooms, and the one playing field (at Saint James, we have nine, two with artificial turf); and I thought to myself, “Boy, we are spoiled.” And I choose the word: spoiled.

St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “Now, we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you” (3.6-7).

And so, I wonder about myself and about all of us who would call ourselves Christians in our time and in our country, in this land of peace and plenty, who pride ourselves on our “values” and our “principles” and seek to serve the God of love, but who live in fact so idly and so comfortably: just how “Christian” are we?

The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.


Online Archives