"Save Christians in Iraq! Save Christians in Iraq!"
The crowd that had gathered in London across the street from Parliament was small but energizing. As we walked past the demonstrators with our friends and three kids in tow, I couldn't help but be pulled into the rhythmic chant -- "Save Christians in Iraq! Save Christians in Iraq!" Had the circumstances been different, I am inclined to think I would have left my role as tourist and traded it in as that of demonstrator.
"Save Christians in Iraq!" "Save Christians in Iraq!"
More than 30,000 miles away, though, the voices of Christians and those who would support them has been quieted. There is no demonstration in the streets of Baghdad today, no energizing chant that would seek to draw passerbyers in. Instead there is silence.
But maybe not. When a family of eight Iraqi Christians were given a choice to recant their Christian faith or be killed, they spoke. Whether by confessing out loud with their mouths that Jesus Christ is the only true God or by refusing to recant the faith in their silence, they spoke. The picture given to an Iraqi Anglican vicar showed their murdered bodies lying stilled next to their open Bible. The vicar wrote, "They would not convert (even if) it cost them their life." Their martyrdom and confession spoke through a photograph and continues speaking to all of us who hear their story -- that even in death nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39)
As we speak Iraq's Islamic State militants (ISIS) continues its persecution of Christians and of other faiths in Iraq and Syria. Right now it's easy to find these stories on news outlets such as CNN or BBC, but you can always read more about the persecution of Christians around the world at www.persecution.org.
How do we make sense of it all? Leaving the demonstration last weekend, I was left feeling helpless and needing to wrestle with the current issue of persecution.
Suffering and persecution of Christians is nothing new. In fact our faith hinges on Someone who was killed -- crucified even. We proclaim His death, and not only do we proclaim it but as His followers we take seriously the mantra, "Take up your cross and follow me." We follow behind our Lord, who was rejected, persecuted and killed, knowing that we might face the same fate as He. This was very real for early Christians in Antiquity when they knew that being baptized would mean immediate and sure death. Almost all of Jesus' apostles were either killed or exiled. According to tradition, Peter was crucified upside down because he didn't think he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. Paul was beheaded for his devotion to Christ. These are just a few examples.
But when a mantra suddenly turns into a real piece of wood and nails or a noose or a sword or a gun, what keeps that believer from recanting? What brings a persecuted believer comfort in the midst of persecution?
And what should those of us on the sidelines do? Should we turn a blind eye because there's nothing we can do? Or, should we chant, demonstrate and raise our voices to help? Should we become radicals seeking out persecution and idealizing the life of a martyr because we have bought into an idea that only those who are killed for their faith have a genuine faith?
It's hard to feel helpless. It's even more difficult to face death for what you believe.
But here's what I see when I read Scripture. Scripture interprets life for me; it gives me the framework from which to work through things outside my realm of understanding. First of all, there's no teaching in Scripture that says we should cultivate a desire to suffer or die, that we should actively seek it out, or that it is a prerequisite into heaven. (Maybe you don't think there are people who believe this, but just look a little harder and you will find them.) I would wager that any Christian suffering in these ways would gladly change places with one of us who can worship freely and openly and who can proclaim Christ with no bonds of law or of fear.
Secondly, for those facing death, exile and other unimaginable sufferings I humbly say that I have no clue what you are going through. I cannot understand the depths of loss or of fear. However, I imagine that in the moments leading up to your death that what comforts you and keeps you strong is the belief that as Jesus Christ died and then came back from the dead alive so too those in Christ after they die will live. Knowing that persecution is nothing new helps us to learn to not be surprised if it happens to us too. It also brings comfort knowing that other believers have walked this path. But in the end it is believing in the resurrected Christ which helps fasten our feet to the ground unmovable and unshakeable when it does happen.
For we confess it is the grace of God "which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Tim. 1:10) And also, "If we have died with him, we will also live with him." (2 Tim. 2) God will not abandon His people; death does not have the final say.
But there's one more thing that brings us Christians comfort that I imagine would bring current persecuted Christians comfort. It's knowing that though our voices might be silenced the gospel will continue speaking loudly for all who hear. The gospel cannot be silenced. "Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!" (2 Timothy 2:8-9) The Word of God is not bound. Say that again, "The Word of God is not bound!" It has to be beautiful irony that the family of eight believers were killed next to an open Bible. Though their voices had been silenced, God continues to speak. His Word will still go forth because it belongs to God. He has already conquered death and His Word will continue testifying to it until He returns.
Where does this leave those of us living freely, watching helplessly from the sidelines? As our hearts break, we can be comforted in the same way those persecuted Christians are comforted. (See above quoted Scripture passages.) We also can learn from their examples so that if the wind changes direction and we find ourselves on the end of persecution, we, too, will be strong in the love and knowledge of Christ.
Let's not idealize what they are suffering nor pray for the same. Let's learn from the past and not forget the persecuted Christians in the past while at the same time not become calloused to the persecution or the persecuted of the present. Let's continue to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters that God would rescue them, end their persecutions, comfort them in their affliction and help them to remain strong even if it means death. Let's speak up for them, cry for them, thank God for them and love them. And if nothing else, let's not lose heart because we know and believe that Jesus has gone before us, He is with us, and His Word cannot be restrained.
In the meantime the chant has become my prayer, "Save Christians in Iraq!"
And at times when it's just too much, when chanting just doesn't seem to do much good, I pray, "Come, Lord Jesus. Come."
(For the story about the family of eight Iraqi Christians, read more here.)