Yesterday Robin Williams died. My Facebook exploded with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about what Robin Williams actually taught us. Then a very well meaning person said, “Yes, an actor has died but lets not forget Christians are still being beheaded in Iraq.” A few hours later several had commented on her post trying to justify why they care more about Robin Williams then the Christians in Iraq.
Of course caring about Robin Williams and caring about Christian persecution are not mutually exclusive. You can actually care about both at the same time. In fact my Facebook has been filled for 2 weeks with condolences, links to websites and even a few buzzfeed lists about the persecution. This morning, as if on cue, I saw a link to another blog titled, “Why Christians Need to Grow A Pair.” As the title would suggest, the author spends a few hundred words ranting about why we aren’t doing enough about the persecution in Iraq. She argues that we quickly ignore and scroll past the stories about it because it makes us uncomfortable.
And she is right. It has made me very uncomfortable and I struggle with what to think and feel about it all. Even during church on Sunday I fought with myself during the prayer time to put words to the tragedy. I want to be fair. I want to be balanced. I want to avoid propaganda of any sort but I also want to acknowledge that these persecuted Christians are us. They are our brothers and sisters and we should care about them.
This is a difficult dilemma for a pastor. The source of my discomfort is the word “persecution” has been way over used recently. The religious right overuse it to score cheap political points. The older people in my community overuse it to argue the world is getting worse and worse because their narrow definition of Christianity isn’t broadly accepted. And people from most faith traditions overuse it in their propaganda to get those who don’t agree with them to be sympathetic to their cause. In fact ISIS even uses the word “persecution” to defend its action.
But in the spirit of “growing a pair” I think the Iraqi tragedy gives opportunity to reclaim persecution for what it really is. And the pictures in that blog give us a pretty accurate definition. Persecution is not being told you can’t pray in schools. It is not giving rights and privileges to people who don’t agree with your religious beliefs. It is certainly not the Supreme Court deciding against your particular brand of faith and it is not an elected leader disagreeing with you.
Instead persecution is being driven away from your home and threatened with starvation or execution because you believe in a God who doesn’t endorse violence. Persecution is fleeing into the wilderness without food and water because you refuse to take a side between two warring factions. Persecution is choosing not to renounce Christ when your children are at gunpoint. Persecution is denouncing the violence of the world when that violence is targeted against you.
I had a wonderful professor in seminary who told us, “You all talk about the church being persecuted and the church in exile. Exile is having a fish line run through your lip and being led in chains away from your home to be slaves in a foreign land. That is not what is happening to the church in the USA right now. Instead what is happening is what happens when the owner of your favorite restaurant sells the joint to someone who doesn’t like you. You used to go to the restaurant and you were given the best seats and your food was prepared meticulously. But now the new owner makes you sit by the kitchen door, when every time the door opens it bangs against your table. Then they bring your food late and it is cold. It is frustrating as can be, but it is not exile.”
In that spirit, can I recommend we reclaim the word “persecution” for what it really is? Can I recommend we come face to face with the true horrors that are happening overseas? Look at the pictures. Study them to the point where you are defenseless against them. After that reclaim your faith. I would recommend you use the words of Jesus, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.”
The Iraqi Christians are the blessed ones. They are the privileged saints. And that confession does not excuse the violence or the perpetrators. In fact, it does just the opposite, it condemns them. Because when ISIS curses them, the Christians are blessed. When ISIS kills them, they live eternally. When ISIS drives them out of home, they find eternal rest in God. When ISIS imprisons, God liberates them. This is how God’s wrath works itself out, by blessing those who are cursed.
Neither does their blessedness let us in America off the hook. Again, it does the opposite by putting us in the driver seat. We are called to join God in doing the work of blessing the persecuted. The author of the “grow a pair” blog recommends we join God in three ways. First we should pray for them. Second we should give to them. Third, we should use our social media. Every prayer offered, every dollar given, every retweet or share online increases our unity with the persecuted. As we pray, give and share we participate in God’s blessing to them and at the same time, denounce and condemn the deeds of hatred and violence.
So lets use our prayers, gifts and apps to honor the martyrs because they are the true saints, the ones who have stared evil in the face and chosen Christ. I hope if persecution ever does find me, I can face it with half the courage they do.