When Christians face persecution
Today, before we begin the period of preparation for Christmas known as Advent, we remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the King. The Church calls today ‘Christ the King’ Sunday.
Our passage in Revelation describes Jesus as King. He is described as ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1:4); it talks about his kingdom (1:9); it talks of him as being Lord of time and as the Lord of life. It talks of how one day he will return, not as a baby – in some sense hidden – but openly, so that all people will see that it really is he.
This is something that we need to remind ourselves
This month our mission focus has been on Christian Solidarity Worldwide which argues and prays for the protection of Christians, and for that matter – of people from other faith groups – and that they be allowed to practice their religion in freedom.
In Colombia, for instance, since 2004 200 churches have been forcibly closed, 35 pastors have been assassinated and a further 50 received death threats, mainly because they have been standing up against the drug cartels.
In Iran, CSW tell of two young women in their late 20s/early 30 (Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh), who choose to become Christians. The security officials come to their apartment, and their Bibles are found and confiscated. They are arrested, taken to a detention centre, interrogated, deprived of sleep and put in solitary confinement. Two weeks later (this was March of this year) they appear in court and are taken to prison without being charged, which is where they are today.
In India, in 2008, “the state of Orissa witnessed the worst spate of ‘communal violence’ ever faced by the Christian community in post-independence India, including brutal murders and rapes, widespread destruction of churches and property, and forcible conversions to Hinduism. It was centred in Kandhamal district, but spread to fourteen districts of the state. The attacks were catalysed by the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, local figurehead of the radical Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) on 23 August, by assailants believed to have been Maoists. By 24 August, mobs were rampaging around the district, setting up roadblocks, shouting Hindu nationalist and violent anti-Christian slogans, openly blaming Christians for the murder and calling for revenge as they attacked Christian targets. The violence continued for over eight weeks. At least 50,000 were displaced, 70 killed; among the victims were Hindus opposing the rioters”.
The report continues, “The violence should not be construed as the product of natural animosity between Hindus and Christians or between different ethnic groups, but as the systematic targeting of Christians by proponents of an extremist, nationalist interpretation of Hinduism, known as ‘Hindutva’, which is based on the proposition that to be an Indian citizen is to be Hindu.”
There are many reasons for persecution of Christians.
To become a Christian in many societies can be seen as a betrayal of that person’s family, home, traditional values and national identity. Think, for instance of the attitudes that some people would have if a woman from your family became a Muslim and chose to wear the niqab or burqa. The Jews were able to cope with Paul, one of their own, while he was talking about Jesus as being the Messiah for the Jews. They may have disagreed with him, but he was OK because he was still part of the family. But when he began preaching that the good news was for Gentiles .. that was when the balloon went up.
Or to be a Christian, or for that matter a member of any faith group, in a totalitarian society is to challenge the authority of the State. When Caesar, the Roman emperor said that he was Lord, and that people had to worship him, Christians who said that Jesus was Lord, and who refused to worship the emperor, were guilty of treason. That is what happened to my favourite martyr, Polycarp. Such people were political subversives. They recognized a higher authority than Caesar. That is why Christians were so bitterly persecuted in the former Soviet Union, and why that persecution still continues in countries like North Korea, Laos and still even in China.
And in many places to become a Christian is to identify yourself with a minority group. And there is nothing easier than for leaders of the majority to identify a distinctive minority group, particularly if they are not fully understood, and pin the blame on them for all the social problems. Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome; the Nazi’s blamed the Jews for the troubles of post first world war Germany; and in Orissa Christians are blamed for the troubles of India.
But there is, I believe, something distinctive about the sort of persecution that Christians can suffer. When a person becomes a Christian they enter a spiritual battle. Jesus said, ‘If they hate me, they will hate you’. He said that our ‘struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm’. And as a result there can be a particularly irrational and vicious dimension to the sort of hostility that people who choose to submit to Jesus Christ and who walk the way of the cross can face.
People have always had the potential to be immensely cruel, and that cruelty becomes particularly vicious when it is directed against the weak and the vulnerable. We kick a person when they are down. We plunge the knife in, and then to justify ourselves, say that they deserved it – and then we plunge it in again. It is that kind of irrational and demonic cruelty that can be directed against Christians, who choose to walk the way of the cross, by others who have power, and sometimes even by others who would call themselves Christians and who are in positions of power.
So there are many different causes and kinds of persecution. Paul writes in Timothy: ‘Anyone who chooses to live a godly life will be persecuted’.
Why am I saying all this in the context of our passage in Revelation?
Well, Revelation is written to believers who are suffering severely because they are Christians. They are ostracized, in fear of the local magistrates – who could have them up on charges of treason to the state; they are vulnerable and easily identifiable. They have no power, and they are suffering.
They are suffering simply because they have chosen to believe the message that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is the Messiah (the one God has chosen to be ruler of this earth) and Lord, and that he rose from the dead. They are suffering because they are staying faithful to the simple message that Jesus Christ was who he said he was, and because they lived by the hope that one day he would return.
John is suffering for what he has seen and heard and proclaimed. He is in exile ‘on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. He writes to his fellow believers as ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’.
The vision that he has of Jesus in verses 12-16 is very similar to the vision that Daniel has of a man in Daniel chapters 10-12. That man talks of how God’s people are going to be completely crushed before the end. It also points to a person called ‘the Son of Man’ in Daniel 7, who will be utterly broken before he is finally vindicated.
And the point of the book of Revelation, and the point of the vision that John is given, is to encourage Christians who are struggling – people who are struggling because they have remained faithful to God. The Psalmist describes the fact that the people of God are suffering in Ps 44. He writes, “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant .. for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:17,22).
And in Revelation God is saying to John and to us, ‘Look up. Look forward. See the bigger picture. Jesus Christ is who he said he was. He has conquered death. He died and rose from the dead. John knows. John was there. He is coming again. Every person will see him. And those who have mocked him, or who have used him, and who have mocked or used his people will weep. They will weep when they see what they have done.’
As a rule we do not, at the moment, face the sort of persecution that the Christians of John’s time, or the Christians of Orissa, or Iran or Colombia or North Korea face. We are in an unusual period for God’s people and we should not take it for granted. And for that we give great thanks.
And yet there are many people here who do or will face irrational opposition: sometimes from a partner, from a colleague, from a friend or employer. I remember Alan Redpath saying how, when he was in national service, his neighbour used to kneel beside his bed and pray each night. The other lads mocked him mercilessly. So did Alan. Until he too was so taken by his neighbours’ example that he surrendered his life to King Jesus. I remember reading about Adams, who said that when he went out drinking and smashed up a bar, they laughed with him and said he was being a lad. When he gave up drinking, and used to go into a church to sit and be quiet for a few minutes, they said he was mad. I think of the older teenager mocked, and even being caused to doubt themselves, because they have chosen to remain a virgin, or go to a bible study, or work as an unpaid volunteer, because they call Jesus Lord.
And there are also times when we seem to receive an unequal share of the general human lot of suffering: not specifically because we are Christians, but just because it seems that life has done the dirty on us. And that can also lead us to doubt and to anxiety – and sometimes to giving up.
But God is saying to us through John: Jesus is the ruler of human rulers. They may seem as if they are in charge. But they are not. That is why we pray. Don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Jesus was dead, but he is alive. He was the victim of irrational, demonic hatred. He has been there, and he has come through. It is worth it.
And God is saying to us ‘Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth’. They may seem scarily omnipotent. But they are not. There will be justice – justice for the oppressed and justice for those who oppress: for the drug barons, for the political leaders, for the religious leaders who incite hatred and murder. It will be His justice, not ours.
He may meet with us now in a very intimate way (John has this vision), but one day he will come again, and we will see him.