“When it comes to modern missions, I believe no other people group is so uniquely positioned for world evangelization today as are First Nations people.” (Twiss 19).
Richard Twiss- Native American Evangelist
The American Evangelical community is predominantly disengaged from the religious cleansing of Christians in the Middle East. Even as evidence of a holocaust is beginning to emerge, involving some of the oldest faith communities in the world, evangelical communities in the United States, in addition to our leaders, are not responding on any grassroots level. There are two realities facing Coptic Egyptian communities. One is from abuse, the other negligence. The first is born of intentional design (persecution), the second indifference (silence). I will address the profound question facing American evangelical’s abandonment of our brothers and sisters- why?
I contend, the lack of interest upon the part of American evangelicals, is the result of at least three interwoven conditions:
1) The uniting of a culturally Christian philosophical worldview with political ideology;
2) The prevailing Westernized theology of an overemphasized individualism- with a coexisting disregard for Eastern theology; and
3) The recent morphing of mainstream evangelicalism into a marketed, consumerized Gospel of self-prosperity and cultural affluence.
These three streams blend to form a Christianity that has taken Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace to a whole new level- a worldview I refer to as American evangelical Christendom (AEC). It’s a world view where God bestows His grace for our self-entitled place in the world and “Every Day [should be] a Friday” (Osteen, cover). However, through repentance (of forsaking those of our family in God, who are being sorely oppressed), and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can adopt a relational-incarnational fellowship that embraces the cruciform theology of the cross.
CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION IN THE MIDDLE EAST
While global Christianity is showing significant growth in many areas around the world, the regional cradle of Christianity- inhabited by the oldest Christian communities on earth- are being exterminated. An increasing number of human rights organizations and government officials are saying its very survivability is at stake. Prince Charles of Great Britain claims what is happening to Christians in the Middle East amounts to crimes against humanity (Holland). Indeed, with close to a million Christians leaving Iraq since 2003, the Iraqi Christian community is facing possible extinction (Holland). Once a population of 1.4 million, it is now less than 500,000 (Bryant).
The Palestinian controlled territories show a likewise tactic of forcing the displacement of indigenous Christians. In Bethlehem, the very birthplace of God’s Son, Believers have been reduced from 85% to only 15%. According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs report, “Between October 2000 and November 2001, 2,766 Palestinian Christians left the West Bank, of which 1,640 left the Bethlehem area and another 880 left Ramallah.”(Weiner 5).
In Egypt, the Arab Spring has become a “Coptic winter” (Tadros 1). The intentional and organized persecution of Egyptian Christians is but an archetypal model for Christians living in the Middle East in general. For example, the Coptic community has long suffered widespread institutionalized religious discrimination in the form of housing, education and employment (Bryant). In addition, widespread attacks on Coptics are often met with the arrest of the family members of the Christian victims themselves. It serves as a double warning to the Coptic community, to not complain (Tadros) and not press charges against the persecutors.
Many are quick to rationalize the atrocities being committed against Middle Eastern Christian communities as acts of barbarism. If so, then how does that account for those who are educated and in the ranks of government, such as the former Kuwaiti parliamentary candidate and political activist Salwa al-Mutairi? She is on record of publicly supporting and justifying (Ibrahim) the institutionalization of abducting Christian females into sex slave-trafficking. Regionally in the Middle East, a follower of Jesus Christ dies every five minutes (Ibrahim 7).
Then there is the demonic cancer of ISIS, now metastasizing into Africa. The martyrdom of the 21 Coptic Egyptians, whose blood turned the waves of the Mediterranean red (Blair), will go down as an iconic event in Coptic Church history, even as evangelicals on a grass roots level remain unmoved. As religious bigotry and tyranny towards Christians in the Middle East becomes ever more extreme, it is in counterpoint to the increasingly evident inaction among Evangelical leaders in the U.S.
The cries of the 21 Coptic martyrs of “Lord Jesus Christ!” (VOM, par. 1) is in growing contrast to the silence of us evangelicals in the West. Our very silence gives testimony about us before God, but cannot diminish the truth, that Middle East Christian persecution is widespread, systematic, and its continued descent into evil is increasing in degree and intensity. One may ask, are American evangelicals really that disengaged or are we just powerless to take action from within our own local communities? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
THE SILENCE OF THE AMERICAN EVANGELICAL COMMUNITY
The detachment, to the plight of Middle East Christians, by mainstream American evangelicals has not gone unnoticed by Israeli Jews advocating for religious freedom. Lela Gilbert, author of Saturday People, Sunday People, while commenting on the rise of anti-Christian attacks in the Middle East, has stated “They are rather puzzled…by what appears to be a lack of anxiety, action, or advocacy on the part of Western Christians.” (Powers, par. 6). Indeed, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, addressing the British Parliament concerning Western Christian silence stated “I had followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening, surprised and distressed … that it is not more widely known.”
One can surely appreciate the irony of a Chief Rabbi raising the alarm of Christian Persecution by quoting from another persecuted Christian- one whom mainstream evangelicals also turned their backs on; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Powers, par. 8).
There exists a clear disconnect between those who are persecuted and American evangelicals who are worried about their own religious liberty. This reveals a critical immorality. American evangelicals are highly concerned about their own religious liberty (e.g. nativity scenes on public property) but not of their brothers and sisters who are witnessing their children being crucified for theirs. One may argue it is simply too far away and there is a sense of powerlessness to do anything.
However, one should consider the probability of the subject at least being discussed in local churches. Evangelicals have a long history of reaching out overseas to those who appear to be in hopeless situations, with at times, amazing outpourings of concern (“Evangelicals Are the Most Generous, Poll
Shows”), like the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” (Powers, par. last) If this is true, then the Evangelical Church in America has the blood of its fellow Christians on its hands- every day. Some of it being tax payer funded.
AMERICAN EVANGELICAL CHRISTENDOM
A large segment of the evangelical community has yoked itself to the culture war and the political right (Metzger). Historically, there have always been attempts to unite church and state (Pilli). Perhaps this is one reason why many evangelicals are silent in response to countries, like Saudi Arabia, persecuting Christians. Rah is correct in that evangelicalism and a capitalist consumer-driven culture were relatively kept in balance for a long time (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism). Today, however, the tipping point has been reached and “capitalism has become a part of evangelicalism’s doctrine” (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, Kindle location 744-747).
This merging of American cultural politics has led to a large portion of the evangelical community to acquiescently support the sins of murder and exploitation of our fellow disciples living among our “allies”. I support it. Every time I pay taxes, my dollars are being spent on this “war against Christianity” (The Berkley Center 1). One may argue evangelicals are well aware of Christian persecution and are fighting it here in our own country by opposing local Islamization attempts (e.g. political advocacy for Sharia law in the US (Hall)). I contend the fight against the building of a local mosque is more often a cultural knee-jerk reaction to defend, what I call, American Evangelical Christendom (AEC) while shortsightedly avoiding a personal spiritual engagement with those in the Body of Christ who are facing a far more severe level of Islamic domination and persecution.
How conveniently we ignore them in the midst of our own fight for religious liberty! This is shameful and it is sin. Far from Shah’s contention it is just a powerless frustrated evangelical- unconsciously coping with the best way to fight for Middle East Christians- it instead represents a logical AEC response of circling the wagons, thereby abandoning them, in order to defend Western Christendom.
WESTERN THEOLOGY VS. EASTERN THEOLOGY
A developing fundamental flaw of Western theology is a steadfast dominance towards an individualistic relationship with Christ. While the West’s development of personal relationship represents a core doctrine inspired by the Holy Spirit, and was an essential contribution in God’s history of the church, it has been overemphasized at the expense of collectivist themes.
The result has led to the creation of false doctrine, such as the gnostic word of faith movement, in addition to other cultic teachings (Hanegraaff). An overemphasis on individual or personal themes combined with the development of false doctrine has led to a lack of “a broader understanding of the corporate themes” of the Bible. (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, Kindle location 1269-1270).
Collectivist themes taught in the New Testament are self-sacrifice, self-denial, and self-discipline. These are individual concerns that carry a profound corporate importance. In the book of Hebrews, discipline and sacrifice are central themes and are presented in the context of a persecuted community. Hebrews 13:16 states “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (ESV Study Bible, Heb. 13.16). Relevant, and to the point, was the call to be steadfast in the face of persecution and therefore, the importance of “not neglecting to meet together…but to encourage one another” (Heb. 10.25).
Theologically, the West neglects the East by marginalizing non-Western theology in what Rah describes as a case of Edward Said’s “orientalism” (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, Kindle location 1279). It is this ‘otherness’, reinforced by AEC and a consumerized prosperity Gospel that creates division, isolation, and even tax-payer funded persecution and death.
THE MARKETED & CONSUMERIZED GOSPEL OF SELF-PROSPERITY
According to Rah, the church was captured by a consumerist mindset which resulted in selling “our souls to gain the material affluence of the world.” (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, Kindle location 970-973). This creates disconnectedness because as Metzger has noted, Christendom serves the “upwardly mobile and dominant culture” (Metzger, New Wine Tastings 5-6), which in turn compartmentalizes the world and demands an obedience that sacrifices the lost, weak, and forsaken- the very ones Jesus calls us to serve. This is a corporate sin the American Church bears, for we are exporting a false gospel!
Rah observes in The Next Evangelicalism, churches in Timiswara are modeled according to megachuches in America, following the false prosperity gospel (e.g. Word of Faith movement). This leads to significant damage, as a gospel based on materialism and consumerism, reduces people to commodities (Rah, The Next Evangelicalism). The result is much of mainstream American evangelicalism now embraces beyond Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace…without discipleship…without the cross…without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Bonhoeffer 45) and has now turned the marketing of material and cultural benefits of cheap grace into a science.
RELATIONAL-INCARNATIONAL DISCIPLESHIP IN A GLOBAL CONTEXT
So, what can we do? Repenting, praying, and speaking out (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) is a good start. While speaking the “good news” of the Gospel, we are also called to walk in Kingdom justice. I draw on inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Under the direction of the Coptic community, Christians from the West could be willing to serve them as brothers in Christ- to stand with them, even if only for a short period of time, to 1) center the world’s attention on what is happening, 2) force the hand of the mainstream media’s black-out of Islamic Christian persecution, and 3) break Western Christendom’s self-centeredness. Most of all, to simply have the honor of standing with our brothers, in the fellowship of Christ, and be a testimony of the love and power of our Lord Jesus Christ to overcome evil.
A very real danger is to let the narrative be taken from us, by the media, and distorted into the context of attacking our “enemies” in any political sense. At the same time, those Western Christians, who are called by the Holy Spirit, would have to humbly serve at the behest of the Christian communities under siege, for while we are their brothers, we are also their guests with an incredible amount to learn and share. Just like human rights activists who traveled from the north during the civil rights era (and sacrificed with their lives), so too, would it take time and space (Metzger) to create this unity between our Christian cultures.
It would take faith, not as a reactive defense, but a proactive offense. When Jesus brought the Kingdom to Israel, He was often amazed by Gentiles who expressed an understanding of the Kingdom through their faith. Faith stands in opposition to “the dissocializing effect of suffering by means of the community of Christ’s suffering.” (Jüngel 8). It would take a dynamic broken relational-incarnational (Metzger) approach to establish such a relationship of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13:13).
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, American evangelicals could transcend the AEC worldview and nullify the perception by many that they are coming to condemn- or worst of all- stage a protest. We would come to affirm and testify in unity, the One Body of Christ. Failure is assured if the media dictated the terms as “American Christians” speaking or advocating for “Middle Eastern Christians”. This would lead to an issue-orientation with Christ no longer being the center. As Metzger points out, “The issues…must never define us; rather, Jesus’s identity, our identity in him…must be our ultimate point of reference.” (Metzger, New Wine Tastings 5). Yes, we will speak for justice and righteousness but it will be centered on the Body of Him who suffers with us.
EMBRACING AMERICAN CHRISTENDOM’S ENEMIES
The diaspora Jews of today are the millions of Filipinos who live out their lives as overseas workers. Rah describes them as “Practicing downward mobility and embracing suffering… [they] are making an impact…to introduce the gospel message.” (Rah, Many Colors, Kindle location 1872). As many as one-million Christian Filipinos currently live in Saudi Arabia (Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea) alone and are often persecuted. It is common knowledge, whenever the Saudi government feels the need to crackdown on an illegal Bible study, Filipinos are usually involved.
I’m not saying, as Christians, we would have to endure pain and suffering. I’m saying we would have to embrace it. Is not Christ our model? And because He is our living model, in us and among us, we are guarded against “religious masochism, [for we] recognize that it is he who is active against suffering.” (Jüngel 9). Paul used suffering as an “instrument” (Sauer 271), because through it, he brought salvation to the unreached. Indeed, there is a clear biblical argument that suffering and martyrdom assists in the salvation of others (Sauer), including (especially?) one’s enemies: Phil 1:12; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 2:10. Col 1:24, 2 Tim 2:10. I do not advocate seeking martyrdom in and of itself but an organized network of Holy Spirit led action in following our Lord Jesus to persecuted Christian communities that mainstream evangelicalism has seemingly abandoned.
The goal? To bring what is in darkness to light and what is whispered in secret to be shouted from the rooftops (Matt 10:27). And we can shout with confidence in the coming of justice- swift and sure- for when we are broken before His cross, who can stand against us? For the blood that is taken from us is His blood- we are His and He is ours. Therefore, “The church…does not have the right to proclaim its suffering nor its members’ suffering; instead, it is obligated to proclaim Jesus Christ’s passion history alone, his cross alone. His suffering alone has soteriological quality; the word of the cross alone is Gospel (I Corinthians 1:18).” (Jüngel 11).
Christians who are called to suffer with persecuted communities is not a new or novel inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. In defending and aiding the Kingdom of God, the Spirit has long inspired intentional targeting of geographic areas of persecuted Christian communities. This form of witness is “relocating to hotspots for the purpose of physically getting in the way and inhibiting local violence against fellow Christians.” (Walters, par. 5). This most “radical form of witness” (Sauer 271) is the ultimate testimony of Jesus, in the incarnational triune relationship that He lived out on earth. This living out of an incarnational cruciform life, in the contextual solidarity of a community of persecuted Christians, is the mission (2 Cor. 12:9) and there is no higher calling. In suffering for His name, we live the theology of the cross and God is clear on His intentions for the followers of His Son who are called to this path: Luke 28:31; 2 Cor 4:17; Rev 3:12.
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was in response to a challenge from a lawyer in Luke 10:25-36. He challenged Jesus on how one obtained ‘eternal life’- a controversial issue far from settled. Jesus revealed the answer within the lawyer’s own specialty- the Law- which affirmed loving God above all and his neighbor as himself. Luke points out the lawyer centered the argument on the definition of who is one’s neighbor. It was Jesus’ response to the lawyers’ correct answer which revealed the core issue: “go, and do likewise.” He was not instructed to have the same ‘attitude’ or ‘belief’. He was told to “do”, to act. Jesus took the man’s question, reframed it from who is my neighbor into ‘how does one be a neighbor’.
Are the People of the Book our neighbors? Is not the Coptic who is being stripped, robbed, beaten and left for dead, but our savior, Jesus, who is being passed by among us busy, preoccupied Christians of the West, as He lay in a ditch in Cairo?
Let’s humbly ask for the honor of joining them. Whether serving as human shields or just having a cup of tea in table fellowship (Metzger), let’s stand with them face-to-face with their oppressors in the love of Christ, offering our bodies, in sacrifice, for the sake of His Name. Richard Twiss has taught “Evangelical Christians…have compartmentalized worldviews, whereas most Indian people have integrated worldviews.” (Metzger, New Wine Tastings 51). Is this one reason why many followers of Jesus, living in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine, express feelings of being abandoned by their Western brothers? It is a simple standard we live out in Christ that “By this we know love that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16).
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