World Christianity 09: Persecution and Vindication

Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.

Chapter 6 is about ‘persecution and Vindication’

Another thought provoking and challenging (long) chapter in this marvellous book.

Most Western readers interpret Jesus’ warnings to his followers of suffering and persecution only as historical references to past events. Their contemporary relevance¬† often tend to be limited to future End Times tribulation – as with The Left Behind fictions of Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins. Martyrs are more likely to be connected in people’s minds with the Colosseum than the 21st century.

The contrast with the experience of Christians in Africa and Asia could not be more stark. These Christians live in conditions parallel to that of the NT where the state is often a deeply hostile institution, many being violent, corrupt dictatorships.

The story of many Christian communities in the Global South is of martyrdom, genocide and persecution. And for every act of violence there are thousands of intimidation, bullying and injustice. The scale of persecution across Africa, the Middle East and Asia is beyond measure.

One story from Idi Amin’s Uganda when Kefa Sempangi faces 5 would be assassins, said:

“I do not need to plead my own cause … I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden with Christ. It is your lives that in danger, you are dead in your sins. I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction.”

The killers not only spared his life but asked him to pray for them.

In much of this chapter Jenkins unpacks how Christians understand the Bible to be speaking into contexts of injustice.

One politico-religious response was Liberation Theology in Latin America.

Another is that of the Dalits in India in the 1980s. Over 70% of Indian Christians are lower-caste Dalits and there are between 25-50 million Christians in India. Jesus’ breaking of food laws, social barriers and touching the untouchable all speak with radical power to a Dalit perspective. As with marginalised and persecuted Christians all over the world, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection speaks into that experience and gives hope.

And a repeated pattern is as the church suffers, and stands against injustice and for human rights, so it has been the church which has played vital roles in the toppling of dictatorships. Jenkins tells at length the story of Anglican Bishop David Gitari in Kenya opposing dictator Daniel Arap Moi through brilliant and prophetic application of the biblical text in powerfully subversive sermons.

Jenkins closes with observations on how, in light of Southern Christians long experience of persecution by and opposition to the state, there is much puzzlement of African and Asian church leaders about liberal Western Christianity interpreting the Bible in ways that fit in with secular plural values – over issues like homosexuality for example.

I’m struck reading this chapter with the contrast with Ireland. On the one hand you have stories of churches on the side of the oppressed fighting for justice, not with power but with blood. On the other hand, you have a church perceived here as the oppressor, fighting for its own survival through silence, coverup and legal obstruction. I can’t think of a stronger case against a fusion of political power with religious power.

The theology and experience of NT faith is that of subverting the empire through obedience to the one true Lord.

So, how can we Western Christians subvert the empire of Western capitalism, consumerism and individualism in which we live?


2 thoughts on “World Christianity 09: Persecution and Vindication

  1. David, there’s a tension here isn’t there? Seems to me that there is a paradox that is hard easily to sort out.

    I’m sceptical of a statement like the Westminster Declaration because following Jesus involves powerlessness, persecution, giving up rights, turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, God using the weak to shame the wise etc …

    But God calls his people to be deeply concerned for justice for the weak and oppressed who cannot defend themselves.

    Someone said to me recently that we need to distingush between personal discipleship (the sort of stuff in my first paragraph) and public theology (the second paragraph where the church must get involved politically to be salt and light).

    I’m not so sure there is a nice easy dividing line. I think the two need to be held together for all of life … Easier said than done.

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