When will the West act against persecution of Christians in the Middle East? That is the question posed in a recent Fox News article. The specific catalyst for the call to arms is the impending execution of Youcef Nadarkhani for his failure “to renounce his Christian beliefs and recognize the prophet Mohammed as God’s messenger.” Through the course of the article, however, the writer rattles off a laundry list of Muslim offenses against Christianity: attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt and their subsequent mass exodus, the targeting of Lebanese Christians by Syrians, not to mention the targeting of Syrian Christians by Syrians, the abuse of Christians in Saudi Arabia, Christians living in peril in the Gaza strip, and the hordes of Christian refugees that have come out of Iraq. The author seems to be peculiarly focused on the Middle East, apparently unconcerned by Muslim persecution of Christians in southeast Asia (for example) or state persecution of them in China. Nevertheless, the problem is real and one that warrants appropriate Christian attention.
Yet, if the question is when will the West “exert their muscle to help them,” I hope the answer is never. Why should they? After all, the governments of the US and Europe are not Christian governments. The very fact that they would be enticed to display their coercive powers to end persecution is a testament to that. There is a fairly clear image in the Scriptures and throughout Christian history about how Christians respond to persecution. Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Justin, Perpetua, Felicitas, and so many more all provide stories of heroism in the face of state or religious tyranny that have a distinctly Christian flavor. They all draw their inspiration, curiously enough, from a prototypical martyr: Christ. His declaration from the cross was not “when will someone have the courage to stand up on my behalf” but “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” His vision of the Christian community was never “they will fight for my life” but, in direct contradiction to this, “they do not fight, because my kingdom is not of this world.” And the proposition that “Christian nations” might withdraw humanitarian aid from countries who persecute Christians seems strangely at odds with the command “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”
There was a time when we realized that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Centuries of sloth and spiritual atrophy have caused us to begin to labor under the delusion that all people should and do have the right to the free exercise of religion. It’s a nice vision of the world, but it is nonetheless a fantasy. It is time to regain something of the courage of Tertullian, so that we can once again declare that “you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are” (though my preference has always been for Justin Martyr’s phrasing, “You can kill us, but you can’t hurt us”). We should take up the morbid jeer of Polycarp, “Death to the atheists” (with all it’s ironic, near suicidal resignation). Most of all though, we need to remember that Paul taught us that if our enemy is hungry we should feed him, if he is thirsty we should give him something to drink. Finally, we must always cling to what Peter told his suffering flock: the appropriate response to persecution is neither muscle flexing nor victimization but triumph. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”