-- Fear not! It was never God's intention that the world should save the Church
By Elizabeth Kendal
Religious Liberty Monitoring
Special to ASSIST News Service
AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- The following address, entitled Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik, was delivered on Saturday 25 October 2014, to the annual conference of the Australian Christian Lobby.
Entitled Speak Up, this year's annual conference had a specific focus on religious liberty.
This address is essentially a wake-up call to the Church, to stop expecting the world the save the persecuted Church. God saves his people, by grace through faith. As such, instead of siting back and expecting the UN or the US to care for and/or save the persecuted, we must step out in obedience and faith for then God will show grace according to promise.
Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik
It seems to me that the topic of persecution is one of the most unpopular topics in the Church today.
ONE reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular and so difficult for many Western churches and Western Christians, is because the Western church is immersed in a media-obsessed culture - in which character has become less important that personality (persona) the image that is presented. The image most prized by our culture seems to be that of person who is always chirpy, bubbly and carefree to the point of being care-less. It doesn't even matter that it's all completely fake.
It is imperative that the Church rise above this.
Another reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular is because the Western church has become enamoured with 'celebratory worship' - a style of worship that, while being wonderfully joyful, has no place for indignation or lament. It essential mandates that everyone who enters the auditorium, must have an upbeat experience (theoretically that will keep them in the faith, and keep them coming back).
Another reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular is because the Western church is clinging to an easy, triumphalist Christianity. There ar e far too many false teachers chirping, "'peace peace' when there is no peace" and promising believers, "Jesus would never let anything bad happen to you".
Churches that teach, preach and sing that message - cannot handle the topic of persecution; for it sets up an intellectual conflict.
The Bible, however, is absolutely riddled with material on persecution. "Why do they righteous suffer?" is the eternal cry. The "valiant man" of Lamentations 3 - (possibly the prophet Jeremiah himself) had been taken captive by the enemy who forced him into slave labour, broke his teeth and abused him until he cowered in the dust . . .
Look at the suffering of Christ in the gospels and of the Apostles in the book of Acts. All of the Apostles were eventually martyred -- except for John, who was exiled to a prison island for life. Indeed, history is replete with waves of persecution. Jesus warned us that persecution would come and he calls his followers to take up their cross. YET still, persecution is a no-go area in many churches.
But to be silent about persecution is to live in denial - in unreality. For the reality is, things are not good. In fact the situation facing most Christians today is intolerable, totally unacceptable - truly lamentable.
I believe the Western church's failure or inability or refusal to confront the reality of persecution (and even suffering in general) is one of the reasons why Western churches are shrinking. If we can't face reality - then we are irrelevant - and certainly not helpful!
It is imperative that the Church END DENIAL: things are not fine.
Then there is the problem that the Church doesn't think it needs to bother with this topic. In fact the Church has grown accustomed to the idea that the world will save the Church.
- If we can just inform the UN, then the UN will save the persecuted church.
- If we can just get an audience with the President of the United States - then Captain America will save the persecuted church.
- If we can inform the world's Human Rights NGOs and get reports into the media etc, then the goodness of humanity will take over and they - good people - (i.e. someone else) will save the persecuted church.
When the Cold War ended with Christian America as the world's sole superpower, many Christians - especially Protestants and evangelicals truly believed that God was in the process of transforming the world through the military and economic might and political leadership of the United States.
In November 1998, when the US congress passed the US International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act, which tied US foreign policy to international religious freedom, mandating sanctions for states / regimes deemed to be severe persecutors or violators of religious freedom -- Christians were more convinced than ever that God was in the process of transforming the world through politics, as distinct from through transforming power of the Gospel.
For a decade, the US IRF Act did provide many vulnerable minority Christians with a veil of cover/protection as it gave dictators a reason to reign in hostile elements and to enact reforms and pursue at least a modicum of justice for the sake of US aid and trade.
Well those days are now well and truly over. The power of the IRF ACT was US economic leverage - when the US housing bubble burst - in Aug-Sept 2008, the financial crisis ripped the teeth right out of the Act. Persecution escalated immediately.
We have reached a confluence of trends: the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the non-West has converged with the radicalisation of Muslims, the coming of age of religious nationalism, the ascendancy of Communist-ruled China and the ascendancy of Shi'ite theocracy-ruled Iran -- and the loss of Western influence (which is itself a symptom of the decline of Western civilisation, a consequence of Culture Change).
To summarise: we have more believers - living in increasingly hostile environments - and Western governments are essentially powerless to help them.
After a momentary historical anomaly - the Church must face the reality that we have to live with realpolitik = i.e. politics based on power and "interests" rather than ideals.
Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop China returning to its old ways of bulldozing churches, incarcerating pastors and torturing high profile dissidents.
Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop Iran abusing, incarcerating, torturing and executing political and religious dissidents. The reality today is that the US needs Iran more than Iran needs the US!
Realpolitik is the reason why no can stop Vietnam and Laos forcing Highland Christians to renounce their Christianity.
Realpolitik is the reason why no one can get the Pakistani government to pursue justice for Pakistani Christians who have lost everything on account of Muslim pogroms.
Realpolitik is the reason why no one can get the Egyptian regime to guarantee security for Coptic communities in Upper Egypt.
Realpolitik is the reason why religious freedom is on the decline in BJP-ruled India.
Realpolitik is the reason why Western governments are reluctant to speak of the Burmese regime's military abuses against the Christian Kachin. We wouldn't want anything to get in the way of our ability to exploit Burma's resources, markets - and we especially wouldn't want Burma drifting back into China's sphere of influence.
Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop the Government of Sudan's genocidal jihad against the predominantly Christian Africans of Nuba Mountains! We are essentially powerless!
Realpolitik is the reason why Western governments can't or won't stop torture and tyranny in Papua. We wouldn't want to scuttle an arms deal, or cause geo-strategic Indonesia to shift into China's sphere of influence.
I could go on like this all day . . . .
Of course Western governments do raise these issues -- as they should -- in Human Rights dialogues and in diplomatic meetings. But the truth is, it is more for domestic consumption and a deep sense of moral duty than from any expectation that the situation can be changed with "mere words".
In 701 BC - as the Army of super-power Assyria advanced across Judah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, boasted that he had Hezekiah, king of Judah "holed up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage". When the Assyrian Rabshakeh asked Hezekiah, "Do you think mere words are a strategy and power for war?" (Isaiah 36:5) he was saying, "Get real, Hezekiah. This is what realpolitik looks like. I will crush you because I can. There is no-one coming to save you. There is one who can stop me. So face reality and surrender."
And today, in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Nth Korea and so many more - regimes are saying: "We will treat Christians however we like. There is no-one coming to their rescue. There is no-one who can stop us. So get over it; for this is how it is going to be from now on and you can't do a damn thing about it."
And they are right. We can't.
Makes you feel sort of hopeless doesn't it? Good! For that is exactly where we need to be; for . . . it has never been God's plan that the world should save the church.
God saves his people by grace through faith -- that is not just God's paradigm for personal salvation, it is God's paradigm for everything.
In the latter part of the 8th C BC when God's people were imminently imperiled, God said "Trust me and I will save you." But they wouldn't do it. "We've out-grown faith" they said (Isaiah 28) "faith is for children. We do politics now." And they put their trust in all the things we put our trust in today: diplomacy; military might (Egypt); collective security, grand alliances, spiritually rebellious projects of self-sufficiency and in the cultural and economic power of great cities. And it all failed - and the enemy flooded Immanuel's land right up to its neck, just as Isaiah said it would (Isaiah 8).
It was hopeless - the battle was at the gate and the fall of Jerusalem was imminent and inevitable - until Hezekiah remembered that there is another option, that there is another player. In humble repentance and faith, Hezekiah appealed to the Lord and the battle was turned back by grace in response to faith.
[That is the message of Isaiah 7-39 - and of my book, Turn Back the Battle, which presents a Biblical response to suffering, persecution and threat by applying the lessons/teachings of Isaiah to our present situation.]
The world will not and cannot save the persecuted church.
Neither can the church of herself, operating in her own strength, save the persecuted church.
Does it sound like I am advocating abandoning works / abandoning advocacy? Well I am not! I'd be a pretty poor Director of Advocacy if I was to do that!
The issue is who or what do we trust.
We demonstrate our trust in the Lord through obedience to his word. So we must seek the Lord's will and DO it - trusting him for the outcome.
Fortunately, so much of God's will is clearly revealed, for example:
- Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9)
- Bear one another's burdens . . . (Galatians 6:2)
- Remember those in prison as if you yourself were imprisoned with them. (Hebrews 13:3)
- Give generously - sacrificially (Deut 15:10 and 2 Sam 24:2) - not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matt 6:3).
But though we work - we do not put our faith in our works.
The prophet Isaiah can be our role model in this. For in obedience to the Lord's command, Isaiah lobbied the king - first Ahaz (735 BC) and then Hezekiah. But he never put his faith in those kings - nor in his diplomacy - or in the political or diplomatic process. He always only ever rested his faith in the Lord.
Everything we do is useless - unless the Lord blesses it.
Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
And so prayer must be integral to every stage of everything.
The world has changed - and so must we (the Church) - we need to change gears.
We need to face the reality of persecution and engage with the persecuted through provision of aid (giving generously, sharing the burden), involvement in advocacy (speaking up) and the serious business of intercessory prayer (advocacy in the courts of the Lord).
We must welcome indignation and lament into our worship, which will give our worship a depth and breadth that I can assure you, will go a long way to making worship more relevant.
While this persecution is unprecedented in our lifetime, it is not unprecedented. Waves of persecution have been breaking over the church ever since its inception. What is unprecedented today is the global nature of the persecution.
But equally as unprecedented is the global connectedness of the church, such that the Church in Australia (or anywhere) can learn of a great need on the other side of the world - in real time - and respond immediately - for the saving of many lives.