Appropriately, today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church and the first day of Suffering Church Action and Awareness Week. Our brothers and sisters around the world who suffer persecution are very much fighting the good fight of faith. They face many who persecute them using all sorts of weapons, but they fight back in the way that Jesus did, the way of love.
Jesus knew that those who followed him would suffer loss. In the Beatitudes which we have just heard, he encourages his followers to anticipate that blessings will come to them. There is no doubt that many Christians are mourning the loss of loved ones. Violence against Christians has increased during lockdown in various parts of the world. For some Islamic groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Covid-19 is seen as Allah’s punishment of unbelievers. Some believe that fighting Jihad will protect them from the virus. In the Middle Belt of Nigeria, while security forces were deployed on work concerning the virus, attacks on Christians increased hugely. They were an easy target as they gathered in their homes. Burkino Faso, Mali and other parts of West Africa are also affected by violent attacks by Muslim extremists.
Jesus also expected his followers to suffer persecution. In China surveillance cameras are everywhere. They are particularly trained on churches and can use facial recognition to find out who is going to church. Even worship in your own home is not a safe thing to do. A widow in China had her government financial support withdrawn because she would not remove Christian pictures from her home or stop believing in God. She was told that ‘Because the Communist Party feeds you, you must only believe in it, not God’. Within church buildings, religious symbols and scriptural texts have been replaced with the Chinese flag, portraits of the president and Chinese Communist Party slogans. For the underground church, things are even worse. Pastors and members of such churches can suddenly find themselves arrested and may not be seen by their families for years afterwards. For Christians in places like this, it is always difficult if not impossible to meet with their Christian family. Even online services pose a risk. We too may have suffered by not being able to go to church during lockdown, but at least for us it has been temporary.
In the time when Paul was writing his letter to the Romans, persecution was normal for Christians. By choosing to follow Jesus, people put themselves in the position of being misfits. They were neither Jew nor Gentile but something other that people did not understand. It is the same now for Christians in many countries. It is not something that happens in just a few areas. Around 80% of the world’s population lives where there are high or very high levels of restriction on religious freedom.
Whereas Christians then and now can’t prevent people attacking and persecuting them, they can decide how they will respond. Paul commends love as a way of life. The love is to be sincere and to extend across the Christian family. That love may be between those who live near one another. It may also be that extended by those of us who live far away but who choose to give financially to support those who suffer. Love certainly needs to be practical as many Christians miss out on the distribution of food aid because of their faith. As Paul says, ‘contribute to the needs of the saints’. Today as we celebrate All Saints’ we remember that these fellow Christians who live their lives in difficult places are indeed saints.
Another response to persecution is rejoicing in hope. That is no easy command to follow. Nor is patience when suffering, but with prayer and mutual encouragement, hope and patience are possible. Christians are to get alongside one another rejoicing and weeping as appropriate.
Violence around the world has led to millions of people being displaced. The same happened in Paul’s day. Christians often had to flee persecution with only what they could carry. It was fellow Christians who supported them from their own resources. The same is still necessary now. When militants attacked the Christian village of Hura in Plateau State, Nigeria on 14 April 2020, it was already hosting survivors from other attacks on nearby Christian communities so that each household in Hura numbered between 17 and 26 people. Twenty-eight homes in Hura were burnt, making
hundreds of Christians homeless, many for the second time. After burying their dead, the villagers and their visitors fled to a nearby town to seek refuge. Sometimes, of course, Christian refugees manage to reach safety in the UK, Europe, Canada, and so on. There is then an opportunity for the local Christians to welcome these strangers in Jesus’ name.
Like Jesus, Paul urges Christians to do the exact opposite of what we might naturally expect when faced with persecution. Instead of trying to hurt those who hurt us, repaying evil for evil, we are to bless them. We are to feed them, give them something to drink, and generally treat them as honoured guests. If everyone repaid others in kind, the world would become worse and worse. The only way to overcome evil is with good.
There is no wonder the Church on earth is called the Church Militant. There really is a fight going on between good and evil. Across the centuries, people ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ have fought this fight and now stand in the presence of God. Today we remember our brothers and sisters around the world who suffer so much for their faith. As one widow said after her husband was hacked to death by Hindu extremists: ‘I will live for Christ, I will die for Christ but I will never deny Christ.’ What courage!