(Photo: Adella Thompson)
A recently released resource anthology chronicling centuries of Christian persecution has exposed the intense suffering and martyrdom followers of Jesus Christ have been subjected to around the world, and the book responds to claims that such accounts have been hyped or propagandized.
The book, Sorrow & Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom, took four years to complete by the editorial team of William Taylor (USA), Tonica van der Meer (Brazil), and Reg Reimer (Canada), and includes 62 writers from 23 nations who collaborated together on the ambitious project to give voice to the stories of remarkable perseverance in the face of persecution Christians have faced throughout the centuries in all corners of the world.
Below is an edited transcript of an email interview The Christian Post did with Taylor, who is the founder and president of TaylorGlobalConsult.com, as well as the senior mentor, Mission Commission, at World Evangelical Alliance. Taylor was born in 1940 in Costa Rica where his parents were serving as missionaries, and he lived for 30 years in Latin America, where he also served as a missionary along with his wife, Yvonne, in Guatemala.
CP: There have been suggestions, primarily from academic and certain religious sources, that during the period of early Christianity, persecution has been hyped and propagandized, that it really was minimal. What do you say to that charge?
Taylor: These claims simply don't stand the test of historical scholarship. While there may have been some excessive estimates of the numbers of martyrs, the reality and quantity of persecution during those first centuries has been firmly established.
Others charge that present-day persecution has been hyped, but this is simply ludicrous. Just read the secular and Christian press for an almost-too-much reporting. Two recent books come to mind on the current situation: Persecuted: the Global Assault on Christians, by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert and Nina Shea (Thomas Nelson, 2013); The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution by John L. Allen Jr. (Image, 2013).
Some of these charges are dominated by presuppositions that deny the penalty for suffering simply for being fully Christian. The Pew Forum's research reveals that worldwide, 75% of the restrictions against the practice of faith apply exclusively to Christians (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/09/20/rising-tide-of-restrictions-on-religion-findings/). This is especially the case for Christians in nations dominated by Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.
The Christian has three mortal enemies: the world, the flesh and the devil. In the case of persecution against the disciples of Jesus, Satan himself attacks and uses in particular the world's value systems to bolster his assaults against Christ and His followers. If he can kill them before birth, great! If he can assault them during life, great! Our arch-enemy takes no prisoners. And if he, through diverse and nefarious means can convince people that persecution is the product of a few fanatics, he is delighted.
CP: Can you give us some backdrop on this resource anthology, Sorrow & Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom?
Taylor: The World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission leadership was commissioned at the 1999 Iguassu, Brazil, missiological consultation to work on these themes. The gestation period took about 9 years, and the actual composition of the book 4 years. My co-editors, Dr. Tonica van der Meer of Brazil and Reg Reimer of Canada, joined the team with deep personal experience in our core themes and it was an honor to work together. We searched for the authors who would speak from both personal experience and authority. We ended with a global panoply of 68 writers from 22 nations. It is a unique publication; it's really a sobering banquet.
Correctly called a "resource anthology," the book starts with an overview of the global realities (for a current world map on persecution, see http://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/) plus key definitions; it then grapples with the theological and Biblical issues; from there it moves to the historical overview, with case studies that span the centuries to the present; it dedicates a substantial section to preparing, accompanying and restoring the church through seasons of persecution; it concludes with the call to prayer and advocacy and provides resources.
The six sections are introduced with material that frames those chapters in Biblical and historical contexts. The final section offers a set of invaluable resources – an annotated bibliography, Internet sites, member care commitments and partnering platforms that serve the persecuted.
And don't forget the art. The cover eloquently evokes a dingy and well-used interrogation cell; the photographs, original art, and the graphic portrayal of suffering are unique for this kind of a book.
CP: One of the main themes from the various persecution accounts is that we need to be aware of and stand up against persecution; yet suffering is an inseparable part of the Christian mission. Is this in any way paradoxical, and how can it be explained?
Taylor: Suffering is one of the prime mysteries of life and the Christian faith. While God does not cause suffering, he certainly seems to allow a lot of it. Suffering comes as a result of the Great Rebellion (the Fall), from personal sin, from illness, from sins committed by others, from the evilness of wounded hearts, from nefarious powers, from natural disasters, from DNA gone rogue and from Satanic origins.
However, this book focuses on suffering that comes as a result of following Jesus faithfully; that which comes simply because someone is a Christian; that which comes through intentional disinformation, harassment, persecution and martyrdom.
Ultimately all suffering must be understood through the lens of the God who Himself suffers, for He is the one who sends his only Son to the cross. But this resource anthology affirms that suffering accompanies true discipleship, a teaching given by Christ, confirmed by the apostles, and proven throughout the history of the Church of Christ.
CP: The problem of evil and suffering is addressed in chapter 16 by Isaiah M. Dau. Is this the most difficult question theology faces up to?
Taylor: Perhaps so. And we did not dodge this issue. Hence we invested some 80 pages on theological and Biblical reflections in the book, with writers from both global South and North. In Dau's unique chapter, with deep insight he grapples with the issue from both a Biblical and African perspective.
I appreciate what Reimer says: "Yes, the question of theodicy seems to attach to all the hardest issues of Christianity. The problem of why a loving God allows suffering, even the cruel deaths of people who choose to remain faithful to him, is on the extreme edge of that question. Quick and trite answers won't do, and I won't give one now".
We also addressed the global heresy of prosperity theology from different perspectives, and the horror of the Rwandan genocide.
CP: Of the many persecution stories featured in Sorrow & Blood, which one stands out for you the most?
Taylor: This is impossible to answer! Throughout the book you find a series of real-life, current-time persecution and cost-of-discipleship stories written by Miriam Adeney. They are all powerful. I love Isaiah Dau's comparative chapter. I am moved by the stories of Eugene Bakhmutsky and the two Iranian sisters in Christ, Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh. I weep as I re-read David Thompson's personal narrative as a son of Viet Nam martyrs. I worship the living God who calls us to suffering discipleship.
Reimer writes, "As a missionary to Asia I have found counties there seem to have finessed cruelty in killing Christians. I know that this is so for tens of thousands of Vietnamese Catholic martyrs in previous centuries. In our book I find Chuang Chua's account of the twenty-six Japanese martyrs of Nagasaki quite remarkable. And his observation that, 'The paradox of martyrdom is that it unwittingly gives the seemingly powerless church a voice to bear the message of faith and salvation to the very people that seek to silence it.'"
You just have to read the book yourself!
CP: What should the Christian response be to the persecution stories in Sorrow & Blood? What can people do to help those in suffering?
Taylor: We deal with this issue in a series of chapters: Chris Seiple in "Reflections on Theology, Strategy, and Engagement" and Reg Reimer in "Advocating for the Persecuted". Reimer says, "We worked hard on answering that question in the book. The first thing is to reflect deeply on what you read. We encourage that process by the carefully formulated "questions for reflection" at the end of most chapters. We included full resources in the book to point earnest readers to organizations that serve persecuted and suffering Christians by advocacy and direct aid and in other ways.
The huge surge in Christian persecution in the Middle East and North Africa since we published this book only a year ago underlines its prophetic importance. We hope and pray it will awaken at least Western Christians to the phenomenon which is almost entirely ignored by the secular media and our governments."
One case in point: we estimate that about a third of Syria's Christians have been forced to leave their country. Countless numbers of them are refugees in surrounding nations, and many have come to the West to re-settle and re-shape their lives. They need sensitive and sacrificial counsel and assistance where they are now (urgent and immediate care), and gracious wisdom and provision where they will finally settle, either back home or in another nation.
Above all we call fellow-believers to thoughtful and engaged prayer (http://www.persecution.com/idop). See the chapter in the book that gives an example of prayer service for the persecuted church. Mindy Belz and Faith J. H. McDonnell address what we learn and can do in the face of suffering sisters and brothers.
CP: Does an overt focus in Western churches on issues such as abortion and gay marriage stand in the way of focusing greater attention on Christian persecution in oppressive corners of the world?
Taylor: No. Serious Christians in each culture and nation must grapple with the issues of their world; but all must be sensitive to the seductive power of the evil one who wants to distract us from the main issues of God, Jesus, the Spirit, life and death, mission, compassion, justice, creation and Gospel.
And if we are to be fully "life-engaged" we must critique how that unholy triad of world, flesh and Devil seeks to neutralize, seduce, attack, maim and kill. If we are to be faithful to the life and teachings of Christ, then we are called to an integral commitment to the transforming Gospel of Jesus.
CP: Should Western secularization or Christian persecution be the biggest worry for the Church?
Taylor: Both are enemies of Christ and his devoted followers. Satan uses different systems and approaches, depending on the nature of his control. In contexts where a phalanx of oppositions and systems line up against Christians, such as the convergence of politics, religions, military, security apparatus, culture, education, family, then the attacks are much more open. This is the case in nations dominated by a major non-Christian religion-whether Islamic (Muslim world), Hindu (India), Buddhist (Sri Lanka) or animist (Bolivia).
Sometimes compassion for one social issue can help people understand others. The issues at hand are certainly not mutually exclusive, are they? In the Global North, the West, the enemies of the Gospel work with greater subtlety and seduction, undermining the Christian faith through attacks on the mind, on values, on convictions. Increasingly – and we deal with this in the book – the West battles with three diverse adversaries: militant religious pluralism, the religion of fundamentalist secular humanism and seductive materialism.
CP: What is the special role of Christian organizations and Christian human rights groups in the fight against persecution?
Taylor: Reg Reimer fully develops our responses in his chapter in the book, and wrote this week: "These are two very different questions. It seems presumptuous to me to tell mature Christians what their response should be. But only hearts of stone will remain unmoved in some way by the stories of faithfulness in suffering, even unto death – both from centuries past and today!
On what can people do? We worked hard on answering that question in the book. The first thing is to reflect deeply on what you read. We encourage that process by the carefully formulated "questions for reflection" at the end of most chapters. We included full resources in the book to point earnest readers to organizations that serve persecuted and suffering Christians by advocacy and direct aid and in other ways.
These organizations and human rights groups "…are designed to inform their constituents, and advocate for and help the oppressed and persecuted. I think the time has come that they should also aim at influencing public opinion and our governments.
The secular media is almost totally oblivious to historic phenomenon taking place today. As we speak, we are witnessing the eradication by persecution of centuries-old Christian churches in the countries of Christianity's early development. Syria is just one example. Currently, while our churches agencies are beginning to serve refugees from such conflicts, the desperate situation of Christians among them is scarcely on our church's radar, let alone our government's!"
CP: Any final thoughts?
Taylor: Reimer says it so well, "All of us, but especially those vulnerable to direct oppression and persecution, must live our lives between advocacy and readiness to suffer. It's a most helpful phrase that I borrow from Christof Sauer, one of our writers. One never stops advocating for justice when one can, but most Christians in history have had only the choice of endurance in the face of suffering. Some can flee. Some can fight for justice, but most endure suffering. Enduring is not merely a passive stance, but a spiritual discipline described beautifully in the letters of Peter and Paul."
Websites offering further information:
- http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org (Pew Forum)
- http://www.persecution.net (Voice of Martyrs)
For more book information, see http://www.sorrowandblood.com.
The print version can be purchased at William Carey Library https://missionbooks.org/products/detail/sorrow-blood.