Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Suffering and Martyrdom: Reflections on the Situation in Afghanistan

Four and a half years after the American invasion of Afghanistan, a people have been set free from the rule of the Taliban, a new government has been established, and the United States now has a new ally rather than an old enemy in the War on Terror. In this context, the shocking trial of Abdul Rahman is a surprise to many, especially to evangelical Christians in America who expected that our military efforts there would result in an atmosphere that included freedom of religion. But Islamic Sharia law recognizes no such concept, and a March 21 article in the Chicago Tribune quotes Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizada saying that if Rahman doesn't recant his Christian faith, the death penalty will likely be administered, sooner rather than later.

Still, while the American focus on religious liberty is being touted by everyone from the American Family Association to pastor-friends of mine who have sent me emails, and is an important argument to be voiced, there is a much greater issue that we in the west have predictably overlooked: Martyrdom as a missionary strategy.

Lets face it: The American church goes faint at the sight of blood. Our strong belief in the ideals of religious freedom, and our often litigious spirit that makes headlines on a regular basis in this country has often blinded us from that which the Scriptures declare is both a solemn responsibility, and an effective catalyst for the growth of God's church. From FOX News to explicitly Christian news sources such as The 700 Club, the journalistic angle given to stories like this one is the terrible plight of our brothers and sisters in other lands who do not enjoy nearly the same level of latitude toward their faith by their government. Whether the reports are describing the persecution of Christians in the Sudan (which has been taking place since 1988), the recent genocide in Darfur, or this latest story on our Afghan brother, the attention is always on the evil actions of a foreign government. Conspicuously absent from these stories is the "problem" which precipitated such persecution: the bold witness of Christ-followers and/or the rapid growth of God's church in those areas.

In short, the Christian media tells me that I should look on the Afghan government with disdain, and my persecuted brother in Christ with pity. . . .

. . . .but the Scriptures tell me I should actually be envious of Abdul Rahman!

Our western orientation often causes us to miss the fact that the Scriptures are permeated with the call to suffer. Isaiah tells us that the eternal, undefeatable, universal Kingdom of God (described in Isaiah 52) will not be built in this world in the same way that sinful humanity seeks to build Kingdoms; with power, intimidation, strength. The Kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, and the very foundation for this everlasting Kingdom (as given in Isaiah 53) is personified in the servant who comes to suffer on our behalf. Jesus reiterated this truth to His disciples when He declared "The Son of Man must suffer many things." (Mark 8:31), and He made clear that those who follow Him must do so in every way.

"A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you." (John 15:20)

Ananias was told this by God regarding Saul of Tarsus: "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and Kings and the sons of Israel. for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." (Acts 9:15-16 emphasis mine) Later, the Apostle Paul will speak to his converts in Thessalonica about their responsibility in suffering (1 Thess. 3:2-3), and John will write of his experience of the revelation of Jesus Christ within the context of Christian suffering.

But the Scriptures also record for us how the early disciples responded to such a solemn call. After being publicly flogged by the Jewish authorities, and admonished to stop preaching the Gospel, Luke tells us that the early disciples "left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name." (Acts 5:41). Frankly, when one observes the difference in perception between the 1st century church and its 21st century American counterpart, it becomes obvious that American Christians, myself included, are clueless!

All of the above does not mean I think it is wrong to seek reprieve for our Afghan brother. Paul certainly took advantage of the political system of his own day in order to prolong his life, so that he might have more opportunity to spread the Gospel. Similarly, it is only fitting that American Christians take advantage of the democratic system God has sovereignly seen fit to instill in our country, not to our own advantage, but to the advantage of the Gospel's advance. However, this is where most efforts by American Christians come to a halt.

But the most stinging realization of this truth for me is very personal. Two weeks ago, one of my church planters was bemoaning (rightfully so) his inability to minister to his community via the public school system because the county schools do not collaborate with "religious organizations." On my way home that day, I actually had the gall to think of this as "persecution." Again, we don't have a clue! Maybe that is why the American church is presently so theologically and missiologically impotent.

Our brothers and sisters in "closed countries," by contrast, are seeing the ranks of believers grow in almost every situation. In those countries, it actually means something to be called a "Christian." And as we survey Biblical history, we discover a pattern identical to what I have just described. It was the murder of a deacon that led to the spread of the church outside Jerusalem, and into Judea and Samaria. It was the suffering of Paul that led to churches being planted all over the First Century world.

Similarly, it is the genocide in Darfur, the unjust killing in the Sudan, the relentless persecution of Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, and the communist repression in North Korea that is the catalyst for the building of God's Kingdom in those countries.

For that matter, it was also the unjust, legally abhorrent, "good-ole-boy" justice of Judaism mixed with the convenient politic of a Roman governor that led to the substitutionary atonement of Christ in which all believers place their faith. And it is likely, tragic as it may be, that the martyrdom of Abdul Rahman will result in the explosion of the Christian church in Afghanistan. I can't explain how this happens. I only know that the Bible touts this as the primary way that God's Kingdom is advanced, and I see proof of it every time I observe the plight of my brothers and sisters in lands where far less freedom is enjoyed.

But such news is met by the American church with a great degree of squeemishness. For many American Christians, the Gospel of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God have been supplanted by "The American Dream." My goal is to put my sons through college so that they can have an even better life than the one I am currently enjoying. Don't even suggest that one or both of my boys might lose his head in the middle east for the sake of the Gospel! Don't speak about the neccessity of suffering and death to forward God's church on earth! Such talk is offensive to those who think of Christianity as a "step program" toward a more "successful" life! And I know this more intimately than anyone else!

As I write, I'm sitting in a hotel room at the Westin Hotel near the airport in Atlanta, GA. I am here for the next four days to meet with other Church Planting Missionaries from all across North America so that we can plan another year's strategy. Over the next 96 hours, I will be pampered with all of the trappings that one would expect from a Five-Star hotel. I will eat good food, drink good drink (non-alcoholic, of course. After all, this is a Baptist meeting.), and then fly back to Baltimore, get in my car, and drive back to my home near Mt. Airy Maryland, where I will continue to enjoy my "upper-middle class" lifestyle. If the weather permits Saturday night, I will climb aboard my Suzuki motorcycle and take a ride. I will enjoy the company of my wife and sons at about the same time my Christian brother in Afghanistan is being sentenced. All in all, when I compare my lifestyle with that of Abdul Rahman, I feel pretty pathetic. And maybe I should!

What bothers me about all of this? The Scriptures tell me that my brother Abdul's testimony of persecution is of more value than my own. What bothers me is that somewhere in my pursuit of the American idea of what is right and good for me and my family, I fear I have missed God's best merely because my cultural environment doesn't recognize it to be the best. Yet Abdul Rahman is called a "victim" and I'm called a "missionary." Ironic, isn't it? And in times like this I honestly wonder how truly significant I am to the advance of God's agenda.

American Christianity says victory is acheived through power, political victory, influence, and the acquisition of wealth.

The Bible says victory is acheived through weakness, suffering, persecution, and giving.

Looking at the article in the Tribune, we see what being a "witness" is really all about. Because he values Christ more than anything else, Rahman's wife has divorced him, his family has abandoned him, and Islamic law has condemned him. Yet Tribune reporter Kim Barker stated that this past Thursday, Rahman appeared with no attorney present to represent him.

"On Thursday, the first day of the trial, Rahman appeared in court with no lawyer. Prosecutor Abdul Wasi said Rahman had been told repeatedly to repent and come back to Islam, but Rahman refused. Wasi called Rahman a traitor. "He is known as a microbe in society, and he should be cut off and removed from the rest of Muslim society and should be killed," Wasi told the court. Rahman said he had surrendered himself to God. "I believe in the holy spirit," he said. "I believe in Christ. And I am a Christian."

My heart is full of sorrow for my Afghan brother. But after reflecting on this situation, I don't pity him. I envy him! The kind of faith and commitment to Jesus Christ he is demonstrating is virtually unknown to the materialistic, power-hungry, rights-conscious church in the west. And this puts me to shame!

I'm not yet ready to commit my boys to martyrdom if that is indeed where God calls them one day. I'm simply not there yet, and I recognize that as sin that needs to be dealt with. Moreover, I need a change in perspective that sees suffering and persecution exclusively through the lens of Scripture. Such a view confesses that ultimately, suffering is not sacrifice, but joy. John Piper describes this view well:

From the youngest to the oldest, Christ is calling His church to a radical, wartime engagement in world missions. He is making it plain that it will not happen without pain. But let their be no Christian self-pity, no talk of ultimate self-denial. It is simply amazing how consisent are the testimonies of missionaries who have suffered for the Gospel. Virtually all of them bear witness of the abundant joy and overriding compensations. Those who have suffered most speak in the most lavish terms of the supreme blessing and joy of giving their lives away for others.

A prayer:

God, grant me the divine wisdom required to understand such a marvelous thing, the will to choose such a path for myself and my family, and the love for you that only the Holy Spirit can produce in my heart, and that will bring endurance through the pain to the greatest of all blessings. Bless our brother Abdul, who is now before the authorities that you have sovereingly ordained in Afghanistan. If it pleases you, we ask for his freedom. But we ask even more for your glory in his life. And if in fact those in authority choose to take his life, that he will continue to see it as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing you. We ask this in the faith that you are standing, even as you were in the martyrdom of Stephen, ready to receive your servant, and ready to use him in life or in death for the further propogation of your Gospel in that part of the world.

More than this, I ask that you give myself and the Christians in this country the perspective that my Afgahan brother has. As painful as it is to ask, I ask for this even if it comes through loss, pain, persecution, or even the fall of this great nation and the loss of freedom. Thank you for causing us to think deeply about such things, and may we leave behind our insignificant, inconsequential concerns over freedom, prosperity, money, family, and power, and clasp tightly onto those things that are tied explicitly to your coming indestructable Kingdom. I fear that to a large extent, much of what we do in North America in the name of Christ really doesn't matter. Almightly God, we want what we do in your name to matter! Empower us by your spirit to rejoice as we willingly build your Kingdom through suffering. And I make this prayer in the name of the Suffering Servant, whom you were pleased to crush for my sin. -Amen!


Piper, John. 1993. Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

1 comment:

Jack Allen said...

Hey Joel,
Thanks for the reminder of the cost of discipleship (Bonhoeffer).