The old cliche is: “Do you have any Jewish friends?” It is less often asked of secular people whether they have any friends who are committed Catholics or evangelicals. Since these two groups comprise a high proportion of Americans, the common failure to consider such friendships is striking.
Once I raised this issue with an agnostic friend. He replied that the comparison was not really fair. He explained that you wouldn’t want an evangelical friend since they are obnoxious, and lecture rather than talk. I asked him how he knew they were obnoxious if he didn’t know any. It turned out that, indeed, remote in hand, he had tuned into a garish television broadcast and had simply taken for granted that the clownish antics and ignorant statements he observed were typical of Christians worldwide.
This is prejudice. It could simply be dismissed as my own whining if it weren’t for the brutal fact that this prejudice is a barrier to recognizing the suffering of hundreds of millions of children, women, and men worldwide. As James Finn says, “Advocates of religious human rights must be prepared to encounter in the secular news media less outright hostility or opposition then blank incomprehension.”
A refusal to take religion seriously, a disdain for those for whom faith is
the central fact of human existence, a blank incomprehension of those who will
die rather than forsake the peaceful expression of their beliefs — all these
contribute to indifference which turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to the pain
and cries of suffering believers. In a world awash with attention to ethnic and
racial conflict, it produces a generation that can say “I don’t know” or,
more chillingly, “I don’t care,” to one of the most pervasive problems in
contemporary human existence.
The place of Christianity in the world
There are other antireligious prejudices. Too many Americans dump Christians into a stereotype of dead, white, European males.
Most Christians are not white. Christianity is non-European in origin. It was in Africa before Europe, India before England, China before America. Three-fourths of world Christians live in the Third World. It may be the largest Third-World religion. Even in the United States Christianity is far more common among non-whites than it is among whites. Eighty-two percent of African Americans are church members, compared to 69 percent of the total American population.
Nor are Christians male — most are women, and not only because most human beings are women. The membership of the Christian church is disproportionately female. Nor, though vast numbers have been killed, are they dead. Despite persecution, Christianity is growing rapidly in the world, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.
More people take part in Christian Sunday worship in China than do people in the entirety of Western Europe. The same is true of Nigeria, and probably true of India, Brazil, and even the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia.
The Middle East contains people of many religions. Lebanon is 40 percent Christian; Sudan, 20 percent; Egypt, about 12 percent. Other countries have lower proportions only because of recent emigration or flight — or because Christians were subjected to genocide. At the turn of the century, Turkey was about 30 percent Christian, while Syria was 40 percent.
Tradition has it that Christianity was introduced to Egypt by St. Mark in 42 A.D. Alexandria was one of Christianity’s intellectual centers and the home of major church fathers as Athanasius, Clement, and Cyril. Turkey was the site of most of the apostle Paul’s ministry. The area was Christian centuries before the arrival of Islam and, despite persecution, the Christians there have not given up their faith. They have been present for up to two millennia. Similarly, the Christian Church spread through Asia in its earliest centuries, reaching to Mongolia and India.
Christians are African
women who rise at dawn to greet the rising sun in a wailing chant of thanks to
God. They are Indian untouchables cleaning up excrement from the streets. They
are slaves in Sudanese markets. They are Chinese peasants flip-flopping by rice
fields or pedaling bicycles through Shanghai. They are Mexican tribal people,
driven from their ancestral homes. They are Filippina maids, misused throughout
the world. They are Russian Orthodox priests, hit by cars which mysteriously careen
onto the sidewalk. They are Arab women who have been raped and had acid poured
on them to remove distinguishing Christian marks. And, overwhelmingly, they are
people who, given a moment’s time, space, and freedom, live life with joy,
enthusiasm, and gratitude.
The role of Christians in the modern world
It is futile to equate Christianity with clear-cut national, political, and ethnic boundaries. Human life always presents itself, not the least in the religious field, in a complex, intertwined, pluriform, and shaded combination of factors that is at once exhilaration, frightening, and bewildering.
But one thing we can say is that the assault on Christians is a fundamental part of the assault on human freedom itself. Many Christians are leading democracy and human-rights activists. They are also in forefront of economic development. But perhaps more important than what they do is who they are. While usually loyal citizens, they embody an attachment to “another King,” a loyalty to a standard of spiritual allegiance apart from the political order. This fact itself denies that the state is the all-encompassing or ultimate arbiter of human life. Regardless of how the relation between God and Caesar has been expressed, it now at least means that, contra the Romans and modern totalitarians, Caesar is not God. This confession, however mute, sticks in the craw of every authoritarian regime and draws their angry and bloody response.
Many Christians are therefore persecuted simply because they are Christians. Their usually peaceful and quiet beliefs stand as a rebuke to those who are corrupt, to those who cannot tolerate the presence of any view but their own, and to those who want to make their own political regime the only focus of loyalty. Their very existence is a silent witness to a claim beyond human control.
Samuel Huntington maintains that the “third wave of democracy” in the 1970s and 80s encompassing Iberia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Philippines stemmed in large part from the renewed commitment to democracy and human rights in the Catholic Church. George Weigel has pointed out the role of the church, and especially the Pope, in the erosion of Communism in Eastern Europe. In 1988, on the thousandth anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed churches to ring out their bells for the first time in seventy years. Russians have described the wonder and elation they felt as a new spiritual presence resounded through the streets and squares — a presence that reached beyond Communism and hastened the loosening of totalitarianism’s grip on human minds and souls.
I am not making the absurd suggestion that religious renewal, apart from any other social, economic, political, or strategic factors, brought the end of these authoritarian regimes. Societies are complex. But I am saying that it is equally absurd to discuss political freedom without attending to the role of religion. Czech President, and former prisoner, Vaclav Havel knows this well. With his customary clarity and prescience, he described the Soviet expulsion of author and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn as:
...a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful well-spring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness which in turn might one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences. And so the...system behaved in a characteristic way: It defended the integrity of the world of appearances in order to defend itself. But the crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff. As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to he made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, “The emperor is naked.” When a single person breaks the rules of the game thus exposing it as a game — everything suddenly appears in a another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.
If this connection has not been clear to western observers afflicted with secular myopia it has been all too clear to the Communist authorities in China and Vietnam. As brutal practitioners of power they are perversely aware of the power of human spirituality and so take religion with deadly seriousness. In 1992 the Chinese state-run press noted that “the church played an important role in the change” in Eastern Europe and warned, “if China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.”
With this evil biblical allusion, the Chinese leadership adopted Herod as its role model. On the assumption that Communists know the Bible better and therefore see its power more than many secular westerners, perhaps it is worth outlining the texts to which the Chinese authorities refer:
Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared and sent them on to Bethlehem with the words, “Go and find out all about the child, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage... But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod and returned to their own country by a different way. Herod was furious on realizing that he had been fooled by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or less, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. Then were fulfilled the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly: is Rachel weeping for her children refusing to be comforted But the because they are no more.
And Rachel weeps still, in China and elsewhere. Because Christians are spread throughout the world in many thousand different ethnic and cultural groups, their suffering provides a touchstone for how regimes treat human rights in general. In country after country, region after region, town after town, the persecution of Christians is a harbinger of the repression of other human rights — of political dissidents, of intellectuals, of unionists, of women, of children, of homosexuals.
Those who desire to control Christians desire to control everything. Just as anti-Semitism, even apart from its own inherent evil, is a reliable indicator of the growth of other forms of repression in society, so Christians now function as the canary in the mine shaft: When they collapse, other deaths are sure to follow. In the same way, those who ignore the plight of Christians throughout the world bear an awkward resemblance to those who turned a blind eye to the persecution of the Jews throughout this century. If we are concerned about human rights of any kind, we need to pay attention to Christians — who they are, how they live, why they suffer.
Cuban Poet Armando Valladares’ account of his twenty-two years in Castro’s prisons includes the description of one particular Christian.
All of us called Gerardo the Brother of the Faith...His sermons had a primitive beauty; he himself had an extraordinary magnetism. From a pulpit improvised from old salt-codfish boxes covered with a sheet, behind a cross, the thundering voice of the Brother of the Faith would preach his daily sermons. Then we would all sing hymns he wrote out on cigarette packages and passed out to those of us at the meeting. Many times the garrison broke up those minutes of prayer with blows and kicks, but they never managed to intimidate him. When they took him off to the forced labor fields of Isla de Piftos, he organized Bible readings and choirs. Having a Bible was a subversive act, but he had, we never knew how, a little one which he always carried with him. If some exhausted or sick prisoner fell behind in the furrows or hadn’t piled up the amount of rock he had been ordered to break, the Brother of the faith would turn up. He was thin and wiry, with incredible stamina for physical labor, He would catch the other man up in his work, save him from brutal beatings. When one of the guards would walk up behind him and hit him, the Brother of the Faith would spring erect, look into the guard’s eyes, and say to him, “May God pardon you.” In the midst of that apocalyptic vision of the most dreadful and horrifying moments in my life, in the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged, the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners. “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do.” And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast.
The suffering of Christians, like the pain of any human being, cries out for our attention, our sympathy, and our action. As Stephen Rosenfeld wrote in the Washington Post, “Politically as citizens and objectively in terms of the pain of foreign brothers, the Christian community has right and reason to be heard. The efforts will save lives.” Maybe my defensiveness is not needed! I hope not. If it is, I hope all that follows will make it superfluous.
In China, in March 1993...five Protestants
from Shaanxi were detained and severely tortured...”without a word of explanation.”
They were singled out because the authorities suspected them of contact with foreigners.
According to a eyewitness account... “The officers stripped three brethren naked
from the waist and forced the women to stand with them. Not only did they then
beat them, moreover they forced each of the twenty-six other local people to beat
each one a hundred times with bamboo rods. If they refused... they would in turn
be beaten. The three men were beaten until they were totally covered with blood
and had gaping wounds and injuries all over their bodies. As if such violent beating
wasn’t enough, the officers then hung them up and began to hit them with
the rods on their backs. They did this until the three men were unconscious and
barely breathing. We could only hear the sound of the beating and the cursing
of the officers.”
Marshall, Paul, and Lela Gilbert. “A Worldwide Plague,” in Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World. (Nashville, Tennessee: Word Publishers, 1997), 6-13.
Published with permission of Word Publishers. All rights reserved.
Lela Gilbert is the author and editor of forty books including works on religious persecution such as Walking the Hard Road: The Story of Wang Ming Tao and Where the Brave Dare Not Go.
Copyright © 1997 Word Publishers