Since Stephen died in Acts 7, martyrs have given their lives to follow Christ. Is persecution still a thing today? Today, ambivalence, indifference, and cultural acceptance form some of the biggest obstacles in our faith journey. If we proclaim the love of Christ, no one feels threatened, and no one responds with violence. Culture warriors try to create enemies and talk about the persecuted church, but they usually feel contrived or disingenuous.
Someone recently asked me if we have any college students in our church. I was pleased to say, “Yes! We do.” The person responded with surprise. “Really? I thought everyone at UVA was an atheist, or, at least they all teach that.” I pointed out that over twenty-thousand students probably represent a wide variety of viewpoints.
Even that encounter was mild. There was no hostility. Yet, Christians around the world do not enjoy such security. Conversations about martyrs and threats against Christians bring up the “persecuted church.” Last year, Christianity Today published an article, “The 50 Countries Where It’s Most Dangerous to Follow Jesus in 2021.” Topping the list are North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya. Countries with authoritarian demagogue leaders (e.g., North Korea) or countries without a functioning government (e.g., Somalia) have other, arguably far worse, problems than freedom of religion.
Open Doors describes the way the Taliban persecutes Christians. Voice of the Martyrs claims to help 4 million persecuted Christians each year. Cru states, “Right now 200 million people face persecution for believing in Jesus…” The Esther Project says “322 Christians are killed for their faith” each month. A 2014 resource from the CBF outlines the daily persecution facing several missionaries in the Middle East.
Because I have never experienced such persecution, I have lots of questions. The evangelistic zeal of some of these ministries conflates violence with a persecution complex. Voice of the Martyrs has a recent history of child abuse accusations (here, here, & here), which shines a negative light on their organization. According to a 2017 survey, white evangelicals think Christians face more discrimination than Muslims. In fact, Muslims face more discrimination than Christians and just about any other religious group in the U.S. However, my questions do not undermine the existence of persecution. And, a CBF resource titled “In the Face of Persecution” holds more credibility about a persecuted church for me than the others since they are part of our ecclesiastical family.
Cost of Discipleship
This trip down the rabbit hole prompts me to think about the cost of discipleship. What do I do with my freedom to gather? How do I respond to the lack of persecution? It’s so easy to take it for granted.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for… Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
When there is no cost, is there grace? Have I, in this time and in this beautiful place, grown so complacent that I miss the invitation to discipleship? I am fortunate to not live under the thumb of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. I am blessed to have order in our streets, unlike the poor people of Somalia. I am lucky to not experience the shelling and bombardment in Ukraine. Instead, I live in Charlottesville and can do almost anything I want. What am I doing with this freedom and these blessings?