Under the Desk, But Not Underground

When I was growing up, the United States was in the middle of what was termed “The Cold War.”

persecution in Egypt

I remember going through the civil defense drills in kindergarten whereby our little bodies were to quickly find shelter under our desks in case of a nuclear explosion (as if bits of laminated particle board would save my little butt from catastrophe).  What was referred to then as “The Truman Doctrine” (no, not the movie, “The Truman Show”)—was expressed in these words before Congress in March of 1947, by then president Truman, “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.”  Until the fall of the old Soviet Union and The Berlin Wall, that remained U.S. policy toward totalitarian aggressors around the globe.

But also during this time I was learning of people of faith who were being imprisoned by their communist tormentors for nothing more than believing Jesus died and rose again, giving them eternal life.  Richard Wurmbrand was a pastor, tortured for his faith.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet “gulags” where he was miraculously converted to Christ.  Millions more were simply killed for their belief in Jesus.  Some were sent to Siberia to die in the hinterlands of ice-encased countrysides.  Other brothers were routed to “psychiatric hospitals” so that they could be “reeducated” through drug-induced states to renounce their Savior.  Still others were hideously killed.  My most vivid memory was reading of Christians who were literally “planted” in the ground with only their heads above the soil after which the fields were plowed tearing cranium from torso.  In those days I read with deep interest and sadness Foxes Book of Martyrs.  As a young American Christian I was early imbued with a stark sense of justice and an overwhelming passion for my brethren who suffered in the underground church around the world.

I came to recognize through my study of Scripture that Christian persecution should be expected.  Jesus often forewarned His disciples, especially in the upper room discourse of John 13-16, that the world would hate Christians because it hated Him first.  I remember studying passages such as 2 Timothy 3:12, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” and wondering if the horrors I read about would happen to me.  As a young man I preached through the book of 1 Peter, which could be best summarized with allusions to the old country western song, “I never promised you a rose garden.”  Yet it was the innate sense of justice that brought my anger to the surface when I thought of persecuted Christians.  It seemed to me that people living in freedom in the United States should take action for those who could not speak for themselves.  So while I understood Christian persecution should be expected, I also knew it should never be accepted. When people of faith have opportunity to help others—Jesus’ command to love our neighbor—our help should be manifest in various ways.

Hebrews 13:3 makes it clear, “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”  The verb “remember“ means more than simply being aware of information.  The present middle indicative suggests that there should be a response in an appropriate manner (to help, for example).  There is a stress laid upon the subject to produce action. Potential obligations rest upon us as if it were a command.[1] So the question left for us to ask when given this imperative from Scripture is “what should we do?”  I would like to suggest nine responses to Christian persecution around the world based on the premise that while it is expected, persecution of Christians should never be accepted.

(1) Christians should support and encourage governments that desire to protect the righteous and reject wickedness.  Reading Proverbs 28 and 29, for example, illumines telling statements of responsibility: “a man of understanding and knowledge maintains order” (28:2), “evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully” (28:5), “when the wicked rise to power, men go into hiding” (28:12), “a tyrannical ruler lacks judgment” (28:16), “by justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down” (29:4), “if a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure” (29:14).  To those who would question Christian responsibility in politics I would give you Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel, Amos, Obadiah (during Ahab’s reign), Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist (who literally lost his head over politics), and the apostle Paul—who used his Roman citizenship on at least two occasions to speak against governmental authorities in Acts 16:35-40 and 22:22-29.  And to those who would say military might should never be used as an orchestra of judgment upon evil should review Romans 13.  Scripture is quite clear that the only respect any give another is because of fear of punishment for wrongdoing from those who “swing the sword.”  I would also remind us that God has used nation states in the past to protect His people.  One need only remember Medo-Persia and the great king Cyrus who was literally called “messiah” in Isaiah 44 and 45 because he would politically care for Israel.  And perhaps we should be reminded that two Old Testament books—Jonah and Nahum—exist to speak out against a pagan nation that needed to repent of its ways—Assyria.  On a practical level I would call both American and international students to attention on this point.  My fellow citizens, may we never forget, nor take for granted, the titanic freedoms afforded us here in America.  May we not squander the gifts of freedom and opportunity, nor their impact upon those who languish in persecution.  And to my international students I would encourage a continued appreciation for the country that allows you to study in peace that you might prepare for ministry here, and abroad.  Supporting free nations goes a long way toward understanding that persecution happens but that we have a responsibility to speak out against it—in this case, by praising governments that protect freedom.

(2) Christians must speak out in social and political venues to keep the plight of persecuted Christians before the public eye.  This is a practical application of Hebrews 13:3 telling us “to remember.”  We should act upon the example of Kristin Wright.  Two years ago, after just graduating from high school, Kristin began Stand Today, an organization that speaks out on matters of public policy concerning Christian persecution around the world.  Her eyes were opened by the drastic suffering she learned about in the nation of North Korea.  She heard the testimony of Dr. Norbert Vollertson, a German physician who was eyewitness to the evil of North Korean president Kim Jong Il.  www.standtoday.org is a great example of how to wed our concern with action.  I would both encourage you to visit her website and to become involved at some level against the persecution of Christians.  For those who have no voice, we must speak.  To be silent is to be complicit in the crime.  Famous people—not all believers—such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nathan Sharansky, and Vaclav Havel were released from their imprisonment because some in free nations continued to keep their suffering on the world stage and in the world page.  We know persecution will come, but we must expose it, stopping it if possible.

(3) “Human rights” is a key theme in the world and should be supported by believers in our culture as an ethic which proceeds from only the Christian worldview.  President Bush addressed the United Nations last year on the subject of sex-slavery.  Earlier this year in news that received scant coverage, the president signed into law the Trafficking Victims Protection Act which gives refugee status to trafficking victims in the United States, so that, once they’re freed from their oppressors, they can remain here and get help.  “The American government has a particular duty,” Bush told his audience, “because human trafficking is an affront to the defining promise of our country. People come to America hoping for a better life. And it is a terrible tragedy when anyone comes here only to be forced into a sweatshop, domestic servitude, pornography, or prostitution.”  And then the president put his finger on the central issue when he stated, “Human life is the gift of our Creator—and it should never be for sale.”  The ethical standards for protection of life arise out of Genesis one weaving their way through the whole of The Pentateuch.  Rodney Stark, in his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Modern Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, concludes that only the Christian worldview can sustain the premise that all people have God-given rights and should be protected.  At Moody, we should choose a specific concern and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves—the suggestion of Hebrews 13:3.  Keep the news before you in college.  As you log on to discover the days’ events around the globe type in Voice of the Martyrs in your Google search remembering your fellow believers in oppressive lands.  Christians should be on the forefront of human-rights concerns because though we expect persecution, we have the opportunity to do something about it.

(4) Christians must motivate and mobilize each other, that we not become dispassionate observers, rather activists against Christian persecution.  One of the great problems facing people in a nation which has so much is to become apathetic as was the warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:10-20.  Gratitude should form the basis for our Christian ethic.  Abe Rosenthal, a Jew, writing for The New York Times began to speak out about the persecution of Christians under the hobnail boot of dictatorships around the globe.  Because of his writing, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Michael Horowitz—who prompted Rosenthal’s efforts in the first place—from The Hoover Institute studies also communicates concerning the plight of the persecuted everywhere.  Here is a great project for The Moody Student—a front page story about persecuted Christians.  And for individuals, do a search for Persecution Project Foundation, or the Center for Religious Freedom, or Campaign of Conscience for Sudan to see how we might ward off the possibility of apathy.  In Sudan, for instance, at least two million of our brothers and sisters have died at the hands of Muslim extremists over the last two decades.  Tens of thousands of women and children are in slavery to Muslim tyrants.  How does this make us feel?  How should we pray?  How must we become involved?  It is the answer to this last question—personal involvement—that best reflects the thinking of Hebrews 13:3, “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners.”  Amos 6:1 warned God’s people of comfortable circumstances leading to apathy.  In fact this very theme was the basis for the old Nightmare on Elmstreet horror classic.  Fighting apathy means expecting, but not accepting Christian persecution.

(5) Christians must acknowledge that our doctrine of ecclesiology is very narrow.  We tend to focus on our local concerns, communities, and ministries forgetting the needs of our fellow believers in other countries, on other continents.  We need to speak more often of the universal Church—The Church, capital “T”, capital “C”.  We must have the vision of Paul who rallied The Church from northern Africa to Asia Minor to Europe to the plight of suffering Christians in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8-9).  One of the great benefits of having a “missions department” at Moody Bible Institute is to reinvigorate our commitment to the worldwide community of saints.  Speak to each other about your connection with the persecuted Church.  Create an account where many of you can contribute to ministries such as Voice of the Martyrs.  In so doing, you will know persecution exists, but not accept that it must continue.

(6) We need scholars in The Church who will commit their lives to research on behalf of the oppressed.  Allow me to suggest a short list of books which might prompt examination of persecution issues: Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World or In the Lion’s Den: Persecuted Christians and What the Western Church Can Do About It or Jesus Freaks. Do you want to know why the old Soviet Union no longer exists?  Many political and social connections could be brought forward.  However, based on the research of Barbara von der Heydt in her book Candles Behind the Wall people prayed for the fall of communism.  There are many so-called “think tanks” today that dedicate themselves to the task of examining issues which then will form the framework for public policy.  Ministry to people includes our commitment to keep their imprisoned condition before the face of the world.  One of the great needs of The Church are folks—some of whom may be listening here this morning—who will do the hard work of reading and writing on behalf of persecuted peoples.  We know persecution happens, but we don’t have to accept it.

(7) Being people of compassion, we should promote law that shows the love and beneficence of God.  Deuteronomy 30:11-15 gives God’s reason for restrictions—He cares for His people.  So all the great laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are what other nations would comment on in astonishment, “surely this is a great nation, a wise and understanding people” (Deut 4:6).  Sometimes at Moody we think that showing love is by acts of kindness.  Indeed it is in part.  However being involved in passing something such as The Sudan Peace Act in October, 2002 places pressure upon a wicked government to treat its people better.  This too is an act of compassion—passing laws that inhibit lawlessness.  Even Paul spoke about this in 1 Timothy 1:8-11, noting the need for law to restrain lawbreakers.  The Roman poet Juvenal wrote that the greatest crimes are to prefer survival to honor.  And out of love for the physical life, we might lose the very reason for living.  May it never be said of us that we Christians only saw law as inhibiting our freedoms, but rather protecting them.  Indeed, our acts of compassion for the persecuted Church arise out of inability to accept it at all.

(8) We are commanded as Christians to expose the works of darkness as Paul says in Ephesians 5:8-14.  People of the darkness hate the light.  Therefore people of the light must constantly renew the exposure of dark deeds showing the wickedness of evil and evil people in our world.  Flannery O’Connor, that great Christian author of the south, once stated, “To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”  At times that is what it takes in our world.  China continues to suppress and detain worshippers and leaders from house churches.  We need to shine the light on that repressive regimes’ activities.  Fascist Islamic states desire to wipe Jews from the world map.  Searchlights on the horrific deeds of extremist rulers and their radicals must pan the stage of their shameful activities.  Untouchables are kept in a racist, caste system in India.  The genocide of the Karen People of Burma continues unabated.  Hindus forcibly convert thousands of Christians in Asia.  These are dark deeds which need the exposure only possible from Christians who care about The Church.  We surely expect such atrocities.  But we must never accept them.

(9) We Christians need to read our own Church history.  Why are Christians persecuted?  Marshall in his book The Blood Cries Out explains, “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.  Christians are silent witnesses to the sovereign God.  And evil men hate it.”  All the volumes I’ve already mentioned should be punctuated weekly by our encounter with websites like The Voice of the Martyrs.  The reminder as a call to action from Hebrews 13:3 stands out.  And while we pray and while we pay we can also engage—put into practice one or more of the suggestions mentioned this morning.  While we take Jesus’ words at face value from John that we will suffer persecution, His words from Matthew 25 ring true as well—to visit those in prison.  Expect persecution?  Sure.  Accept it?  Never.

It has been many years since my little five year old body had to fit under a desk for an air raid drill in Liverpool, New York.  It has been many years since the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  Ho Chi Min, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are thankfully gone from the world stage.  Oppressive regimes in Poland, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Chile, and El Salvador are mere pages of history now.  However, many evil people and many evil nations have arisen to take their place in the 21st century.  What is our obligation?  (1) Christians should support and encourage governments which desire to protect the righteous and reject wickedness; (2) Christians must speak out in social and political venues to keep the plight of persecuted Christians before the public eye; (3) “Human rights” is a key theme in the world and should be supported by believers in our culture as an ethic which proceeds from only the Christian worldview; (4) Christians must motivate and mobilize each other, that we not become dispassionate observers, rather activists against Christian persecution; (5) Christians must acknowledge that our doctrine of ecclesiology is very narrow, refocusing on The Church, universal; (6) We need scholars in The Church who will commit their lives to research on behalf of the oppressed; (7) Being people of compassion, we should promote law that shows the love and beneficence of God; (8) We are commanded as Christians to expose the works of darkness; and (9) We Christians need to read our own Church history to discover why we are persecuted.

This is what we should do.  This is the application of the lesson.  This is the “So What?” “Who cares?”  “Why should I listen to you today?” of Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”  We have an obligation as if it were a command. The world is our concern as Christians at Moody Bible Institute because this is the command of our Lord.  In our ministry opportunities we must strive to enact these principles outlined here today so that they might become the daily practice of what is referred to as our “spiritual formation.”  We do not flaunt ourselves on the world stage but we make our voices heard for those who cannot speak.  We do not seek promotion but we do make ourselves obnoxious before those who would flout protections for humans made in God’s image.  We do not accept praise from any on earth while making friends for heaven.  We do not set ourselves up as “the law” but we do stand under transcendent principles, pointing them out to all people.  We do not depend on military might to protect us but do acknowledge that God uses it in His good plan to act as His justice.  We do not want to make the news, but we do want persecution stories to “make” the news.  We do not want to forget history, nor do we want to repeat the history of persecution.  We do not speak for ourselves, nor for political power, nor to attain positions of authority, but for the God-given rights of all people, especially those in the household of faith.  And we base these beliefs on the premise that while it is expected, persecution of Christians should never be accepted.

Mark could no longer fit under that childhood desk.  However his stand with Voice of the Martyrs continues as does his abhorrence of totalitarian regimes.  As he has told his students for years, the only difference between fascism and communism is spelling.  This address was first given at a Moody Bible Institute chapel, 4 December 2004 as Associate Professor of Education.

[1] Nida, pp. 347-349.  Dana and Mantley, Grammar, p. 169.

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  1. This article comes as a great encouragement and challenge to me as an international student. I agree with what Dr. Eckel puts forward. It is a great privilege to be here to study, but my heart does break for the Christians and even non-christians in parts of the continent of Africa and around the globe where people are tortured for their faith, and “non-faith.” I am encouraged to do what is in my power to do. I am not effect less. God is with me in this endeavor

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