Published as “Response to Persecution: An Evangelical Perspective” in Witness In Context Essays In Honour of Eardley Mendis, edited b Monica J. Melanchthon and George Zachariah (Tiruvalla: Christava Sahitya Samiti, 2007), pp. 206-214.
A key feature of the Evangelical understanding of witness is evangelism with conversion to Christ as a goal. Today this is coming under fire from two quarters. The religiously pluralistic environment in which we live looks at such an approach to conversion as hopelessly out of step with the way the world is moving. The religious fundamentalism, which responds with severity to challenges to ones faith, is responding with violence against those doing evangelism in many countries. This is certainly the case in Sri Lanka.
All three branches of the church, the Roman Catholic Church, the mainline churches and the newer evangelical “free” churches have been attacked in Sri Lanka. Sadly, some Christians have quickly made public proclamations that they are not the ones who are doing the converting. They have particularly sought to distance themselves from the newer Evangelical churches. Thankfully in other instances those from Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches have stood in solidarity with those being persecuted and sought to be of assistance to them.
How should Christians who are a minority in their land respond when fellow Christians and churches are attacked? One thing is certain—never should our motivation be one of tit-for-tat or revenge. I want to suggest a four-pronged response.
LOVING OUR ENEMIES
We live in a region where the understanding of the concept of honour requires that if someone hits us we must hit back. In some countries the so-called “honour killings” are sometimes even ignored by the authorities. This is totally different to the Christian understanding of honour. Paul said: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all” (Rom. 12:17). In Christianity the honourable thing is not to hit back.
Then there is the fact that Christ has asked us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). So the general response when we are hurt is to love our enemies. This is a teaching that is repeated over and over again in the Bible (Matt. 5:43, 44; Luke 6:27, 35). We are told, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). Referring specially to persecution, Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:14). Paul says of himself, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure” (2 Cor. 4:12b). Peter, writing to a church suffering persecution, said, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). Note that in this last verse a blessing is promised if we bless our persecutors.
This is a very strong case for loving and blessing those who persecute us, for radical personal non-retaliation. I believe the witness of history is that the reaction of Christians to persecution left a strong impression on their persecutors. After painful initial suffering, they left such a powerful impression upon their persecutors so that large numbers of people ended up coming to Christ.
A well known incident in the ministry of Sadhu Sundar Singh illustrates this point. When he was preaching on the banks of the Ganges River at a place called Rishi Kesh a man took a handful of soil and threw it in his eyes. Others in the audience were indignant about the way Sundar Singh had been treated and handed over this man, Vidyananda, to a policeman. When Sundar Singh came back after washing the sand off his eyes and saw what had happened, he begged for and secured the release of Vidyananda. Vidyananda was so surprised by this gesture that he fell at his feet asking for forgiveness. He expressed a desire to know more about the message of Sundar Singh, and he joined him in his travels.1
Our dream for our nations is that many people will come to Christ. It may seem impossible now, but that is how the conversion of the Roman Empire looked to the small persecuted band of Christians in the first century to whom the passages I quoted above were first written. We believe that a key to this opening of the nation to the gospel will be the winsome response of Christians to persecution.
Our prayer is that, when people in our nations get tired of the endless cycle of violence coming from revenge, they be challenged by seeing Christians refusing to take revenge and acting in love toward their enemies. When they get tired of the corruption that is ruining our prospects of national progress, may they be challenged by seeing Christians willing to suffer loss and taking on poverty because they refuse to break their principles. When people realise that all their wealth has not given them satisfaction may they be challenged by seeing Christians truly happy and contented by living godly lives, and through that may they realise that the life we have in Christ is the greatest gain (1 Tim. 6:6). Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). That is our ambition for the church.
Actually the persecuted Christians in the New Testament era looked forward to nothing short of world conquest by Christ (1 Cor. 15:24-28; Eph. 1:9-10 etc.). They saw their sufferings as temporary means towards achieving that end. That is how we see our sufferings too. Knowing that Christ is the truth, yearning for our nations to bow their knees to Christ and believing that Christ will conquer the world in the end influences our attitude to persecution. We do not panic and think that when persecution comes that is a huge catastrophe from which the church will not recover.
Of course, only a pure church where people truly love God can react this way. Sadly, our churches in South Asia are anything but pure. This is a much more serious problem than the persecution we are presently going through. We must pray that God will use this persecution to make our people truly holy which is the biggest need in the church today—a much bigger need that the need for persecution to be reduced.
SEEKING LEGAL RIGHTS FOR CHRISTIANS
Now that is one side of the coin. The other side is that the Bible shows that the early Christians did all they could to win legitimacy for Christians. In Philippi, when Paul and Silas were released after being unlawfully beaten, they did not meekly leave the prison. They protested that they had been treated like that even though they were Roman citizens (Acts 16:35-39). They wanted it recorded that Christians had been treated in an illegal way. Luke is careful to record that the proconsul in Corinth Gallio who was from a famous family and was a well-known figure in the Roman empire gave a verdict very favourable to the Christians (Acts 18:12-17). The early Christians did all they could to achieve a legitimate legal standing for Christianity and for evangelistic activity. Some scholars see this as one of the major themes of Acts.2
In the same way today Christians need to use the court system to appeal for our right to practice and proclaim Christianity. When something illegal is done against Christians we may need to go to the courts to agitate for our rights or against the actions that have harmed Christians. This is so that people are warned against the repercussions of doing it and will think twice before trying it again. In this way we help the whole church, not just ourselves.
If Christians are being denied a basic human right like access to the village burial place, it may be necessary for Christians not to give in when they are stopped from using the cemetery. They may need to grapple with the authorities until permission is granted. This has happened a few times in Sri Lanka. A lot of work needs to be done in a short time to secure a public burial place for a dead Christian. But it sets a precedent of Christians having the right to bury their dead in a public cemetery.
Sometimes it may be necessary to apply pressure on the authorities by using the pressure of foreign interest groups and governments. It may be necessary to highlight in the press nationally and internationally the injustices meted out to Christians. Recently the division on religious freedom in the US State Department has intervened effectively on behalf of persecuted Christians in some countries. Christians have disputed the wisdom of this as it buttresses the impression that the Christians are stooges of the Americans and that evangelism furthers American interests. It also increases the sense of resentment over a supposed disadvantage non-Christians have because of the “American power” that supposedly backs the Christians.
We must persevere in the work of evangelism though wisdom may cause us to adapt our methods according to the climate as we will show below. I have met many people who were severely persecuted during their first few years when they went as evangelists to areas where there were hardly any Christians. After about five years of attacks usually the persecution goes down and the Christians are accepted as legitimate members of the community. Some evangelists give up and move away to another area before that happens. Some give in to threats and stop their evangelistic work. Others doggedly persevere and see fruit that lasts.
Like the great apologists in the first few centuries, we must produce great thinkers who will devote their energies to producing material in defence of Christian belief and practice. This is a long-term strategy. We need Christian people who will grow in stature to become respected lawyers, politicians, journalists and economists. They can represent Christ to the nation better than we preachers can. This is a long term strategy, but we must be thinking about this and urging people in this direction.
It is very hard for Christian faith and practice to survive in some of these so-called “secular” spheres. Christians will have to be associated with groups that do some things which do not agree with the tenets of Christianity. They become guilty by association in the eyes of the rest of the church. Christians are sadly very fond of criticising fellow Christians who have penetrated some of these once-closed spheres. It would be necessary for those going into such spheres to have a group of Christians who are committed to stand with them and give them an opportunity for spiritual accountability. They could discuss the challenges faced from a Christian perspective and provide those in the secular fields with much needed spiritual support.
After all of this their influence may be minimal, but it could be significant. They could be the voice crying in the wilderness for moderation. Others will be encouraged by their boldness to join in the rejection of extremism. The influence of Esther in preventing the destruction of the Jews is well known. The challenge she faced has some remarkable similarities to the persecution struggle of Christians today.
Implied in what we have said above is the fact that Christians must get involved in the community in which they live, and they should participate in community events. Many Christian groups have failed here. They have usually stayed aloof from the community and thus buttressed the idea that they are an alien presence. This will be discussed below.
MINISTERING TO THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN ATTACKED
There is a third thing that needs to be done at this time: those affected by the attacks need to be ministered to. Physical attacks are very hard to endure. They humiliate the person; they produce fear of another attack; and they can produce severe anger over the way the person’s body or property has been violated.
Indeed we have seen people like Stephen who have reacted with wonderful faith when attacked. But my experience has been that some time after the attack people struggle with all sorts of difficult feelings. They become vulnerable to Satan’s attacks at this time. They could get over-discouraged and lose heart. They could become angry and develop vengeful feelings.
Another reason why Christians from outside need to help is that in times of persecution Christians could act rashly and in unwise ways. They could get too timid or too aggressive. Therefore this is a time when those who have been attacked need the support of the body of Christ. Other Christians need to be close to them and help them regain some balance as they go through different emotional moods.
When Peter and John were told for the first time that they must not speak in the name of Christ again, the first thing they did was to go “to their own people,” which is a literal translation of the Greek (tous idious). The ESV translates it as “to their friends” (Acts 4:23). If they cannot come to us we must go to them. Leaders must ensure that those who have been attacked are personally ministered to.
Sometimes persecution is triggered by unwise behaviour of Christians when they antagonise others by things that were not necessary to do. When the official told Daniel that he and his friends were going to be killed, “Daniel spoke to him with wisdom and tact” (Dan. 2:14, NIV) and through that was able to get the execution delayed until a solution to the king’s rage was found. It was in the context of a discussion on persecution that Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). Let me list some ways in which we can be wise in the present context.
A signboard announcing a Christian church in a prominent place may be offensive to people who believe that theirs is a Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim town. Until the church is an accepted entity in the community it may be wise to hold back putting prominent signboards.
Sometimes it is better to have larger church buildings in larger towns, where community solidarity is not so strong, and have house church meetings in villages until the group is an accepted entity in the community.
Loud worship often disturbs neighbours and causes unnecessary hostility, even though other religions also use loudspeakers whose loud messages or prayers are heard over a wide area. We should do all we can to minimise sound going outside the building so that the neighbours are not disturb. Several new churches in Sri Lanka have come to agreements before the police that they will control the sound going out of their sanctuaries. Some have started using air-conditioning. I know of one instance where several neighbouring churches contributed towards installing air-conditioning in a newly constructed church.
In keeping with Christ’s teaching that we are not of the world but are sent to the world (John 17:14-18), Christians must do all they can to become part of the community as salt and light. This may include involvement in community events and programmes like New Year celebrations; sporting activities; neighbourhood peace committees; school committees etc. Churches and Christian groups could give their buildings and facilities for community activities while stipulating some conditions like no smoking and drinking alcohol within the premises.
When there is a community disaster Christians should be the first on the scene in sacrificial service. This happened with the tsunami in Sri Lanka and resulted in much honour coming to the name of Christ. Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, has shown how the loving service of Christians during plagues and epidemics was a powerful influence in the conversion to Christianity of large numbers of people in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries.3
Christians need to recognise the accepted authorities of the community and give them the respect they should receive. Often, in practice, the real leader of a community in Sri Lanka is the chief monk of the Buddhist temple. If so, Christians need to give him the respect due to a society leader. During the tsunami relief operations often the relief supplies of evangelical groups was channelled under the patronage and guidance of the monk in the area.
When distributing material aid to the poor and needy and doing other kinds of such service we have to make sure that we do not give the impression that we are using unethical lures to coerce people into becoming Christians. For this reason, in the present climate, it may be necessary to separate large social projects from evangelistic programmes. Within the Evangelical movement there was a time when social concern was viewed as an enemy of evangelism. Then we had a time when social concern was used as a bridge to evangelism, as is seen the educational and medical ministries in South Asia during the colonial era. Now perhaps we need to view large social concern projects as being distinct from evangelistic programmes while being partners of it. We cannot make hard and fast rules here. But we need to be wise and sensitive to the ground situation.
So I am advocating a four-pronged response to persecution. Firstly, we are committed to radical personal non-retaliation. We will not resort to violence to achieve our ends. Instead we will demonstrate the power of the gospel by exemplary lives. Secondly, we are committed to using the existing structures to present a case for the legitimacy of Christianity and evangelism. Towards this end we develop strategies that will be effective and leaders who will be qualified in presenting the case for Christianity. Thirdly, we care for those who have been attacked and help to mitigate extreme reactions by them. And fourthly, we need to be wise in the way we carry out our witness.
May we be faithful at this time.
Note: I am happy to make a small offering in honour of my friend the Rev. Eardley Mendis and in memory of his wife Tamara whose beautiful Christian spirit was a great blessing to me. This request came at a time I was really busy with a backlog of many writing projects. I decided that I could not write a proper article but that I could expand a letter I wrote to a friend in Pakistan asking how the church should respond to the attacks it receives. I felt I could not pass up this opportunity to honour my friends.
Ajith Fernando has been National Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka since 1976. He is an author of several books including Sharing the Truth in Love (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishing and Mumbai: GLS).
1 Mrs. Arthur Parker, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God (Madras: CLS, 1918), p. 25-26.
2 John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
3 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Fransisco: HarperSan Fransisco, 1997), pp. 73-94.