by Abhijit Nayak
Suffering and martyrdom have strengthened, extended, and purified the Church and attracted non-believers to the Christian faith. Nayak looks at India as an example of church growth through persecution.
It is no exaggeration to state that the persecution of Christians in recent years is as significant as the persecution found in early Christianity. However, the persecution of Christians in Majority World countries today remains unknown to the world at large, especially to the West. Ronald Boyd-McMillan writes, “The fuller story of the contemporary persecuted Church remains a tragically untold story. There is a grander and greater narrative of God’s action underneath the stories of individual pain, suffering, deliverance, and endurance” (Boyd-McMillan 2006, 13).
It is surprising then that Western Christianity often exhibits blissful ignorance or willful negligence to understand God’s action underneath the experiences of persecuted Christians. Here I begin to explain why persecution stands at the heart of the Christian Church today.
Figures and Definitions Controversy
Persecution and martyrdom continue to play a major role in the local, national, and global history of Christianity.
Here are some statistics:
• Seventy million Christians have been killed for their faith in 220 countries across 20 centuries during 33 AD-2000 AD (Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson 2001, 11).
• At least 45.4 million Christians were martyred during 1900-2000 alone, more than all other centuries combined, 24 million (2001, 11).
• The number of martyrs over the years 2000-2010 is one million (Johnson, Barrett, and Crossing 2011, 28-29).
• The prospect figure of Christian martyrs over the years 2011-2025 is shown as 150,000 per year (2011, 28-29).
We do not have evidence to support or refute these claims. Numbers can be misleading and figures overly hyped, but the fact that Christians face persecution for the sake of their faith and the stark reality of martyrdom in our world today is undeniable.
“Persecution” remains a vaguely-defined omnibus word. Several books about persecution provide no definition at all. Nina Shea’s In the Lion’s Den (1997), which became the manifesto of evangelical conservative Christians in the 1990s, never defines the term, but provides extensive accounts of shocking incidents of persecution around the world.
Nor does David Limbaugh’s 416-page book, Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity (2003), define the term. Paul Marshall’s Their Blood Cries Out (1997) does have clear definitions, but they are contradictory. On the one hand, he defines the term as “the denial of any of the rights of religious freedom,” and uses terms like “harassment” and “discrimination” (Marshall 1997, 11). On the other hand, he uses the term to refer to “instances which are severe but are somewhat less than genocide” (1997, 248).
Others define “persecution” inconsistently and interchangeably. The World Evangelical Alliance’s (WEA) report to the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights says, “Persecution usually passes through three phases,” two of the phases being “disinformation” and “discrimination,” but the third phase is also called “persecution” (WEA 2004, 3). “The Persecuted Church, Lausanne Occasional Paper 32” argues on the one hand that “suffering and persecution are inevitable for those who follow the Lord Jesus” (Sookhdeo 2005, 40). On the other hand, the paper describes the situation in the West: “While the deteriorating situation in the West does not (yet) merit the term ‘persecution,’ it should be recognized that there is a reduction in religious freedom which is primarily affecting Christians” (2005, 40). I would then ask, If persecution is truly inevitable for followers of Christ, and yet no one is persecuted in the West, then is no one in the West a follower of the Lord Jesus?
If martyrdom does not provide a complete understanding of persecution, then what is persecution?
A persecuted house-church leader argues, “No Christian can truly call them[selves] persecuted unless they have been in jail for their faith. You have to be beaten, thrown in jail, or lose your life. That’s persecution. Merely to have lost a career—that’s unfortunate, but it’s not persecution” (Boyd-McMillan 2006, 87).
David Barrett and Todd Johnson discuss and define persecution in terms of martyrdom in their “martyr statistics.” This precise definition limits the concept only to martyrs and fails to include many related actions such as torture, discrimination, and oppression. In order to understand and grasp the story of God’s action, “martyrdom” cannot be the major element. Boyd-McMillan argues that “if all you focus on is the story of the martyrs, you will never understand the story of the persecuted church! Martyrdom is the dazzling tip of the iceberg that hides the dark bulk of the body” (Boyd-McMillan 2006, 22).
If martyrdom does not provide a complete understanding of persecution, then what is persecution? Christians must critically evaluate the definitions in the light of scripture.
Jesus’ words for persecution in Matthew 5:11 and Luke 6:22 include hatred, rejection, insults, slander, and false accusation. The verb form of “persecution” literally means “to pursue.” In John 15:19-20, Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
I agree with Boyd-McMillan’s definition of persecution: “Any hostility, experienced from the world, as a result of one’s identification with Christ. This can include hostile feelings, attitudes, words, and actions.”
Yet identification is not sufficient according to Jesus (Matt. 7:22-23). We need to understand persecution from a relational understanding that is “because of [Jesus]” (Matt. 5:11). Understanding persecution goes beyond socio-political definitions; we must gain a biblical understanding.
Making Sense of Suffering: A Look at India
The conditions under which persecution occurs are complex and multifaceted. Western Christians feel uncomfortable with the word and are sometimes unwilling to hear of persecution and martyrdom in other countries.
They might even thank God that they do not experience persecution in their country. Theologian Scott Cunningham remarks, “North American Christians may neither experience persecution nor be aware that others do” (Cunningham 1977, 340-341). In this case, how can North American Christians demonstrate solidarity for the sake of and with the most afflicted members of Christ’s body and make sense of suffering?
I limit my discussion to India, referring to the physical persecution of Christians, including death, torture, and displacement. Persecution remains most tragic and intense in northern Indian states. My own state of Orissa is one of those greatly affected. According to one assessment, there were at least sixty attacks on churches in Orissa between 1986 and 1998—the highest of any Indian state (Martis and Desai 1999, 24).
Referring to the 2008 Hindu-Christian violence in Orissa, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed Orissa on its “Watch List” for the government’s inadequate response to protecting religious minorities (USCIRF 2009).
In 2007-2008, 120 Christians were murdered and 5,000 churches, Christian houses, and mission offices were destroyed. Nearly 52,000 Christians were displaced from their homes in Orissa alone (Mandryk 2010, 436).
This type of persecution is rarely seen in Western societies where Christians enjoy religious freedom. Despite the persecution, Indian Christianity has grown both in number and faith during the last decade. Hindu extremists accuse Christians of being worshippers of the “God of America” and Christianity as an “imported religion.” Hindu nationalists are fearful of the conversion of Hindus to Christianity. Intellectual persecution (anti-Christian writing and publication) against Christians is rampant.
Most of us usually encounter the persecuted Church by hearing or reading a story of someone who has suffered greatly for God but has been triumphant through suffering and persecution. Testimonies like these make us marvel at the power of God. Stories of deliverance and endurance testify to God’s faithfulness and rescuing power. They are a boost to Christian faith, life, and practice.
On the mission front, we also have great stories of God at work through persecution. On January 23, 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, Philip and Timothy, were burned alive in Manoharpur village, Orissa. Gladys Staines, widow of Graham, shared that a single act of forgiveness had a greater impact on the Indians than all the sermons combined. She writes, “I heard a story from someone in a neighbouring state who was distributing tracts. One man who received a tract asked, ‘Is this the same Jesus that [Gladys Staines] believes in? ‘Yes,’ the Christian said. The man replied, ‘I want to know that Jesus’” (Staines 2003, 15).
To make sense of suffering, Western Christians must encounter the persecuted Church in order to recover essential insights of the basics of the Christian faith. Persecuted Christians in Orissa grow strong in their faith in the midst of beating and torture. Underneath these stories is a challenge to Western Christians: we need to experience hardship to live out the wonderful truths of scripture.
Making sense of suffering will require Western Christians to ask the persecuted for help. Whenever Western Christian leaders and short-term teams go on mission trips, they are eager to preach, teach, and minister to persecuted Christians. This initial attitude is unfortunately typical of many Western Christians—they think of persecuted Christians solely in terms of the ones needing help. Persecuted Christians are rarely given the opportunity to minister to those who have never gone through suffering and persecution. Persecution stories told by Christians who have suffered for Christ will help Western Christians to make sense of suffering. (See below for one story.1)
God’s Strategy and the Church’s Weapon
Persecution is seen most frequently in contexts with a significant Islamic presence (e.g., Sudan, Indonesia, or Saudi Arabia), Hinduism (e.g., India and Nepal), and to a lesser extent, Buddhism (e.g., Myanmar) and traditional oral religions (e.g., Africa and Oceania). Here I am referring to violent persecution in countries where it is sporadic and intense. In these countries, active church participation is far greater than in most Western nations. Christians are vibrantly strong in their faith.
More missionaries are being sent out from these countries than from any European nation. Within a few years churchgoers in China may outnumber those in the United States of America (Noll and Nystrom 2011, 9). Operation World (2010) and Atlas of Global Christianity (2010) estimate that the Christian percentage in India is 5.84%. Tim Stafford recently highlighted the growth of Christianity in India in spite of persecution and hostile situations (Stafford 2011).
Indian Christianity is growing not just in spite of, but often because of persecution (see Jenkins 1999; Johnson and Ross 2009). God’s mission is not always what we think it should look like: “Mission is not a triumphalist enterprise. It is by definition done in weakness” (Bosch 1993, 182).
Words such as “persecution,” “suffering,” and “martyrdom” are foreign to many in the West, but they are normal for Christians living in Hindu, Islamic, and totalitarian contexts. If persecution and suffering are part of “normal” Christian life, then why do we perceive them negatively?
While textbooks on Christian theology devote much space to doctrine, they often give relatively little space to the theology of persecution, suffering, and martyrdom. In the succinct words of a Sri Lankan theologian Ajith Fernando, “Today in the church we have a lot of emphasis on a therapy for suffering but insufficient emphasis on a theology of suffering, which must form the basis of all therapy for suffering” (Fernando 2007, 11).
The cross of Christ is at the heart of mission. It represents suffering and persecution. And there is a growing call for a theology and sound understanding of persecution and suffering from those who have been living under adverse circumstances.
The stories of persecuted Christians are encouraging and challenging. Various pieces of literature inform us that Christian faith, life, practice, and theology were shaped by the very experience of the persecution of Christians of the early Church. Never before has the well-known epigram of North African theologian Tertullian—“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”—from the early third century been truer than it is today. This provides us with a number of lessons: (1) persecution belongs to the nature and function of Christ’s Church, (2) the Spirit purifies, and (3) the Spirit has opportunity to purify when Christians trust him in the time of persecution.
Surely, persecution calls for the unfailing solidarity of Christ’s Church with persecuted Christians worldwide. Herbert Schlossberg aptly writes, “Persecution is not a passing problem to be ‘solved’ but a perpetual condition to deal with, a normal part of our expectation of life” (1991, 115). In fact, “Persecution is a storm that is permitted to scatter the seed of the Word, dispersing the Sower and reaper over many fields. It is God’s way of extending his kingdom” (Kim 1975, 57). Persecution has been one of the major factors in the propagation and evangelization of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout history.
Behind the theology of suffering and persecution lies the dimension of confessing and witnessing. Witnessing is the most profound dimension of martyrdom. The word “martyr” means “to be a witness,” “to come forward as a witness,” and “to bear witness to something” (Schneider 1977, 475). The rapid spread of the early proclamation of the gospel occurred as believers scattered to different places due to persecution. This very persecution also brought believers together into close relationship (1 Thess. 2:14; 1 Pet. 5:9). The martyrdom of believers also attracted people from other faiths into the fold of Christianity. It was with the understanding of sacrifices, shame, persecution, and even death that early Christians confessed their faith and witnessed to Christ’s salvation during major persecutions.
The history of the Christian faith has been one of persecution and suffering. This is the norm of Christian faith, life, and practice. Suffering and martyrdom have strengthened, extended, and purified the Church and attracted nonbelievers to Christian faith.
A theology of persecution and suffering helps us to understand God’s mission through suffering and persecution. The Apostle Paul prayed, “That I may know him, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering” (Phil. 3:10). If we do not care enough for our fellow Christians who are persecuted in the hard places of the world, then we do not know Jesus and his fellowship of suffering. Indeed, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).
1. For more persecution and endurance stories, see www.persecution.com or www.opendoorsusa.org.
Barrett, David. 2002. “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2002.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26(1):23.
Barrett, David, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson. 2001. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions, AD 30 to 2200, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boyd-McMillan, Ronald. 2006. Faith that Endures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell Books.
Cunningham, Scott. 1977. Through Many Tribulations: Theology of Persecution in Luke-Acts. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
Fernando, Ajith. 2007. The Call to Joy & Pain. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.
Jenkins, Philip. 1999. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Todd M., David Barrett, and Peter F. Crossing. 2011. “Christianity 2011: Martyrs and the Resurgence of Religion.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35(1):28-29.
Johnson, Todd and Kenneth R. Ross, eds. 2009. Atlas of Global Christianity 1910-2010. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Kim, Billy. 1975. “God at Work in Times of Persecution (Acts 7:54-8:8).” In Let the Earth Hear His Voice. Ed. J. D. Douglas, 57-59. Minneapolis: World Wide Publications.
Mandryk, Jason, ed. 2010. Operation World 2010. Colorado Springs/Secunderabad: WEC/Biblical.
Marshall, Paul. 2000. Religious Freedom in the World. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.
Martis, Vijay and M. B. Desai 1999. Burnt Alive. Mumbai: GLS.
Noll, Mark A. and Carolyn Nystrom. 2011. Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia. Downers Grove, Ill.:
Schlossberg, Herbert. 1991. A Fragrance of Oppression. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.
Sookhdeo, Patrick, ed. 2005. “The Persecuted Church,” Lausanne Occasional Paper 32.” Pattaya, Thailand: Lausanne International Committee for World Evangelization.
Stafford, Tim. 2011. “India’s Grassroots Revival.” Christianity Today. Accessed July 10, 2011 from www. christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/july/indiagrassroots.html.
Staines, Gladys. 2003. “The Power of Forgiveness.” Decision Magazine, 15.
Taylor, William D., Antonia van der Meer, and Reg Reimer. 2012. Sorrow and Blood: Christian Martyrs in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “USCIRF Places India on Watch List.” Accessed March 14, 2011 from www.uscirf.gov/news-room/uscirf-in-the-news/2668-81209-uscirf-places-india-on-watch-list.html.
World Evangelical Alliance, Geneva Report. 2004. Accessed June 14, 2011 from www.worldevangelical.org/rlc.
“Choose Jesus or choose your family!” Mannu’s parents threw down the gauntlet. She chose Jesus, and never saw her parents again. Mannu had been living in India, but one year after her marriage she and her husband relocated to their native Nepal. At that time, it was illegal to witness to Hindus, and evangelists faced a six-year prison sentence. In spite of the threat, they immediately began a church in their living room. Some of the first believers were neighbor women whom Mannu taught to sew. They believed, and brought their husbands. Today, the church has more than two thousand members. Mannu’s husband was arrested, but he was freed on bail while his case was pending.
Eight years later, his case finally came to court. He was sentenced to six years in jail, followed by banishment. His lawyer advised him to activate the banishment at once, rather than go to jail. Although he did, Mannu stayed and appealed the case to the king. If the appeal failed, she would be imprisoned in her husband’s place. She was at peace with that, for she felt her husband’s ministry was more important in that area.
When Mannu first learned of her husband’s arrest, their children were in boarding school in India. She traveled to the school and talked to them about the joy and suffering that comes with serving the Lord. Then she told them their father had been taken. “How come Daddy gets all the privileges?” was her oldest daughter’s response. Since then, that girl has graduated from Vellore Medical School and returned to Nepal to provide medical care for her people. Mannu’s husband was let out of prison and in time received awards from the Ministry of Education for Nepali textbooks, which he had written in exile. (Taylor, van der Meer, and Reimer 2012, 82)
Abhijit Nayak is from Orissa, India, and is a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 274-281. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.