My Monday travel posts are usually filled with photos. Not today. They are also usually filled with details of where I went and what I saw, but again, not today. I want to write today about one of the most profound travel experiences of my life, but in order to avoid any chance of compromising the people I met there, I am making the place I’m reflecting on today anonymous. I’m talking about visiting a place where Christians are facing daily harassment and persecution, and how it would be a good thing for me to spend more time there.
In the last couple of weeks, the Western world has been horrified by the news of the kidnapping and trafficking of nearly 300 (mostly) Christian girls in Nigeria, an event which I have already shared some of my questions from. This week, similar heartbreak and outrage has been expressed over the news of a pregnant women sentenced to death in Sudan for marrying a Christian. How do we even begin to respond to such happenings which are so far out of the realm of our experience?
Well, the reality is that while these may be out of the realm of our experience, they are familiar to many. Data from the reputable Pew Research Center this year shows that 74% of countries in the world have some level of government interference with worship or religious practices, and in 48% of countries, force was used against religious groups or individuals in 2012. The religious group harassed and persecuted in the highest number of countries (151) continues to be Christians.
While Christianity has enjoyed privilege and power in the West over the last century (that I can’t help but think it never should have accepted), at the same time around the world many followers of Jesus have suffered and given their lives for what they believe. When Christians in the West complain about our loss of privilege, we arrogantly minimise the very real suffering of our brothers, and increasingly even more so, our sisters, around the world.
So, what did I love about visiting a place where Christians live with this reality every day?
I loved the incredible faith, perseverance and hope I saw in those I met. Despite living in circumstances I simply cannot fathom (despite having seen them firsthand), the Christians I stayed with encouraged and inspired me greatly. These people take their faith seriously. They take the words of Jesus seriously. They know the cost of following Him, and they have chosen to pay it, believing His promise that they are blessed in doing so.
I was particularly inspired by their whole-hearted devotion to their calling and mission. These people seek to share with their families, friends, and neighbours, the hope they have found in Jesus, and have committed their whole lives to that end. Not to mention that their knowledge of the Bible would put most of my colleagues in ministry to shame!
What have I learned from meeting Christians in places like this?
I am so profoundly humbled when I think of those I met there. They treated me with respect and grace, seeing me as someone who had something to teach them about following Jesus. The truth is quite the opposite. I have so much to learn from them.
Some of them talked about their desire to one day visit a place like where I live, to see churches worshipping freely in my country. God help me, but I wanted to pray that they would never get that chance. For I fear how disillusioned they would be. They assume that our freedom and comfort would cause us to be even more devoted and passionate about our faith and mission. Would that they were right.
These people follow in the footsteps of their Saviour, who suffered and was persecuted and told His disciples not to be surprised if they faced the same. They witness to His grace, passion, humility and self-sacrifice in the way they live their lives daily. What do I witness to? How can I preach a crucified Messiah who gives Himself up for the world when I have so much and have given up so little?
I am reminded of the words of Jesus: “It is harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” (Matthew 19:24) It is easy to assume that we are the fortunate ones , but Jesus warns us of the danger of our wealth, comfort and security.
When we hear about people suffering for their faith around the world, our great desire seems to be to want to “fix” things, as if making their lives more like ours will make everything better. Certainly I believe we should speak out about the kinds of grave injustices that have been in the news this week. But I also wonder whether we need to take more time to “sit with” those who are suffering persecution, whether physically or spiritually, and recognise that perhaps we are the ones who need to become more like them.
I pray for my brothers and sisters facing persecution for their faith around the world. I pray for peace and courage, for mercy and protection. But I pray too for myself and the church in countries like mine. Where comfort so easily leads to complacency, and privilege to a loss of passion. I wonder how we can learn more from those following Jesus in places like the one I dare not name but would love to visit again today.