Christianity and Religious Persecution

William Payne Portrait

Dr. William Payne

By Dr. William Payne

Recently, much of the world was shocked and dismayed by the brutal murder of a young couple in rural Pakistan when their garbage man falsely accused the pair of desecrating the Koran after he found pages of the sacred book in their trash. Following the accusation, a local religious leader inflamed violent passions by telling the people to uphold the honor of their Prophet. Like most of the Christians in the region, the couple worked as indentured servants. Before the killings, the couple’s “employer” broke their legs so they could not flee. Afterward, a hostile crowd of over 1,200 villagers took the man and wife to a brick kiln, severely beat them, burned their clothing while holding them over a fire, and then threw them alive into the fiery kiln. The entire time the pair begged for mercy, apologized, and said they were innocent of the blasphemy charge. The wife was five months pregnant. They left behind four children.

The graphic story is the tip of a mushrooming iceberg. In fact, religious minorities are persecuted all over the world. According to a 2012 Pew Report, 74 percent of the world’s population lives in places where there are high levels of social hostility toward religious minorities.

The percentage continues to grow each year. The problem disproportionately affects Christians because they live as religious minorities all over the world. In fact, Christians in 151 countries suffered sustained persecution between 2006 and 2012. According to a 2013 report by Reuters, over 100 million Christians suffer persecution each year. That number does not include the recent ethnic cleansing committed by the Islamic State or atrocities by perpetrated by Boko Haram. It should be noted that persecution is not restricted to Islamic countries. Christians in North Korea, China, Vietnam, India, Cuba, and Thailand also report persecution.

Americans tend to view this issue through the lens of an American culture that cherishes freedom of religion and fundamental human rights. However, the saints of the New Testament and early church did not approach religious persecution from the perspective of individual rights. They endured suffering on behalf of God’s kingdom because the kingdom was center, not the rights of the individual. Through their suffering, they believed that they advanced the kingdom. For that reason, suffering had redemptive meaning. Additionally, they encouraged one another with the faith that martyrdom led to eternal reward. In light of this, they lowered their earthly expectations and endured suffering. Too much talk about individual rights shifts the focus from God and heaven to me and now. That is a prescription for compromise.

Some years back, I visited with an Indian Christian who talked about the privilege of suffering for Jesus. My visceral response caused me to disagree. However, when I remember the example of saints who willingly gave their lives as witnesses for Jesus, I realize that suffering for Christ is a means by which Christ witnesses to those who abuse him.

William P. Payne, PhD is the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary. He is currently on Study Leave in Medellin, Colombia.

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