This past Christmas day, 11 Nigerian Christians were beheaded for their faith by ISWAP (Islamic State West African Province), an Islamic terrorist group operating in Nigeria. A video of the beheadings was released on December 26, which shows 11 men on their knees, all wearing orange jumpsuits, with their hooded captors behind them. The first martyr is shot in the head while the other 10 are then beheaded. Just before the killings, one of the terrorists says, “This message is to the Christians in the world. Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge for the two dignified sheikhs.” Nigeria is a country of about 200 million people that is nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Some moderate Muslims have also been targeted by the extremist group; however, about 95% of those being held captive by ISWAP are Christians. The scene is similar to the recent execution of other Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya.
We read stories like this and see these images, images of Christians being tortured or put to death for their faith in places like the Middle East, China, North Korea, Vietnam, or Cambodia, just to name a few, and our hearts break for them, but at the same time we admire them. We admire their courage, their willingness to go like sheep to the slaughter for their faith in Christ. In that regard they stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before them, men and women, believers in Christ who understood that Christians have been called to suffer, and not just suffer ridicule or hardship in this life, but to suffer violently at the hands of men, Christians who believe so firmly that what lies beyond the grave is pure joy that they not only willingly but joyfully face death, knowing that to live is Christ but to die is gain (Phil 1:21). We are reminded of Christians like Polycarp (69-156 AD) who when told Roman soldiers were coming to apprehend him, his friends urged him to flee. He had plenty of time. He told them he would not flee for this is what it means to be Christian. When the soldiers arrived, he calmly let them in. When the time came for him to be burned at the stake and the soldiers were about to take hold of him and nail him to the stake so that he would not try and escape the fire, Polycarp said to them, “Leave me as I am. For he who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” Polycarp then stood there, voluntarily, praying aloud as the fire rose up around him. So also, the 11 Nigerian Christians simply stood there on their knees, awaiting their fate, willing to suffer for their faith. They do not appear to be resisting or struggling or even concerned. In fact, in one photo, before they are masked, one of the captives seems to be almost smiling. As if he were thinking, ‘These terrorists are about to do me a favor by sending me to my reward.’
We read stories like this and we cannot help wondering how we would respond in a similar situation? As we watch the news and we witness the growing hostility to Christianity in the United States, we wonder what will happen when serious persecution comes to American Christians, the kind of persecution experienced by many of our brothers and sisters living in predominantly Muslim or Communist nations? If recent events are any indication, American Christians will not suffer serious persecution like sheep being led to the slaughter. So long as we live under the Second Amendment and so long as Smith & Wesson make men equal, American Christians will not willingly suffer for their faith but will only go down in a blaze of glory. The scene of 11 Nigerian Christians kneeling, about to be beheaded for their faith, would be replaced with a scene reminiscent of the O.K. Corral. Make no mistake, American Christians are willing to die for their faith; they are just not willing to do so without a fight. It’s a part of our American psyche. From the Boston Tea Party to the raising of the “Come and Take It” flag at the Battle of Gonzalez, Americans have never been good at ‘turning the other cheek.’ But what message does it send to the watching world when believers who bear the name of Christ say we want to be like Christ, our Savior, and are willing to suffer and die for our faith in Christ just as he was willing to suffer and die for us, and yet when serious persecution does come we are all too quick to draw our weapons and defend ourselves? The apostle Paul exhorted us to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), and “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). Paul left us an example of what it looks like for a mere human to live as Christ lived, and by his own account, five times he was flogged, three times he was beaten with rods, and once he had rocks bounced off his head (2 Cor. 11:24-25), and not one time did he ever lift a finger to defend himself. He willingly suffered violence for his faith in Christ.
To be fair, some have argued that Paul was single and did not have a family to care for and protect, and that we have no New Testament example of a local church, comprised of men, women, and children, being attacked. How would the New Testament church have responded? What advice would the apostles have given in that situation? It is true that we do not have any New Testament example to go on, but we do have two-thousand years’ worth of examples of local churches existing in hostile nations and how they responded to violent persecution for their faith. We don’t even have to go that far into the past. In April 2019 a Christian church in Egypt was attacked by a mob armed with sticks and knives during Sunday worship services. According to Persuection.org “a large iron gate delayed the mob in their assault which allowed local police to arrive and disperse the crowd. However, the mob was still able to inflict damage on the church and injure several Christians.” As a means of protection, the church locks itself in with a large iron gate just before each service begins. One quote I found interesting is that “one local Christian woman said, ‘The hardest emotion in that incident is the kids lived the incident in the reality. They saw the extremists attacking the church and how they injured the priests. This incident will hurt them psychologically in the future.’” I wonder how American children will be psychologically impacted by witnessing a fellow Christian putting several rounds through the chest of an attacker inside the sanctuary. To the Egyptian children being a Christian will mean being willing to suffer and possibly die for your faith. To the American children being a Christian will mean be willing to carry a gun and take the life of someone else so that we might practice our faith. In a similar scene, in March 2018 a Christian church in Pakistan was attacked by a Muslim mob wielding axes and sticks during Sunday morning worship services. Many were subsequently injured. A simple internet search of “Christian churches attacked by mob on Sunday” will produce numerous articles and stories similar to these churches all around the world who gather together on Sunday morning with their husbands, wives, and children, knowing their lives are at stake, knowing the lives of their children are at risk. In every one of these stories one must wonder why these local churches don’t arm themselves with similar weaponry being used against them. In most of these nations, average citizens do not have the right to possess firearms, but certainly churches could stockpile sticks, knives, axes, and machetes. Why don’t they? Father George aptly answered this question after his church was attacked on Palm Sunday 2017 when he made a public statement to the church’s attackers: “You gave us to die the same death as Christ–and this is the biggest honor we could have. Christ was crucified–and this is our faith. He died and was slaughtered–and this is our faith….We thank you because you gave to us to fulfill what Christ said to us: ‘Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves’ (Luke 10:3). We were lambs; our only weapons: our faith and the church we pray in. I carry no weapon in my hand. We are so grateful that you helped us fulfill this saying of Christ.”
Christians living in third-world countries understand what it means to be Christian. They understand what it means to be like Christ—it means being willing to suffer and die for your faith; it means being willing to be led like a sheep to the slaughter. But in a country were citizens have the right to keep and bear arms, where we elevate and honor men like Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, and George S. Patton, where we glamorize ‘how the West was won,’ where we take pride in the American fighting spirit, and say things like ‘God made man, but Smith & Wesson made them equal,’ it is difficult for us to understand how Christians in other nations can allow themselves to be viciously attacked. The answer is quite simple. In countries that are predominately non-Christian, to be a Christian is to be distinctly different from the nation and from one’s fellow citizens. To convert to Christianity in a nation that uses violence as a common means of influence is to reject that nation’s culture of violence and—to a large degree—to no longer identify with that nation. However, in the United States, since the birth of our nation, to be American is to be Christian and to be Christian is to be American, to have a Bible in one hand and gun in the other makes as much sense has having a fork in one hand and a knife in the other. The result is that when Americans convert to Christianity, they bring much of their American-ism with them. And Americans defend their rights—including the right to keep and bear arms and the right to practice their religion. And the Second Amendment is there to ensure and protect the First Amendment. The result is a syncretistic belief and practice that falls short of biblical Christianity, that makes it difficult for the world to see the Church as the hands and feet of Christ when those hands are gripping the handle of a semi-automatic handgun. It makes it difficult for the world to take us seriously when we teach that Christians are to love their enemies and turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39), and yet rarely do they see Christians actually turning the other cheek. When American Christians are offended by their church, they find a different church or stop going all together. When American Christians face persecution for their faith in the workplace or in school, they file a lawsuit. When American Christians are violently attacked on Sunday morning, they shoot back. It begs the questions: What does it mean to turn the other cheek and when does it apply? The answer is elusive to the American Christian. Turning the other cheek is simply not relevant in our modern American culture.
Now some who are reading this article are probably thinking I am suggesting that when Christians are attacked in church, they should simply sit there, motionless, and allow themselves to be systematically killed. You would be wrong to think that. Paul fled from persecution when given the chance (Acts 9:23-25). And in the examples cited above of churches being attacked, and in many other examples, the church members did all they could to protect themselves and their families, while at the same time respecting the human life of their attackers who are made in the image of God. They did all they could to protect their families without resorting to deadly force, for to do so would make them no different than their attackers, no different that the nation they reside in, no different than the culture of violence they converted from. To be the face of Christ in a dark and evil world is to reflect the paradoxes of God. The world says, ‘You need to look out for yourself.’ God says, “The first will be last and the last will be first” (Matt 19:30). The world says, ‘You need to promote yourself.’ God says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:11). The world says, ‘Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.’ God says, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor. 6:7). The world says, ‘Don’t ever start a fight but if someone else starts it, you better finish it.’ God says, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). The world says, ‘We will use violence to stop Christianity.’ God says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). There are numerous other means Christians could use to protect themselves against armed attackers coming into the church. The problem is that every other option is unappealing to our American-ism.
However, there is something every American Christian can and should do to prepare for the violent persecution that will inevitably come to the United States (see It’s the Beginning of the End). They can spend more time in fervent prayer, immersing themselves in God’s word, and doing whatever else they can to fortify their faith so that when violent persecution comes they will be able to face it as Christ would, as Paul would, or as Polycarp would, and be able to say, ‘There is no need to bind me to the stake. I will willingly stand here and sing praises to my God as the fire consumes this perishable body that it may be replaced with an imperishable one!’