Religious liberty and persecution: a global perspective
That’s the only word that comes to mind when I think about standing a hundred yards away from North Korean soldiers who were staring right back at me with weapons in their hands.
I was in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a small strip of land that cuts the Korean peninsula in half. Approximately 150 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, it serves as a buffer between North and South Korea and the allies they represent. Ironically, it is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
I stood in what is called the Joint Security Area, the only part of the DMZ that allows North and South Korean forces to stand face-to-face with one another. Years ago, this small village was designated as the location where negotiations between the two countries would take place. In the center of that area is a small blue building where international meetings occur. I walked into the building, where I saw a conference table with a white line running down the middle of it. During official discussions, South Korean officials sit on one side of that line while North Korean officials sit opposite them.
What was most eerie for me, though, was not coming out of that building and looking across the border at these North Korean soldiers whose eyes were fixed on my every movement (along with the few others who were with me). Instead, what was most eerie was contemplating the condition of people, and particularly Christians, living behind those soldiers.
Pressure on all sides
For many Christians in North Korea and in other countries where Christians are persecuted, societal pressure follows closely on the heels of government regulation as family, friends, religious fanatics, community leaders, and criminal mobs intimidate, threaten, harm, or kill men, women, and children who profess a certain faith. Such pressure accounts for much Christian persecution today. Syrian rebels disproportionately target Syrian Christians, abusing, raping, murdering, and beheading them. During one month alone in Egypt in 2013, 38 churches were destroyed, 23 others were vandalized, 58 were burned, 85 shops were looted, seven Christians were kidnapped, and six Christians were killed. The following month witnessed the worst attack on Christians in Pakistan’s history as suicide bombers exploded shrapnel-laden vests outside All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, murdering 81 church members and wounding more than 100. All of these stories, reported by The Gospel Coalition, represent persecution of Christians by people outside the official governments of these countries.
According to Open Windows, on the whole, an average of 100 Christians around the world are killed every month for their faith in Christ (and some estimates have this number much higher). Literally countless others are persecuted through abuse, beatings, imprisonment, torture, and deprivation of food, water, and shelter. Each occurrence of religious oppression represents an individual story of faith tested amid fire and trial. But these are not merely stories on a page for me. These are my friends. And I praise God for how they have endured the fire faithfully.
I think of Sahil in South Asia. He and his wife both grew up in Muslim homes. She came to Christ first, and then she introduced Sahil to Christ. As soon as their families discovered they had become Christians, Sahil and his wife were forced to flee their community. In the years that followed, they grew in Christ and in their desire to see their family know Christ. Slowly they renewed contact with their family members. Slowly their family members began to respond. They eventually welcomed Sahil and his wife back to their community, and from all appearances things were going well, until one day Sahil dropped off his wife for a meal with her family while he went to be with his family. His wife sat down at the table with her family and began to drink and eat. Within moments she was dead. Her own parents had poisoned her. When I met Sahil, I met a man who had lost his wife, but he had not lost his faith. He now works as a church planter in his country.
Becoming like Jesus
These stories are not surprising when you consider the words of Christ in the Gospels. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told his disciples. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:10-12). On a later occasion, when he sent these disciples out like “sheep in the midst of wolves,” he promised them that persecution would come. “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.” He concludes, “You will be hated … for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22). Even a cursory reading of Gospel passages like these reveals that the more we become like Jesus in this world, the more we will experience what he experienced. Just as it was costly for him to counter culture, it will be costly for us.
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Surrounded by the global reality of religious persecution, and driven by our love for God, we must act. We must pray and work for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers (see 1 Corinthians 12). In a land of religious liberty, we have a biblical responsibility to stand up and speak out on their behalf.
Moreover, in a country where even our own religious liberty is increasingly limited, our suffering brothers and sisters beckon us not to let the cost of following Christ in our culture silence our faith. May we not sit back and accommodate our culture in relative comfort while they stand up and counter their culture at great cost. May we realize with them that privatized Christianity is no Christianity at all, for it is practically impossible to know Christ and not proclaim Christ — to believe his Word when we read it in our homes or churches, and not obey it in our communities and cities. And may we remember with the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us that while our citizenship officially belongs to a government, our souls ultimately belong to God.
David Platt is president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, Counter Culture, (Tyndale, February 2015). This article was originally published in the winter 2015 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.