This column was co-authored by Bob Morrison
The nineteenth century French painting, Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer--today hangs in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. It has not lost its capacity to shock. In the Roman Circus, the small flock of Christians is huddled in the sand, kneeling around their aged pastor. We see weeping little children, whole families gathered. In the stands are tens of thousands of people, none of whose faces are visible, but they are colorfully dressed, awaiting a special entertainment. The scene is eerily lighted by flaming crosses. Looking more closely, however, we see those crosses bear Christians, covered in pitch and set aflame. Their suffering, at least, will be brief. Out of the depths beneath the Circus stride lions a single tiger. The lead lion advances menacingly toward the Believers.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, the painter, may have wanted Christians of his time to remember the sacrifices necessary to build the magnificent civilization he and his contemporaries then enjoyed. The sky in this painting is dark and threatening. It symbolizes an age in classic antiquity that was both technologically advanced—look at architecture!—and spiritually stunted.
For France in 1883, it was the Belle Epoque. That was when Paris was being rebuilt as the beautiful City of Light we know today. In that year, steamships traveled the world’s oceans and Europeans sought to bring the benefits of railroads, schools, medical clinics, and the Gospel to many lands around the world.
All of that “imperialism” is today viewed with unalloyed horror by the intelligentsia of the West. The cultured despisers of religion think that persuading Indians to give up suttee—the practice of burning living widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres is cultural imperialism. Teaching native peoples in Africa not to kill newborn twins and chase their mothers into the bush to be devoured by lions is seen as imposing an alien values system on others.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that so little attention is being paid to Christian persecution in the Third World today. Our modern world—so technologically innovative—is morally and spiritually closer to that Roman Circus than we might like to admit. World Magazine, an Evangelical publication, is almost the only national news outlet that takes Christian persecution seriously. In the current issue, journalist Jamie Dean has provided a broad view of Christian persecution in the Mideast. It leads us to ask: Why should Christians anywhere view the “Arab Spring” with approval? Why should American Christians, in particular, join with the Obama administration in hailing every step they think they see toward greater democracy? Democracy requires more than people voting. In Egypt, there has been a sharp increase in the murder of Coptic Christians.
This administration entered office pledging to deal more openly with Iranian mullahs. These are the same men who jailed Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, 32, for the “crime” of sharing his faith with others. Reporter Dean makes clear that the recent release of Pastor Nadarkhani may have had more to do with the mullahs trying to avoid more stringent Western economic sanctions than with any lessening of their cruelties toward Christians.
Christians are familiar with the Bible passage in the Book of Acts where Jesus speaks to Saul. “Why do you persecute me,” Jesus asks. Saul is on his way to Damascus. How very appropriate this passage is to our own day. For it is in Damascus that Christians are being newly endangered. And when that is the case, it is not just Jesus’s followers are being persecuted, it is Jesus Himself. We have His word on that.
As we approach this Sunday’s International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, it is good to remember that we are citizens, too. We should pray for our brethren suffering all over the bloody crescent. And we should recall that when Saul became Paul he did not give up his Roman citizenship. He used that citizenship to advance God’s purposes on earth. As Christian citizens of this great republic, we can certainly cry out against persecution at home and abroad. And we can make our voices heard. John F. Kennedy said it well: "Here on earth, God's work must truly be our own."