Westmont Magazine Through Persecuted Eyes
Several years ago I became engrossed in a book about Marie Antoinette of French Revolution fame. What I discovered was a much different person than I expected. If she ever said, “Let them eat cake,” which is doubtful, it was most likely an honest suggestion. Marie Antoinette wasn’t callous so much as she was totally clueless. Once, at the end of a lavish royal banquet, she noted that the tables were still heavily laden with food. In a moment of great charity, she suggested to her husband Louis XVI that they might give the leftovers to the peasants, and the remains of the banquet were spread out on the street below. As the starving Parisians clawed over each other to lick up the food, Marie, gazing out the window, remarked to Louis, “How the peasants must love us! We are so good to them.” But crawling on their hands and knees among the food scraps, the peasants spat out their hatred and vowed to have the monarchs’ heads.
Fast forward to Sunday morning, September 16, 2001. In the numbed aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a prominent member of our community and pillar of our church stood up and asked for prayer for our nation. “How could this have happened in our country?” he asked in pained puzzlement. “We Americans are so good to the world! How could we be hated?”
Into my mind flashed the awful thought, “We are Marie Antoinette! We are totally clueless!”
Sitting in church that September morning, I was overwhelmed with a desire to see the world from a different perspective. What did it look like through eyes of poverty, of oppression, of hunger? To those who struggle to live for Christ in the areas of the world most inhospitable to His followers?
In the weeks that followed, a plan began to take shape. I would go and meet these people, and I’d listen to what they had to say. And I’d share what I learned. Americans are not a callous people. We must not be clueless, either. Partners International, a ministry which partners with indigenous ministries in the least Christian regions of the world, agreed to help me make contacts, and my editor at InterVarsity Press expressed interest in what I discovered. So I packed my bags and set off with traveling companions to talk to Christians in India and China, all across North Africa and into the Middle East. Others I met in diverse ways and at various places, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea and Sudan.
I heard stories of great suffering and of great love, stories that shook me to the roots of my soul, stories that confounded me, stories that caused me to weep, and stories that challenged me to be more than I ever thought I could be.
In Tunisia, we encountered believers who implored, “You are American Christians? Please, please, do not become divided!” Tearfully one man pointed to the dusty road and said, “You are standing on sacred ground. So deeply did this land flow with the blood of martyrs that to this day its traces remain in the dust. Once the church was strong here, yet three years ago there were only twenty known Christians in all of Tunisia.”
“Yes,” I said. “Wiped out by the Muslim hoards, weren’t they?”
“No,” he answered. “By the time the Arabs arrived, the church was so weakened by infighting that only an empty shell was left. But by God’s grace, that will never happen again. Christians in North Africa will be united!”
Everywhere I went, I asked, “How can your brothers and sisters in America pray for you?” In Morocco, where once a month Christians gather on Friday to fast and pray straight through until Saturday, the answer to this question astonished me: “If you want to pray for us, pray for yourselves. Half our prayer time is dedicated to the church in America. Our lives continually hang in the balance, and you are our only hedge of protection. If it weren’t for fear of your government, we wouldn’t be allowed to exist. If you weaken, we will be wiped from the face of the Earth. You want to pray for us? Then pray for unity and faithfulness to the gospel in your churches. That’s how we pray.”
In Egypt, most of the believers with whom I spoke worked within the relatively safe “Christian” community, but a few dared to venture out. There the penalties for “shaking the faith” of a Muslim range from prison to death. “But we can legally answer anyone who volunteers a direct question,” one woman told me. “So what we must do is live lives so faithful and humble and loving that others will see such a difference that they will be compelled to ask.”
As I talked to one very proper middle-aged Egyptian woman, who was dressed in a brocade suit and high-heeled shoes, I glanced down at her demurely folded hands and was taken aback. Could she actually be sporting a tattoo? I had to ask.
“Yes,” she said as she showed me the Coptic cross on her wrist. “Many of us have these. We feel certain that severe persecution is coming to Egypt, and we are not sure we will be able to stand up to it. We have chosen to have ourselves indelibly marked as followers of Christ so that we can never renounce Him, not even in our weakest moments.”
I talked to “untouchable” Dalits in India who face starvation for their faith. In China I met a well-positioned Communist official who worked in an office overlooking Tiananmen Square, but on Sundays she worshiped with other Christians in an illegal underground church.
Always, in each country, before I said good-bye, I asked if anyone had questions for me. In India, a Dalit woman hesitantly ventured, “I do. Did you ever go hungry because you were a Christian?”
I said I hadn’t.
“Did you ever have your house taken away?” another woman asked.
When I say I had not, a third inquired, “Did you ever lose your job?”
I shifted uneasily in my seat. “No,” I said.
“When people find out you are a Christian, do they throw rocks at you?”
“No,” I said. “That never happens.”
“Has anyone ever thrown you into a fire because you are a Christian?” This from the first woman again. I didn’t have to ask the source of the scars on her dark arms.
“No,” I said. “You see, in America, those things don’t happen. It’s against the law to throw people out of their houses or starve them or take away their jobs because of their religious beliefs. And no one is stoned or thrown into fires.”
The women stared uncomprehendingly. Then one asked, “But if it doesn’t cost you anything, how do you in America know what it means to be a Christian?”
As I was thinking about how to answer, the first woman asked, “If you in America did have to suffer, would you still be Christians?”
I swallowed hard, then I told her some of us would and some of us wouldn’t, and we needed them to pray for us that we would be faithful in hard times.
I returned from my travels profoundly moved. Those faces, I was certain, would be forever before me. Never for the rest of my life would a day go by that I wouldn’t pray for my sisters and brothers who suffered for Christ. And I thought my tears would never cease to flow. But I came home to piles of mail, loads of email, and an endless string of telephone messages. I had a book to write and talks to prepare. Soon days went by with no faces before me and not a single tear on my cheeks. Sometimes I didn’t even remember to pray for those who had moved me so profoundly. What was wrong with me? Was it as the women in India suggested… it just didn’t cost me enough?
The fact is, I could not have continued at that emotional intensity. Bearing one another’s burdens doesn’t mean becoming buried under their load. One woman in China told me, “To live as true Christians, to be like the Master, is not easy anywhere.” That’s true. What we are called to do is grow the Kingdom using the resources with which we have been entrusted, in the place we have been put, to the glory of God.
In China, I was invited to follow in a dizzying dash along the streets of Beijing, ducking into alleyways and courtyards and finally into the back door of the secret location of an underground house church. A little grey-haired lady shuffled into the cramped room, sat down at a table, pulled a pencil and folded paper from her pocket, and looked up at me with eager anticipation.
Glancing uncertainly from the woman to our translator, Su Ling, I asked, “What does she want?”
“She’s waiting for you to recite chapters from the Bible,” Su Ling said. “We look forward to whatever we can get.”
“Chapters?” I thought. Well, I did know some Psalms…
“Start with Romans,” Su Ling encouraged. “We have no access to Romans.”
Chapters from Romans? She had to be kidding! “I don’t know any chapters from Romans,” I admitted.
“You don’t have it either?” Su Ling asked.
“Oh, yes, we have it,” I explained. “But I don’t know it. I mean, I know it but I never memorized it…”
Su Ling translated, and the old woman fixed me with a gaze of disdainful disbelief. She stood up, folded her paper and put it back into her pocket, then turned her back to me and walked out of the room.
My favorite chapter of the Bible is Romans 8. If I had known it by heart, I would have been able to encourage those believers with the words of the Apostle Paul:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
And I could have said:
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
I could have proclaimed:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
Neither the present nor the future, nor any other power,
Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
Will be able to separate us from the love of God
That is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
But I couldn’t, because I didn’t memorize Romans 8 until I left China. But never again will I be at such a loss. I have learned too much from my sisters and brothers in the hardest places about what it means to live a responsible, successful Christian life.
(©2004 Kay Marshall Strom)
Kay Marshall Strom, author of 30 books, speaks at retreats and special events throughout the country. Her book, “Daughters of Hope, Stories of Witness and Courage in the Face of Persecution,” is available at bookstores or through her Web site, www.kaystrom.com.