When I first signed up for overseas mission work, I hadn’t considered I was potentially putting myself at risk because of my faith.
After all, I grew up in a quiet Canadian prairie town where my classmates and I would say the Lord’s Prayer every morning before class started—at a public school. The only thing I feared as a Christian kid was whether or not I finished my homework for my confirmation class or if I’d make it home in time to catch Adventures in Odyssey on the Christian radio station after piano lessons.
It wasn’t until I was 23 and started engaging in international humanitarian work when I realized that people were being killed for something I was practically blasé towards. Once I started hearing stories of fellow missionaries or Christian nationals being taken hostage or disappearing, the reality started sinking in: Being a Christian is still dangerous—especially for nationals in developing countries.
To be honest, reading about Christian oppression in the Bible had never shocked me that much. No, it wasn’t okay for Christians to be persecuted, but it was a new faith movement back then—and rarely are radical new ideas well-accepted. Plus, Jesus was threatening. He made plenty of waves: reaching out to people at the margins, condemning income disparity, preaching a gospel of social justice and otherwise challenging legalism and the status quo.
What shocks me is that 2,000 years later, Christians are still being arrested, abducted, beaten, raped, tortured and killed because of their religious identity. Just last week, several Kenyan staff members from International Justice Mission were killed in Nairobi. Last year was the deadliest year for Christians in modern history, with over 7,000 Christians being killed for their faith. Has nothing changed?
Allow me to be blunt: Jesus was never the problem. If anything, he was a solution, bearing good news for everyone—no matter how messed up they were. He presented a unique opportunity for us to have a relationship with a God who loves, accepts, forgives and offers grace. Christianity at its core isn’t the issue—but can we really accuse other major world religions for being the problem, either? Can we really ignore that almost every major religious tradition places some form of emphasis on love and kindness in community, too?
What I believe is really wrong with our world is human brokenness. Humans were broken, prejudiced and struggled with sin 2,000 years ago, and we still struggle now. Jesus may be threatening to some, but it’s also brokenness, sin and misguided beliefs that incite hatred, fuel oppressive systems, corrode community and breed violence against the “other.”
Believe it or not, there’s good news tangled in that dark reality: We may be broken, but we are not powerless. If we’ve built oppressive systems, then we have the power to change them. If we’ve constructed harmful cultural values, then we can shift them.
Small steps we can take
Those things are possible, but they take time. As we work towards building those large-scale changes from the ground up, we can also work on some smaller things in the meantime, too:
1. Practice gratitude.
Be intentional about identifying the ordinary things you do—because going to church, joining faith-based groups or talking about God publicly is something others are dying for.
Of course, being thankful for our safety doesn’t do much for the safety of those in danger. But it does invite us into solidarity with our brothers and sisters who don’t have the luxury or right to religious freedom.
2. Support missionaries and pray for Christians in persecuted areas.
Caring for our brothers and sisters in high-risk areas is a tangible way of showing our love, support and solidarity. It’s never been easier to send encouraging emails or have Skype calls with missionaries or churches in other countries. We’ve never been more aware of current conflicts in order to pray more specifically. It’s never been more convenient for us to send funds to ensure our brothers and sisters in other countries can afford secure housing and live well despite stressful and dangerous conditions.
3. Examine the deeper issues in regions with high rates of religious persecution.
We do have religious-based violence and discrimination in North America. We’re not perfect here, either. But why does this kind of conflict claim lives in resource-poor regions lacking in human rights in such a high magnitude? Why is it that countries like Somalia and Afghanistan have among the lowest GDPs in the world and the highest rates of Christian persecution?
Sending discerning missionaries or equipping nationals in developing nations to spread the word of God isn’t a bad thing. But we can’t focus only on addressing people’s spiritual well-being while ignoring other needs. Would you trust someone who only wanted you to learn about God while you’re starving and struggling to provide an income for your family, at risk of malaria or waterborne diseases, or dying in childbirth?
Christian persecution is a serious problem, but it’s not always isolated. If we want to bring peace to a region, we need to address poverty, gender inequality, political stability, racism and other issues, too.
4. Examine the deeper issues closer to home.
Given the long history of Western colonialism, we can see why some members of the Global South might be resistant to anything associated with the West—including Christianity. Their quarrel may not be with Jesus alone—maybe it’s with imperialism. Their issue might not actually be with the Bible as it is with being dominated by global superpowers and oppressive politics.
Religious violence is never acceptable. Yet for those who bear a more reasonable resistance towards Christianity, we might want to ask why.
The reputation of our western identity
Maybe it is because of Jesus. Or maybe it’s also because the West hasn’t always been good for the rest of the world. We’ve used developing nations to exploit their workers, consume their natural resources and dump our electronic waste on their soil, contribute largely to sex tourism and launch well-intentioned charities that do more harm than good. We may not endorse any of these behaviors. In some cases, only the few elite actually participate in them. But unfortunately, it’s still tied to our western identity, which Christianity is often lumped into.
Yes, the problem behind martyring Christians is that people are broken and prone to sin. But Christians are broken, too. Christians persecute and kill people of other faiths, too. Yet all of us have a right to live without oppression. All of us need redemption. All of us need to know we’re loved by God even though we sin.
Addressing religious persecution is no simple task—and we have little human power over the extremes of radicalism or fundamentalism. But that doesn’t absolve us from doing the small things that are in our power to do. We all can help shift the cultural values and perceptions that justify violence.
Sometimes that means graciously hearing perspectives from other faiths and educating others about what Christianity is really all about.
And other times, it means we might want to do things differently closer to home, too.