Thursday, May 1, 2014

Global Persecution, Suffering, and Friendship



Global Persecution, Suffering, and Friendship

Why should Western Christians care about the persecution, suffering, and poverty of Christians in other places of the world? The question at first glance, seems an obvious one, but I think it requires full reflection, so we may have a right working theology, the kind of theology that allows us to act today. The question is further complicated when we consider that to follow Jesus in the here and now, in our little spheres of influence, can be quite rigorous. We have people to prayer for, marriages to nurture, children to raise, job duties, active roles in our churches and ministries. All of this requires daily, if not hourly work. How then can we look outside our spheres to our sister in Honduras or our brother in Uganda? Is that even achievable for your regular day to day Christian? I hope to show that care for Christians around the world and not just in our immediate sphere is essential to the Christian life and that not only can we do it, but be blessed by it.
            The most compelling reason to care for our brothers and sisters in other places of the world is just this: they are brothers and sisters. Jesus through his work and person, has given us a new family, and it requires a portion of the care and attention that we give our own biological family. During his active ministry Jesus continually refers to his followers as his family and they are equally important to his biological family, in fact he makes no distinction between the two. “Then he looked around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother,” (Mark 3:35). Even if they look, sound, or act differently from oneself, they are still a sister. Even if they are a great distance from you, they are still your brother. Jesus, furthermore, tells us to love our brothers and sisters in the same way he loved us. Consider the words of Christ, “A new command I give you: Love one another. By this all men will now that you are my disciples, you love one another,” (John 13:34). Jesus before his passion instructs his people to love each other and this love is to be the outward mark of the inner reality, that we are mystically united to each other through him.  
            More than a family, we are a body. To be sure, Jesus affirms the dignity of each individual and speaks to each of us personally. His love and knowledge of each unique person is such that the “very hairs of your head are all numbered,” (Mt. 10:30) and yet Jesus disrupts the notion of the sovereign individual. Such a person does not exist in the eyes of our Lord. We are all highly related and interconnected, as organs are to the body. In as much as Jesus calls you by name, he calls you Christ. He calls you a part of himself as St. Paul explains “…so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belong to all the others,” (Rom 12:5).  I might be the armpit and my friend Shadrack in Kenya is the ear. All parts of the body are equally important, all work for the good of the whole. More than this, we do not belong wholly to ourselves, but to each other. Our gifts, talents, ideas, resources, and wisdom are all intended for shared blessing. This means we never stand alone. The things we do and say, or do not do or say, affect our sisters and brothers. Truly, there is no distinction between the Western and the Non-Western Christian, all are simply Christian.
            It naturally follows that when your brother suffers from hunger, you are affected, united with them in his hunger, or if your sister is persecuted or tortured, you are with her in her pain. It is often said, here in the West, we are not persecuted. This is true. I believe that when we compare Western Christians with Christians in China, for example, our persecution in no way compares to what they have endured. At the same time, however, this is a false assertion and one that prevents us from action, unity, and solidarity. Western Christians do not stand alone, we are a part of Chinese Christians. When they persecuted, we too are persecuted with them, whether or not we care to acknowledge it. And we must acknowledge it, for how else can the body be strong. When we truly understand our interconnectivity that is when we are compelled to act on the behalf of our brother or sister rather than, simply waiting “our turn” in the long standing and ever evolving history of Christian persecution and suffering. 
            Caring about Christians in the non-western world is a part of Jesus’ overall call to care for the welfare of humanity, not just Christians. Jesus has and will always call for the care of the least and loss, to the radical extent that, care for them is the same as caring for him. That is how strongly he identifies with us and that is how seriously he takes our mutual “belonging” to each other. There are no isolated individuals.
            Lastly, we follow our Lord on all matters, for he is our prime example. Jesus does not isolate himself, nor does he hoard his power, enjoying the privileges of his own divinity by himself. But rather he gives it all up, his very body and person, for all people. That would include those near or those far away. In short, he could have easily said, “not my problem” or “what can I do about it” but rather he became involved to the point of total self-sacrifice.    
            This is an extremely basic, if not crude understanding, of why we care for Christians in other parts of the world. It by no means exhausts all the reasons that we should act, but it should give us enough to act today. So, how should we act especially, given the demands of ministry, family, and jobs?
Not everyone is called to a life dedicated to international Christian advocacy work, but all of us are called to care for our brothers and sisters. For instance few of us are called to a monastic life dedicated to prayer, but all of us our called to pray. The same is true for the care of brothers and sisters in places like, Korea, Sudan, or Jamaica. So, how could a woman with three kids who participates in altar guild and volunteers at her local women’s crisis center, also work with Christians in the non-West? Or how might a busy over-worked pastor do the same thing? I believe the answer is found in mere Christian friendship.
            Forming a relationship with a brother or sister in a non-western part of the world is a way to follow the command of Christ to care for his diverse body and it has immeasurable benefits. First, it gets us out of the thorny I’m the “helper” and you are the “helped” relationship, bringing us to a greater place of equality, mutual blessing, service, and learning. At times, Westerners, have thought that we must be saviors to non-western peoples. This posture is not only idolatrous, but it denies us the wonderful opportunity to learn from and be helped and blessed by people different from ourselves. When my husband and I were in seminary, we participated in a weekly Bible study with international students. We learned so much from their experiences and theology. We were able to help them in some key ways, but they helped us greatly too. I was so humbled and blessed when my brother donated to my ministry, when I knew he was making less than twelve dollars a month. Moreover, Jesus says blessed are the poor. This means that Christians who are living in poverty, making ten dollars a month, have a blessing we might not be aware of and have something to teach us. Christian friendship moves us from not just “helping,” but to understanding.
            When I grew-up in Honduras as a little girl, I remember a group of missionaries from the United States came to the village we were living in. They asked our church and villagers if they could build something for us, for they had come to Honduras expecting to build. The villagers had no plans or desire to have something be built. The finally threw some excess rocks in the courtyard and said, “This will give them something to do.” What a missed opportunity by both parties. Imagine if instead of a preoccupation with “service” there was a true emphasis on friendship. The missionaries might have had the chance to learn from the Hondurans, to be blessed by them, and to discover what they truly needed, whether it was prayer, money, theological materials, or simple companionship. And the Hondurans, if they had befriended these Western missionaries, might have been richly blessed likewise and there could have been an enduring and lasting relationship between them. This example demonstrates how Christian friendship cuts to our true motivations. It takes away the guilt, the savior complex, the sense of obligation, and the “do-gooder” in us and brings us something so much more real and true. We can just truly be somebody’s friend.  
All of us can make a friend with someone in other part of the world. We can pray for them, encourage them, bless them, and be blessed by them. And who knows, maybe you will be one of those amazing voices of Christian reconciliation. Perhaps, you will go to Uganda and create a clean water filter or create an orphanage in the mountains of PerĂ¹. All service is best done in the context of Christian friendship, whether or little or small. What a wonderful, wholesome way to follow God’s call.
It might be hard to make friends. Mission trips, talking to your pastor, social media, connecting with missionaries; these are steps you could take. Pray that God bring you a friend. I know it is a prayer he would love to answer.

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