Not long after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the newborn Church became the persecuted Church. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested. In chapter 5, the Apostles are arrested again. In Acts 6-7, Stephen is arrested and martyred. The suffering of the Church continued in waves throughout its early centuries. Though Christians experienced peace in some places when their religion was tolerated or endorsed by the government, persecution continued elsewhere. There were tens of thousands of Christian martyrs in Persia in the mid-fourth century. Christians in Africa suffered various forms of persecution under Muslim rulers. The trend continued throughout history. Untold numbers of Christians were martyred in Russia and China in the twentieth century. And persecution continues today.
Erin Dunigan wrote a blogpost called “The Beautiful Shop” a few days ago, in which she shares about her recent trip to Southeast Asia with several other PC(USA) representatives. In the post she shares a quote from a pastor who, like other Christian leaders in his country , has spent time in prison for his faith: “We must keep one leg in the prison and one leg in the Church.” As his denomination thankfully experiences greater tolerance from the government, he is recognizing a need for the Church to hold on to what it gained through decades of persecution. I visited some of these same pastors four years ago with a group from my seminary. The picture here was taken by my wife during that trip. Children from one of the villages we entered looking through a window at us while we met with one of the only Christian women in that village. Having heard stories of persecution during that trip, I tried to remember regularly our brothers and sisters who faced persecution there. But four years of distance had let what was out of sight fall out of mind, until I saw Erin’s pictures and read her post this week.
And this raises a troubling question for me: What happens to the Church when we forget about the suffering which our faith entails? Tertullian’s oft-quoted proverb says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Do we lose some of our vitality when there ceases to be a cost for living our faith? Is that why the Church is growing rapidly in less hospitable parts of the world? For those of us in places where it’s relatively comfortable to be Christian, how do we keep “one leg in prison”? Here are two answers I would suggest. I hope to hear others.
(1) Suffering. When freedom from persecution provided new temptations, the fourth-century Church developed patterns of monasticism and asceticism that helped them keep one leg in prison. Voluntary suffering was seen as a way of becoming “white martyrs,” the term applied to ascetics who pursued purity and holiness through denying themselves. Following the same principles of self-denial gives us an opportunity to both pursue holiness and share in the sufferings of others. How could disciplines such as fasting unite our hearts and minds with our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution? When we experience other forms of involuntary suffering (sickness, loneliness, grief), can we offer that suffering up to God as a prayer of solidarity with Christ and those who have suffered for Him?
(2) Stories. Today many Americans celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who gave their lives for our freedom. Our nation recognizes that fallen soldiers are worthy of remembrance. Why would the Church think any less of its saints and martyrs throughout history? Surely the Church would do well to frequently remember and honor the saints past and present who suffered for their faith in the reign of Jesus Christ. This is one place where we Protestants are at a disadvantage: our heroes are Reformers, not saints. We know the stories of people who changed the Church better than the stories of people who died for the Lord of the Church. But this can easily be changed. One doesn’t need to dig far in our history books to discover the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Thankfully people like Erin are sharing the stories of our brothers and sisters from around the world in such a way that we can hear not just the voices of history, but of the present day. How would our life as the Church in our context change if we knew the true stories of the Church in less comfortable places?