How exactly should the American church help our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world? A recent spate of articles has accused U.S. churches of not speaking out or sufficiently expressing concern. But the real problem is not silence, either in the United States or around the world. The problem is a lack of workable solutions.
This is a complicated issue, made even more difficult by our failure to adequately define just what constitutes persecution. I would argue for three broad, general categories we have in mind when we use the term: suffering, marginalization and martyrdom.
The first and broadest classification is suffering, which can include things such as war, poverty, sickness or natural disasters. Persecution involves suffering, but not all suffering is persecution. We should be careful, then, about what we include in this category. While Christians are often caught up with wars and disagreements that have religious overtones, such conflicts are also sometimes driven by political battles, economic conditions and tribal rivalries.
Take the Rwandan genocide where Christians killed Christians. Is that martyrdom, or does it have to come at the hands of someone of another faith? The point is not to downplay the death of Christians, but for us to realize that it is not always easy to determine what should be considered persecution.
The second category involves marginalization that causes physical, economic, social, and psychological pain, distress or loss inflicted on Christians because of their beliefs. Plenty of Christians can’t get permission from local officials to hold events or build churches. Some Christians lose their job because of their faith. But not all cases of marginalization are because of a Christian’s faith—it could also be because of their tribal, ethnic or racial identity. Again, nailing down the exact reason for hardship is not simple.
The third category is the one most often associated with persecution. Martyrdom is when Christians suffer death for their witness and refusal to renounce their faith.
Despite the variety of types of persecution, many Americans tend to advocate for the same, overall solution: greater involvement by the U.S. government.
But what sort of intervention would help our brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe? And what exactly should that involvement entail? What would they suggest, for instance, that our elected officials do in North Korea? Create even more sanctions that lead to even more suffering? Or what about China and Saudi Arabia? These governments engage in terrible acts, but intervention is entangled with all sorts of other concerns.
While the U.S. government may be able to pressure other nation-states, most attacks do not come down from governments, but from individuals as in Kenya and Pakistan, for example. Syria and Egypt are even more complicated—should we try to remove a brutal dictator in favor of a group that promises to persecute Christians even more? State intervention can sometimes be necessary, but it is rarely a sufficient answer to the problem. Often individuals and organizations must directly intervene to strengthen local churches.