The media, the State Department, and the American public have all stubbornly ignored the uptick in the persecution of Christians around the globe, especially in Muslim cultures. The Pew Research Center concluded a couple of years ago that Christians are now persecuted in more nations than members of any other faith tradition. One sectarian watchdog organization estimates the annual number of persecuted Christians to be between 100 and 200 million.
The persecution is sometimes carried out by state authorities, sometimes by mobs of anti-Christian religious zealots (often acting with the implicit approval of their governments), and sometimes by al Qaeda-inspired terrorist groups. But under international law it makes no difference who the perpetrators are. Religious freedom is protected by both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two subsequent UN declarations. So even though they're mostly mute, secular governments have a prima facie obligation to protest just as vigorously when Christians are being persecuted as they do when other human rights are being trampled.
That they largely don't means that the American Christian community, the world's largest and most privileged, must. Bizarrely, some of its members, particularly those in the evangelical tradition, refuse to condemn persecution on the grounds that it's a God-imposed test of faith to be endured rather than an evil to be resisted. But this cracked theology both insults God and displays astounding insensitivity to victims of murder, torture, discrimination, and displacement. Other American Christians, less crass than culpably indifferent, insist it's up to the legal and political authorities in the affected countries do something about persecution. But this turns a blind eye to the unhappy fact that in most of the 87 nations where Christians are a minority, persecution of them is sanctioned and even encouraged by lawmakers and judges.
So from a purely practical perspective, the ball winds up in the court of those American Christians who are themselves free from the horror of persecution and in a position to do something about it. But there's a deeper reason they should take notice: not doing so is contrary to Christ's command to care for the marginalized. Discipleship demands stepping in to help those afflicted by injustice, and the ways in which Christians do so must be compatible with Jesus's ethic of nonviolence. On the night of his arrest, Jesus admonished his defiant followers to put away their swords, clearly indicating that brute force in countering evil wasn't an option. His twenty first-century followers are under the same constraint. Resisting evil, for them, must always be a witness to their commitment to the Prince of Peace.
So: what can American Christians do?
- The most radical response, and probably the most pleasing to God, is one that very few have the courage to make: relocating to hotspots for the purpose of physically getting in the way and inhibiting local violence against fellow Christians. This tactic was first broached in the 1930s by Anglican pacifist H.R.L. Sheppard when he proposed creating a "Peace Army" that would travel to war zones and stand between opposing armies. Christian Peacemakers today carry on that tradition in any number of troubled areas around the globe, including those where Christians are persecuted simply because they're Christian.
- Less physically dangerous but psychologically harrowing for comfortable middle and upper class American churches is cashing in assets and using the money to provide protection and relief to endangered Christians around the world. Sell off church properties, divest ecclesial portfolios, and spend profligately. Villages destroyed by anti-Christian mobs and armies could be rebuilt. Christian families who wish to leave their troubled homelands could be sponsored as immigrants. Exiles from Christian aggression forced to flee to refugee camps could be given material aid in the forms of food, clothing, shelter, and medical aid. Families split up in the fog of violent persecution could be reunited and resettled. Fanatics and thugs could be bought off. Liquidating assets of American churches to aid persecuted Christians would be a life saver for hundreds of thousands of them. It wouldn't do American Christians any harm either.
- Christians too timid to put themselves up as human shields in hotspots might be recruited to spend a year or so working in relief camps or researching the best ways to apply aid. Others could engage in interfaith dialogue to do something about the suspicion and hatred that encourages Christian persecution in the first place. Christians too old or infirm to do either can be encouraged to pray as an active ministry appropriate to their age and status.
- Meetings, lectures, relief fund drives, and mass demonstrations can also be organized in order to draw attention to the plight of foreign Christians and to do something to help them. Ideally, the gatherings would be solemn, peaceful, and quiet. No ranting preachers from either the right or the left, no professional fundraisers with their slick slogans, no hucksters or celebrities taking advantage of a bad situation to make a headline. The focus would be on faithful witnessing to the nightmare of what it means to be a Christian in decidedly unfriendly countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, China, or North Korea.
But here's the thing: none of these strategies are possible so long as American Christians complacently refuse to look beyond their own well-fed and absolutely secure churches long enough to take notice of the perilous situation of their brothers and sisters around the world. American Christians have the ability to do something about the accelerating slaughter of their co-religionists. Failing to step up only fuels charges of hypocrisy leveled at American Christians by the cultured despisers of religion.
And rightly so.