Please don’t read any malice into this, but I used to feel quite annoyed at martyrs. I would take pains to brief legislators and missions leaders on the overall dynamics of a church in a particular country, and then suddenly a martyr story would rocket onto the scene, and in an instant all the nuance was forgotten, and I was being asked the same question: “How many more martyrs can we expect?” A government that may have tried hard to bring religious freedom was instantly relabeled as “Christian killers.” Churches that had no martyrs were described as “dead.” Even missions that had long-term strategies to help the church were judged only on how well they eased life for the widow or orphan. The capacity of a martyr to shrink the story of a church of millions to the mortal wounds of a single person is staggering, and disturbing, because often those wounds tell a tale that is far from typical.
Even within the persecuted church, the vast majority of Christians are not martyrs and never will be. In twenty-five years of reporting on the persecuted church in Eastern Europe and Asia, the number of martyr stories I personally covered came to no more than five. Each year the Vatican publishes a list of martyrs. Out of a Roman Catholic community of 1.1 billion, the list rarely exceeds forty in number. The World Christian Encyclopedia puts the number of martyrs in history at 0.8 percent of the total number of Christians who have ever lived, and their figures are controversially high. The fact is, the story of martyrdom is almost always the story of a few, untypical Christians rather than the experience of the normal Christian. And in a book such as this, which seeks to give an overview of the entire persecuted church, martyrdom cannot, by definition, be the major element. Indeed, it would be fair to say this: If all you focus on is the story of the martyrs, you will never understand the story of the persecuted church! Martyrdom is the dazzling tip of the iceberg that hides the dark bulk of the body.
Yet despite the tendency of a martyrdom to control the perception of a church, I have repented of my earlier attitude. The capacity of a martyr story to deliver a shock message far outweighs its tendency to distort the overall situation. Bluntly speaking, the story of a martyr delivers two shocks to the spiritual system with a voltage we cannot receive from any other group of Christians.
First, there is an unveiling effect. A martyr story unveils the stark and dangerous nature of the conflict all Christians become a part of when they turn to Christ. We suddenly realize the world is a battleground, not a playground, and the gospel is a dangerous thing, not just a comforting thing. Indeed, this gospel we profess could get us killed! We realize, with a shudder, that this could happen to us, because we belong to the same gospel, and the foes of that gospel are powerful and crazed with hate.
Second, there is an inspiring effect. A martyr is someone who loves the truth more than life itself, and we are forced to ask of ourselves: “Do I come up to that standard?” We reevaluate our priorities in the light of the actions of someone who clearly knew that the gospel was the most important truth in the entire universe, and we reconnect through that person’s sacrifice with the vast cosmic dimensions of the gospel, rescuing us from more trivial appreciations of its power. A martyr requires us to recall why it is worth dying for the Christian gospel.
Yes, this is easy to state in theory but hard to absorb in practice. I first began to really “get it” on a trip to Iraq.
On April 9, 2003, two weeks after President Bush declared that Operation Iraqi Freedom had been won, and only Saddam Hussein’s boots remained on his huge statue in the center of Baghdad, I found myself traveling in close convoy at 180 kilometers an hour on the road from Amman to Baghdad. We were a group of eight men intent on visiting the Iraqi Christians, anxious to assure them that their Christian brothers and sisters in the rest of the world had not forgotten them, and seeking to find ways to pray and to assist in the rebuilding.
The Iraqi church was a sad story. Barely five hundred thousand Christians remained in this overwhelmingly Muslim state of twenty-four million, a country that contains so much of the biblical landscape, including Babylon, Nineveh, and Ur. Christians continued to leave at the rate of thousands per year, finding the mixture of Islamic culture and Saddam’s harsh rule a throttling combination. We reached Baghdad to find a kind of controlled chaos. The traffic lights did not work, so everyone was inching their cars forward, refusing to give way and shouting at the other drivers to give way. Huge buildings lay in heaps from the bombing, girders exposed and hanging, glinting in the fierce dry heat. The portraits of Saddam were all defaced, the statues ritually toppled, and when we stepped out onto the street, we were plied with the looted passports of Iraqi personalities who had long fled their stylish villas for a life on the run. The glum face of Saddam’s long-term foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, gazed up from his UN passport. “Your memento of the war for just five hundred U.S. dollars,” said the enterprising robber.
We crept from house to house, visiting Christians to the sound of gunfire. Gangs of organized looters were cruising the streets with Kalashnikovs. Old family scores were being settled also, with the threat of punishment effectively removed. The Christians were happy to see the back of Saddam but apprehensive about the future, fearing Shia reprisals and a more Islamic state. Once again it was remarkable to discover the good news under the bad, as many Christians agreed with Bishop Salieba of Mosul: “The war was good for us—it made us desperate for God, and so we turned to him like Old Testament psalmists and found him satisfying.” So often, from a religious perspective, something that is bad for the country can be good for the kingdom. The Christian views news through a much more wide-angled lens than the materialist.
But one visit sticks in my mind more than any other. We were sharing fellowship with a group of nine nuns, sitting huddled around a few candles in a home. They were the traumatized remains of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of the Chaldeans. The mother superior of their order, Sister Cecilia, had been martyred nine months before, in August of 2002. Killed at seventy-one years of age, she had been taken to the nunnery when orphaned as a five-year-old and took her vows at fourteen. On the night of August 15 she happened to be in the nunnery by herself, as the rest of the sisters were in the north of the country. Her devoted friend Sister Albertine told us through muffled sobs what she found in the morning. “I saw Sister Cecilia’s body, naked. She had her wrists tied to her ankles, her legs were broken, a rag was stuffed in her mouth, and her throat was slit. She had seven stab wounds in her torso.”
This was no robbery gone wrong. Sister Albertine continued, “The body was turned to face the mosque, and the stab wounds were in a crescent pattern.” A single dried tear on the cheek of Sister Cecilia was all there was to show for her excruciating night of suffering.
Worse was to follow for the sisters. Sister Cecilia’s killers were caught and tried. The three men were extremist Muslims, two of them neighbors living on the same street, recipients of the kindness of the nuns on numerous occasions. Duly jailed, they could not believe their luck when a month later Saddam Hussein, in a desperate attempt to stiffen resistance to the impending occupation, opened all the prisons and let the criminals flood back into society—more than fifty thousand of them. Sister Cecilia’s killers, after four weeks of prison for murder, were at large again.
One murderer returned to his house across the street from the nunnery and held a raucous party. The sisters fled with the noise of celebration in their ears. Said Sister Albertine, with doubts wrinkling her forehead, “We tried to reach out to everyone on this street. We did nothing but good. How can we have hope for the future when this is our experience?”
The final straw was when the mother of the murderer came out and told them, “Even if my son was hanged, I would still celebrate, because he entered a Christian home and bought a place in heaven.”
These were the most chilling words I heard in Iraq. How appalling, how dreadful, that a mother could take pride in her son’s brutal and cowardly slaying of a defenseless seventy-one-year-old nun! What kind of warped thinking would ever convince her to assume that God would be pleased by such an act? It begs understanding. I shook my head in puzzlement for the next week, until a similar mystery assailed me in the north of the country, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The northeast of Iraq is mountainous and green, in contrast to the desert, near-lunar landscape of southern Iraq. This area is home to 4.5 million Kurds—the Medes of biblical times. The Kurds form the majority in this region and heartily detest the Arabs, nursing memories of a long and painful series of humiliations from Arab leaders and countries, most recently in the 1980s when Saddam’s armies launched chemical and gas attacks against them. More than 180,000 perished, whole villages were slaughtered, the hills were littered with mass graves, and more than two million Kurds fled the carnage. One Kurdish leader we met murmured sadly, “Only the mountains are our friends, and they only frown on our graves.”
In 1991 the first Gulf War brought a measure of autonomy, however, as the Kurds were technically part of Saddam’s Iraq but under UN administration, with the Americans enforcing a no-fly zone. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded back, and with them came Christian missionaries, anxious to plant churches among one of the Middle East’s least evangelized peoples. Remarkably, an indigenous church of between one and two hundred Muslim converts was under way in the late nineties. The Kurds were open to the gospel, many Christians believed, because their suspicion of Arabs included a view that imposing sharia law was really an attempt to Arabize them, and so they remain one of the region’s most unenthusiastic Sunni Muslim groups.
Despite increasing openness to the gospel, the Kurds still face persecution from their families and the state when they turn to Christ. The indigenous Kurdish Evangelical Church gained its first martyr in 1997. He was forty-three-year-old Mansour Hussein Sifer, who staffed a small Christian bookstore in Arbil, the largest town in Kurdistan. A convert for only a year and a half, he was a gentle giant of a man who wrote poetry and devoted himself to knowing his Bible.
On the morning of April 21, 1997, he told his wife, Ruth, and his young son that he was going into the bookshop for an “important appointment,” even though, as the last day of a Muslim feast, the bookstore would normally be closed. At 10:00 a.m. he was seen cleaning the window of the store, and then at 10:40 his best friend, another Muslim convert, dropped in to make sure the shop had not been looted over the holidays. He found the door open, and his dear friend slumped on the floor. Thinking Mansour had fainted or collapsed, he ran to a neighbor for help to carry him into a taxi, but when they returned they both noticed a pool of fresh, bright blood near Hussein’s head. He had been shot at close range with a pistol. The bullet hole was visible on the side of his head.
On the floor beside the body was one of the store’s Arabic books for loan, titled More Precious than Gold. The chairs were stacked, and it was assumed that Mansour was still cleaning the floor when the assailant came in to return the loaned book and shoot him.
So often there is a grisly aftermath to these martyrdoms in Islamic countries. The government refused to fingerprint the book, claiming they did not have the technology. The name of the person who was loaned the book was found to be false, so that trail went cold. Instead, police picked up Mansour’s best friend and tortured him terribly, trying to make him confess and pin the murder on a squabble between Christians. When the friend returned from jail, he was unable to sit down because of the pain.
The month of “investigation” was also hard on the widow, Ruth, who was being pressured by the authorities to accuse Mansour’s friend. Police told her, “His friend has confessed to your husband’s murder; now will you tell us what their real relationship was like?” Distraught with grief, she hardly knew what to believe and was preoccupied with the shattering discovery that she was pregnant with Mansour’s second child. She eventually refused to cooperate, saying, “I cannot believe his best friend would kill him.”
Instead of a community and government that should have been sympathetic in the light of the brutal slaying, the church experienced further harassment and persecution. As one member of the church in Arbil said afterward, “Now we know we are not in a football game.”
And Mansour’s killer has never been caught.
Yet, if one can say this respectfully, Mansour’s mysterious martyrdom was old news in 2003. I was on my way to meet the widow of the second martyr of the Kurdistan church, thirty-eight-year-old Zewar Mohammed Ishmael. We wound our way over rough tracks under the snowcapped Zagros Mountains to the border town of Zahko in the company of Pastor Jousif Matty, one of the leading workers in the Kurdish church. He told us Zewar’s story and confessed he was filled with some apprehension, as Zewar’s widow, Layla, was still a Muslim. Would we get a welcome? Would she blame us for Zewar’s conversion and his death?
Zewar had been a feisty man, a born fighter who came from a tribe known for taking the law into their own hands. Used to weapons and mountains, he served as a guerilla fighter in the Kurdish freedom army. But in 1999 he became a Christian and poured his bountiful energy into witness. He hosted the local church in his home, and when his fifth child was delivered, gave the boy a Christian name—Ephraim. Zewar lived only to see Ephraim enter his fifth month of life. A taxi driver, he used to keep Bibles in his car and give them out to interested passengers as he told them of Christ. Some were interested. Some were shocked. But he paid no heed when he was abused or warned. Once his father drove him out to the desert and threatened to leave him there if he did not return to Islam. “Drive away, Father,” Zewar smiled. “My faith is more important to me than life itself.”
The town of Zahko is close to the Iranian border, and many Islamic extremists sneaked over from there to radicalize the population. Also the Saudis built mosques and taught their own harsh version of the Islamic faith, Wahhabism. So Zewar’s activities did not go unnoticed. He was denounced publicly from the mosques. At Friday prayers a mullah said that Zewar was responsible for five hundred Muslims leaving their faith. This was a lie, but it inflamed many extremists. Zewar began to be shadowed.
On the morning of February 17, 2003, Zewar came to the depot where the taxi drivers congregated. A man was seen walking up to him, and witnesses recalled the conversation. The man said, “Zewar, would you like to take some tea with me? I want to talk to you about coming back to Islam.”
Zewar replied, “Brother, I am so happy in my new faith, but by all means, let us talk.”
The two walked around the corner to a teahouse. Seconds later there was a loud shout, “Allahu Akbar,”1 followed by rapid gunfire. The taxi drivers raced around to find Zewar lying dead in a pool of blood. In a split second, twenty-eight bullets had entered his body, eighteen in his face and ten in his chest.
His killer was chased and caught. This time there was no attempt to pin it on the local Christians, because the killer, a local extremist Muslim who had been inflamed against Zewar in the mosque, was proud to confess. He told police, “I dreamt that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, told me to kill Zewar, and then I would go to paradise.” He waited four days before acting on his vision. It is a measure of how far the Kurdish government has come in their attitude toward Kurdish converts that Zewar’s killer was given a ten-year prison sentence.
All these facts were relayed to me as the car bumped along the road toward Zewar’s house. The facts were depressing, yet I was unprepared for the emotional experience ahead. We pulled onto a dirt road and drew up alongside a house with rusted iron gates. We rapped on the gates. They didn’t open. Perhaps the family was not at home. Then there was a squeak, and a young girl peered out shyly. She led us to a carpeted room with cushions. This was where the church met. Soon the family filed in. A young man of eighteen came over to me and, quite unexpectedly, held me tight. This was Zewar’s eldest son, Zerevan. His shoulders began to shake, and I felt his tears trickling down my neck. These tears seemed to scald my very soul. Holding him, I suddenly felt the utter senselessness of all that had happened. I remember repeating the questions to myself: How could anyone take the life of this boy’s father? How is it possible?
Then in came Layla, Zewar’s wife, smiling and holding back tears. In her late thirties, her face was full of worry lines. She was wearing a long green dress and a black Muslim headscarf, which she kept toying with self-consciously. Cradled against her hip was a smiling, spry little youngster dressed in red with a big yellow bib. This was Ephraim, Zewar’s “Christian” child. He crawled toward us, drawn to the chocolate bar I was waving at him. Zerevan had let me go by then, and Layla and her five children sat against the wall opposite us.
We looked at each other. What could we say? I looked into the eyes of Layla and read such pain there. Her control slipped, and even though we were strangers, she wept. We all wept, and again a scalding wave of Oh, God, why? swept over me from head to toe. My mind just kept revisiting the questions: How could anyone do this? How could anyone possibly do this—take a man’s life and leave his family so desolate? How on earth could he think that would please God? Martyrdom seemed an immense mystery. Layla’s eyes and Zerevan’s tears had connected me to the awful human tragedy of it and left me stunned. And almost for the first time I was asking God, “How can this happen?”
It was as if I suddenly realized my Christianity had been lived in a sealed container. No one was fanatical about anything in the United Kingdom, where I lived, least of all faith. The closest we got to fanatics were football hooligans, and they were regarded as idiotic. Where would I find the resources to try to understand how someone could feel so strongly as to kill another person in a desire to please God? And yet was this not what happened in the world of the New Testament?
The answers did not come as we continued to meet with Zewar’s family. It was getting worse for them. Obviously the loss of the male breadwinner is a catastrophe in a Middle Eastern context, but it was even worse for Layla. Zewar’s family was blaming her for not preventing his conversion. They told her, “We won’t help you because you were a bad wife. You did not manage to convince him to remain a good Muslim. This would never have happened if you had been a good wife.”
The only good news was that she had found a larger family. The church of Zahko had rallied around her. They would buy her a house and give Zerevan a job and visit her regularly with gifts and offer support. Her family would not have made it without the support of the Christian community. Yet Zewar’s death shattered the local church. They dived underground, and today are a small, frightened community still. His martyrdom has not, so far, brought any apparent spiritual benefit for the Christian witness in the town of Zahko.
I was left with a burning problem. I was no longer a reporter. It was a matter of cardinal importance to find some kind of resolution to this question: how can people hate Christians so much that they want to kill them? It was my question now, not just Layla’s. Not just Zerevan’s. Through the eyes of Layla and the tears of Zerevan, it was as though I had stepped suddenly through the back of C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe and found myself in another world—a violent, blood-and-guts world, where men had their faces shredded by machine guns and died in pools of blood on dusty streets because they had talked with delight about their faith in a taxi, and—horror of horrors—given a Bible away here or there. What kind of world was this? What kind of faith drew this reaction? What kind of God allowed it?
I stress this experience because I think it is one we all undergo as part of an encounter with martyrs. They wake us up to the way the world really is. We forget, but they remind us. They strip away the illusions that the world is a reasonable place, where conversions are the object of rational family or community discussions. The liberal ideal that a Westerner grows up with—that all ideas should be discussed and weighed objectively—gets cruelly shattered as surely as the bullets that hit the soft tissue of the martyr’s body.
As we drove away, someone in the car said, “Well, life used to be a picnic, but not anymore. When I take the Eucharist this Sunday, I’ll smell the blood this time!”
Though I had gained this new perspective, there was the incredulity of it to deal with. Why would someone want to kill another person over religion? I began to consider this question that evening, when it so happened that my Bible reading passage was the story of the first Christian martyr—Stephen.
There seemed to me two inadequate explanations as to why people kill in the name of religion. One focuses on the killer, the other on the victim.
The first view says, “The killer is crazy.” It’s a pathology issue, best left to the psychiatrist to explain. The killer is insane. This view is an old favorite of the secularist, who thinks that anyone who professes an absolute creed in a relativistic world is a potential danger to society. In Western Europe this view is hardly untenable given the past propensity for religious people to slaughter each other. Even religious figures give credence to the view. I heard Dr. Zaki Badawi, former principal of the Muslim College of Britain, tell a group of Cambridge University students when asked about the 9/11 bombers, “Well, religion is like medicine. You must be careful only to take a little of it. Take a lot and the cure will be worse than the illness.” This is nonsense. The idea that the more enthusiastically you embrace a religious belief, the more unstable you become clearly owes its origin to the assumption that religion is not something that deserves a serious commitment; rather, it is trivial, like supporting a football team. Jonathan Swift, the great clergyman-essayist of the eighteenth century, gave the lie to that when he wrote, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Yet the media is full of op-ed writers lining up ten deep to tell us that all religion is essentially bad religion, and even the self-respecting Christian who obeys the government, pays taxes, and upholds family values is really just an “inner voice” away from turning into a prowling, murdering maniac.
The problem with this view is that it fails completely to understand that there is a strange kind of rationality to religious violence. The killing of believers in the name of God usually comes packaged in a complicated series of justifications. For example, when the killing of Zewar was reported in Compass Direct, the journalist discovered that few in Zahko thought that his killer, named as Abd al-Karem Abd al-Salam, would be sentenced to jail for the crime, because “Islamic law requires the execution of apostates who forsake Islam.”2 No Muslim leader in the town condemned the action of the assassin. Zewar’s killer may have been an extremist, but he was not a lunatic. In fact, he was acting firmly within the canons of centuries of Muslim law.
Similarly, if one examines the circumstances of Stephen’s death, the notion that those who put him to death “are just crazy” does not wash either. Stephen is examined by a council of Jerusalem’s leading scholars and priests. Prejudiced they may be. Crazy? No. These men ran the city. They were a clever, elite group, learned and respected.
And yet let’s not get over rational here—something so riled this group of scholars and priests that they turned into a hate-crazed mob that stoned a man to death, believing it to be a righteous, God-pleasing act. What incensed them so that they lost control?
Some say we need look no further than to the words of Stephen himself, which leads us to the second inadequate view, focusing on the victim. This view says that there is usually some recklessness in the victim that draws down the wrath of the persecuting community. It’s a sad fact that there is always a whispering campaign that seeks to find in some aspect of the victim’s behavior an explanation for his death. Even in Zahko some of the Christians murmured, “Zewar was much too bold. He never should have given Bibles away so openly in his taxi.”
Certainly Stephen never had the benefit of reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. After a lengthy defense, saying he had not spoken against the temple, because the God of Israel, historically, was a pilgrim God whose presence was never limited to a physical temple, these are the words that made the Jewish leaders lose their tempers:
And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!
Acts 7:51–53 Message
One could well imagine, after incendiary words like these, some of the Christians saying to each other, “How could Stephen have put his head into the noose like that?” And indeed, since the incident triggered a huge persecution, they might also have said, “Why did he put our heads in the noose as well?” One can well imagine the whispers as the persecution raged: “Because Stephen spoke so harshly, more Christian leaders have lost their heads, entire groups have had to leave their livelihoods and become refugees, and whole families have been broken up. It’s awful on the children—how could Stephen be so insensitive?”
Yet not a single negative word is said against Stephen. He is described as a man who was “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When his body is buried, there is no hint of censure: “Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him” (8:2). Indeed, the way Luke constructs his narrative, it is clear that he believes that the persecution of Stephen benefited the church because it woke them up to serve the Great Commission. Stephen’s death results in the scattering of the Christians away from Jerusalem. They are forced to spread the gospel as they were bidden by Christ in Acts 1:8: “You will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” How ironic that the world’s most Spirit-filled church even failed to understand the Great Commission! Stephen’s martyrdom changed that, and every Gentile today should breathe a prayer of thanks.
Often martyrdoms become markers or turning points in the history of a church. Sometimes the killing provokes a wave of outrage that topples even entrenched totalitarian systems. Kevin Ruane’s book To Kill a Priest is subtitled The Murder of Father Popieluszko and the Fall of Communism. Father Jerzy Popieluszko, known as Solidarity’s Priest, was a thirty-six-year-old Catholic priest who led inspiring Masses in Communist Poland during the dreary years of martial law in the early eighties. His abduction, torture, and murder at the hands of the secret police led to such revulsion toward the regime that it gave the people’s union, Solidarity, a new impetus and enabled them to set in motion the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. More than a million people attended his funeral on Saturday, November 3, 1984. No one claims his martyrdom brought down the USSR single-handedly, but his death definitely released forces of bravery and determination that marked a key turning point in the events that rewrote the balance of power in the world today.
Still, this does not get us any closer to why Stephen, or Zewar, was killed. Luke is disinterested in motive; he simply sets out the downward spiral of events that resulted in Stephen’s death. It was a four-stage process. It began with a theological debate, but when Stephen’s opponents felt bested in argument (Acts 6:10), they began a campaign of lies, bribing witnesses to say that Stephen had blasphemed (v. 11). Then a quasi-legal procedure was instituted to silence Stephen—the calling of the council—and finally when Stephen’s defense proved too hot to handle, it ended in mob rage.
Clearly Stephen’s words reached the very worst part of a human being and released forces that in normal civilization we all keep down. A great evil was unleashed. It begs the inevitable question—why, in the history of the world, are religious people so prone to violence?
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, argues that religious people are prone to violence because religion is so powerful an explorer of ourselves. He says:
I think any kind of religious faith takes you much deeper into yourself and into reality than is comfortable, and going deeper into yourself of course makes contact with bits of yourself that don’t normally appear. Therefore it can be heroic, it can be hugely generous, because those things are in us—as a religious person would say—in the image of God. It can also touch deep hurts, deeply buried angers and irrational passions and so it can also release a lot of violence.3
This is well put. Religion is such a central expression of one’s individual and national identity that an attack on it seems like an attack on one’s god. And so, in a bizarre way, religious people kill to rescue their god! That is their deepest motivation. The men that stoned Stephen were killing a heretic who had blasphemed against God. The man who shot Zewar was protecting Allah. Rage, of the deepest and darkest kind, is awakened here as by little else in the course of a life. Of course, joy is awakened also, and religion has enough ecstasy to go around for everyone. But the deepest places of a human being are opened up by religious faith, and this can have catastrophic as well as beneficial consequences, when the carnal comes up to the surface.
Of course motives are always mixed. Defending one’s god is not the sole reason for violence. In one of the few places in Scripture where the authors show an interest in the motives of the persecutors, Matthew reports that Pontius Pilate saw that it was “out of envy” (Matt. 27:18) that the Jewish priests were handing Jesus over to him. They envied Jesus’s power and influence with the masses. It was greed that made Judas hand Jesus over. It was out of political cowardice that Pilate did not put his neck on the line to save an innocent man. And it was also out of political necessity that Caiaphas, the high priest, made his fateful calculation that Jesus was too dangerous to let loose at Passover time with Rome itching to wipe out the Jews, and so “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people” (John 11:50 NASB). Caiaphas said far more than he knew, but he was trying to save his God, his people, his religion.
Applying all this to Zewar, we can see the same mixture of factors. He was killed for four main reasons:
There is one aspect of this we have so far left out, without which the picture is not complete. It is the devil, the demonic hatred that lies behind all anti-Christian violence. Note that this hatred does not lie behind all religious violence. The devil’s ire is directed at Christ, no one else. This adds an extra dimension of evil. Where did Mr. Abd al-Karem Abd al-Salam’s dream come from to kill Zewar? Surely it came from the devil himself, waging his cosmic battle of spite against Jesus Christ. This is another source of rage.
Ultimately then the Zewars of this world are killed by other religious people who have convinced themselves, through lies, through demonic suggestion, and through their darkest fears being stirred up, that their god has to be rescued! And let it be admitted—Christianity has written a few dark chapters in this tale. I remember witnessing a terrible scene in Ambon, Indonesia, in the late 1990s. A priest was giving communion to a Christian militia and finished with the words, “Now go and anoint your machetes with Muslim blood.” Beneath these chilling words was the same insecurity. The priest explained, “We’re being overrun. If we don’t strike now against the Muslims, the Christian God will be banished from these islands.”
Still, the majority of Christians are martyred not because other religious people are trying to rescue their god but because nonreligious people are trying to protect their racket. For example, pastors in Colombia are executed by Marxist guerillas primarily because the pastors in the rebel-controlled areas refuse to participate in their drug-running rackets, which fuel the entire economy of these regions. In other situations, one has to peer more closely to discern the racket.
On the evening of October 9, 1998, forty-two-year-old Alexey Sitnikov was abducted from the premises of Grozny Baptist Church in Chechnya, where he was a pastor. Alexey was single, having devoted much of his life to nursing his elderly invalid mother. Muslim Chechens were becoming increasingly violent in their attempts to form a breakaway republic, and ethnic Russians fled in large numbers as the Russian army moved in to subdue the militants. But Alexey stayed to pastor the 170 members of the Baptist church, and miraculously through all the heavy bombing, the church building was unscathed.
Initially it was assumed that Alexey’s disappearance was the work of Muslim extremists. They were in the pay of corrupt local officials who had been pocketing relief supplies intended for Alexey’s church members. He had protested about this and had even been asked if he wanted to receive a big payoff himself to keep his nose out of it.
“I’d rather starve,” he told a friend at the time when he had literally nothing to feed his own mother.
Subsequently Alexey was warned by being taken hostage twice for short periods. The second time he was beaten unconscious and left for dead outside a hospital. The third swoop on him was the last. It was only in August of 1999 that his severed head was seen on national television. Local police bulletins frequently included such footage in an attempt to identify the growing number of kidnapping victims. It was presumed that he had been killed soon after his abduction.
Alexey Sitnikov was a mild-mannered, gracious young man who, because of his Christian honesty, refused to participate in a lucrative racket ripping off foreign aid donations. Violent men, who set a low value on human life, killed him. Such men are responsible for the majority of Christian martyrs today.
Yet martyrs are not numerous in the church. Recently a mantra has been widely repeated: “More Christians have died for their faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.” The implication is clear: today we are at an all-time peak for the killing of Christians. The problem with this claim is that it is primarily a testimony not so much to an increase in persecution as to an increase in population. The fact is, you can say that more people have died of malnutrition, war, famine, whatever in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen, simply because more people have lived in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen. To imply that this is the most dangerous time to be a Christian in the history of the last two thousand years is possibly an exaggeration.
Ministries to the persecuted churches tend to steer clear of estimates of numbers of martyrs, though the World Christian Encyclopedia has not been reticent, claming that between AD 33 and AD 2000, a total of 69,420,000 Christians have been martyred, or 0.8 percent. They put the annual rate of martyrs at a staggering 160,000 plus, but it is hard to see how they derive such a high figure from such a restrictive definition of a martyr: “Believers in Christ, who have lost their lives, prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”4 Only by counting as martyrs, for example, the tens of thousands of nominal Christians killed in civil war conflicts that may not even be related to religion, can one get to such a figure. I have learned to leave the counting to God and not get into foolish arguments about who is a martyr and who is not. Over time the church will recognize a true martyr. One should respect that process.
For all their rarity, though, martyrs are exceedingly important. They are killed primarily because religious people, in a bizarre demonic twist, wish to rescue their god from humiliation, or because nonreligious people, who have lost all notion of the sacredness of humanity, want to protect their moneymaking racket. The importance of martyrs stems from their ability to unmask for the ordinary Christian the hostile nature of the world in which we live. We sense the reality of Christ’s warning to all His disciples that the world will hate us because of Him (see John 15:18–19), and we see the injustice of it, as Jesus also said, “They hated me without a cause” (v. 25). A martyr makes us aware that this world can never be our home. Also martyrs inspire us to a closer walk with Christ. We are moved by their witness to death (the essential meaning of the word martyr), and they call us to follow their example. “Give up your small ambitions,” they cry from the grave, and their last words tell of the grandeur of this gospel, this Christ, we profess to follow. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer says before being shot by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life,” we wonder how we ever shrank down Christian living to a small, boring way of life, and we resolve never to allow that to happen again.
Historically, martyrs often create watersheds in the history of the church, as we have seen in the case of Stephen. It was the Latin church father, Tertullian, who first came up with the phrase, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Ironically, he was wrong about his own city, Carthage, and much of North Africa, which had martyrs aplenty, yet the church virtually disappeared with the arrival of Islam. A martyr brings no guarantee of revival.
In fact, Christian history reveals an ambiguous legacy in this respect. Christians have been far too prone to idolize martyrs and venerate their remains, often at the expense of remembering their own gospel responsibilities. As a Christian pastor in Kurdistan once confided about the historic churches in Iraq: “They won’t stop talking about the martyrs they have had over a thousand years ago, but they never ask why they don’t have any martyrs today—it is because they are afraid to take the gospel to a Muslim.” This pastor had taken converted Muslims for baptism to his local Chaldean Catholic bishop, who said to him, “Are you mad? If I baptize these people, we will all be finished.” The pastor replied, “Aren’t you supposed to do it because God commands you, not whether it suits the political survival of the church?” He realized, like many a reformer, that to follow Christ more fully he needed to leave the church of his birth.
Remember the Living
Sometimes we overvalue martyrs and undervalue the living. This came home to me after meeting Mr. Ha, a pastor in China. He and his brother both became Christians and went on to become fine preachers. But his brother was jailed in the early 1970s and died in prison. As Mr. Ha put it, “His testimony moved from words in the air to blood in the ground.”
Mr. Ha also served some time in jail, but on his release he continued to preach and pastor many house churches. He began to be a little concerned as he was always introduced as “the brother of the one who was counted worthy to suffer a martyr’s death.” He recalled, “I was proud of the way my brother had died for Christ. But people would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, it must be marvelous for you to have been so close to a great man of God.’ It seemed like my brother’s martyrdom put him in a completely different spiritual category from me in most Christians’ eyes.”
Matters came to a head when one day he was presented with a small book of sermons. The house church network that produced them regarded them as a great and inspiring text. “These are the sermons of your great brother,” they said. “We hope they will be as formative for you as they were for us.” Mr. Ha did not have the heart to tell them the truth. The sermons were not his brother’s sermons; they were Mr. Ha’s! It had been quite common for them to preach each other’s sermons.
The incident caused him to express great irritation to God. “Lord, am I so unworthy that my brother is regarded as so special because he was martyred, and my words are not taken as seriously because I was not counted worthy of death? What did I do wrong that I was not martyred also?”
Mr. Ha continued for some years in this distress. Then one day he was reading through Jeremiah and came across a verse that, he says, “wrote itself on my heart with fingers of fire.” Jeremiah had just been put on trial for preaching a particularly fearless sermon, and then Mr. Ha read: “Ahikam son of Shaphan supported Jeremiah, and so he was not handed over to the people to be put to death” (Jer. 26:24 NIV).
It hit Mr. Ha that he was just like Jeremiah—they had both been spared from becoming a martyr. Mr. Ha said, “If Ahikam had not intervened, Jeremiah would be only twenty-six chapters long instead of fifty-two chapters. It was not the will of God that Jeremiah become a martyr. God needed him to do more preaching, and that was not second best!”
There was another contemporary parallel with Jeremiah’s story—a man just like Ahikam had saved Mr. Ha from death. Once a gang from the world of organized crime had captured Pastor Ha because he had been instrumental in the conversion of some prostitutes, who then refused to work at their old trade. He was taken to a factory and thrown into a large industrial refrigerator. “I knew I was going to die,” he recalled, “and after a few hours my body began to stiffen.” But then some thugs came in and carried him to a warm office, where he sat shivering uncontrollably. In came a fat man in a smart suit. He was the owner of the factory, and for all Mr. Ha knew, the godfather of the crime syndicate. He was holding the small book of sermons that had been found in Mr. Ha’s jacket pocket.
“Yours?” the fat man asked.
“Yes, mine,” said Mr. Ha, telling the truth about the book of sermons for the first time in years.
The fat man said soberly, “Seems to me you are telling people to be honest, to be good, and to love God. That’s a good creed.” Then he smiled, “Of course, it would put me out of business eventually but not in my lifetime I think.” His face went serious again, “I own this factory, and I won’t have the death of a good man on my conscience. China needs people like you to live.”
Mr. Ha was released with the words ringing in his ears—China needs people like you to live! He said, “That man could have been a Herod or a Nero and put me to death, but he chose to be an Ahikam. He let me live, knowing that the Word of God, which he barely understood, still needed more proclaiming.”
Years later, when I interviewed him, Mr. Ha was not so active. His ministry was largely over. Advanced arthritis had gripped his frame, forcing him into strange positions. But he reflected on that experience in these words: “Thus I missed becoming a martyr like my brother. But I had come to a full realization that it is as much an honor to be spared as to be martyred. In China, Watchman Nee is not greater than Wang Mingdao, just because Nee died in prison and Wang survived. I took in at last that I was not less worthy than my brother because I was spared. God had need of me and sent an Ahikam. Being delivered to preach again is as great an act of God as being strengthened to die in faith.”
He stopped and cupped some water in his arthritic hands. He sipped it thoughtfully, then declared, “But we in the suffering church make too much of those who have been killed for their faith and too little of those who have been spared. Maybe that is inevitable, but I do say quietly in response to that attitude, ‘Why do you want your Bible to shrink in half? God spared many prophets so that they would finish speaking his words, but you want to stop them half-way through their ministries.’”
Mr. Ha died soon after I met him. And his final words to me were these: “If it wasn’t for people like Ahikam, our Bible would be very thin. Thank God for the preacher who is saved from a martyr’s death. It is no sin to be spared that the Word of God may continue to be preached. Not all God’s words must be written in blood!”
The story of the persecuted church is seen most dramatically in the blood of the martyrs, but the larger story is also written in the flesh of the living. Both stories need to be put together for a true understanding to emerge. After all, stars can only shine at night!
We see, then, that if we are to understand the persecuted, it is necessary to step back and get the larger picture. If persecution isn’t just about martyrs, then what is this larger story? Perhaps we might begin this journey by asking what conditions result in the creation of martyrs. An Indian Christian put it more colorfully: “You’ve got to realize the lies come before the lashes.” The violence that results in martyrs usually takes place long after the church has lost its battle for freedom. Sometimes the church does not even know it is in a battle until it is too late. Persecution creeps up on the church unawares. To appreciate this, we must travel to the India of the 1990s and meet the world’s cleverest persecutors of that era—the Hindu extremists.