Recently young Giovanni Rubeo was refused access to his Bible during his school’s free reading time. I was interested to learn more about his response to his teacher in light of the theology of persecution and suffering we teach to North Korean defectors who are training to be missionaries to their own people.
Last week I shared with them the above video and asked them what they thought about Rubeo’s situation. I thought it would be helpful for the defectors to compare/contrast Rubeo’s response with how Scripture tells us to respond.
Surprisingly, all of the North Korean defectors agreed that Rubeo was indeed being persecuted for his faith. They noted that the persecution wasn’t extreme and wasn’t physical in nature, but that nonetheless it was persecution.
But there was also a consensus in the class that young Rubeo and his father didn’t respond quite right to the persecution.
In The Shadow of the Cross, by Glenn Penner, points out that Scripture models three primary responses to persecution.
Flee – There are certain times when the Bible says that it is appropriate to flee or run away from persecution. The reason for the “fleeing” is important though, because the Bible never tells us to run away from persecution only for the purpose of avoiding suffering. God’s mission and God’s timing are always the most important things to consider. A good example of this are the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:23. He says,
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matthew 10:23).
Jesus tells his followers to escape to another city, not because he is seeking to save them from having to suffer, but because his mission was for them to go from city to city telling the people about Jesus. If they were to get trapped in one city then they wouldn’t be able to spread God’s message to the other cities that Jesus wanted them to go.
Courage – This is the most common response to persecution that we see in the Bible. For example, shortly after Jesus suffered, died and rose again, He gave a surprising command to his followers. He told them to “stay in Jerusalem,” (Acts 1:4) which was the very place where all of these terrible things had happened. I’m sure his followers may rather have received a command from him to flee to another town or village where they might have been safer, but Jesus told them simply to stay.
Fight – There are also times when it is okay to defend yourself. Jesus at one point in his suffering defended himself, not to protest his suffering but rather as a testimony to his innocence. The Apostle Paul is also a good example. Paul was regularly being persecuted and thrown in prison for telling others about Jesus Christ. One time, however, Paul told one of the high officials that they didn’t have the right to arrest him and that he had done nothing wrong.
But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:10-11).”
Again, it’s important to point out that Paul never fought in order to avoid suffering or even to maintain his own personal liberty. And it’s interesting to note that he didn’t even fight for his right to engage in private Christian activity, e.g., studying the Bible in public school. He did it to spread the message about which he was preaching.
After watching the video, the UU students felt that Rubeo had most closely resembled the “fight” response mentioned above. But the students (and myself) were uncomfortable with the way the Rubeos demanded an apology from the teacher.
Personally, I respect the courage that it took for young Rubeo to read his Bible in school, but I also sense that the outrage the Rubeo’s expressed had less to do with spreading the gospel and more to do with personal liberty.
The Bible promises that if we truly follow God, we will be persecuted, but my challenge to you is to respond to persecution, (flee, courage or fight) with an aim to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel and not simply with an aim to protect your right to be a disciple.