What is the lesson for Christian missionaries operating on this side of Kenneth Bae’s release? If we think the lesson is, “from now on we need to be even more covert about our Christian identity and work,” we will be back in the very uncomfortable classroom again all too soon.
The case North Korea is building against Christian missionaries is simple:
Christians say they are doing one thing when in reality they are doing another. Therefore, nothing Christians say or do should be trusted.
In a piece from last week entitled After Bae release, Christian groups tread carefully in North Korea, Bill Rigby and Sohee Kim interviewed several missionaries on the conclusions they are drawing about their work in light of Kenneth Bae’s release. Without impugning the reporting of Rigby and Kim, I would note that I have been through enough interviews in life that I would caution against drawing conclusions about any of the missionaries or organizations cited based simply on their quotes in the article. Answering interview questions is hard. I often finish an interview and only then realize what I wish I would have said. And I have sometimes felt a reporter highlighted a less important statement I made while leaving out a more important one. And sometimes I think I have made the context clear to a reporter, when in fact I have not.
So with all of these caveats in mind, I would say that I am not troubled as much by what is said by missionaries in the article as by what is not being said publicly frequently enough. What follows here is what I think needs to be said, and agreed to, by all of us simply as self-evident truths of the Christian life from which we as missionaries are not exempted by vocation.
I hasten to note that I do not write these in opposition to Kenneth, or any missionary. To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. I write these things because to me they are the fundamentals of Christian mission and ought to be relatively straightforward and noncontroversial things on which we can and should agree moving forward, in light of what we hopefully have learned. To the degree that we move forward without embracing these things, the wrong kind of trouble crouches at our door, and it will master us.
- We should tell the truth. The founder of the Voice of the Martyrs movement, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, said that we should never lie. He explained that this does not mean that we have to shout from the rooftops to everyone, telling them everything we are doing. But it does mean that our yes must be yes and our no most be no.
- We should not undertake any ministry strategy that is predicated on deception. If a ministry strategy requires that we misrepresent ourselves or our purpose, it is not a ministry strategy in which we should engage.
- We should never underestimate what God can do with our transparency and weakness. If telling the truth about what we are doing seems crazy and deadly, chances are we are on the right track.
- Not even the most noble missionary end justifies an ignoble missionary means. If we engage in deception, we should expect that not only will the North Korean government seek to expose us, the Lord Jesus will, too.
- We must model right Christian conduct at all times. If we engage in deception in order to make disciples, we will raise up disciples who engage in deception. They will have learned it from us, and it would be better that a millstone be tied around our necks than that we would teach others to deceive in the name of the Lord Jesus.
- We should work as hard at the “innocent as doves” part as we do the “shrewd as serpents” part. Even among our enemies–especially among our enemies–we should have a reputation for acting honorably in all things. We should be so known for our honesty that our enemies consider it a weakness through which they can seek to entrap us. We should not confound the North Korean authorities with the creativity of our concealments but instead with the honesty of our professions.
- If we decide to do business as missions as a strategy, we should do our business as unto the Lord, as our reasonable worship. We should first become excellent–truly, excellent–at running our widget business in Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, before we open up a widget business at the ends of the earth. Our God is the God who rewards faithfulness in a little with a lot. He desires to entrust his hardware stores at the ends of the earth to those who have proven to be the best hardware store owners in Jerusalem, not those who need on the job training in the newest location he is opening.
- We must put into practice the words of the venerable Sammy Davis, Jr.: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. The Urban Dictionary defines this wise proverb thusly: “A ‘hip’ expression of the 1960’s-70’s that advises you not to do something risky unless you are willing and able to accept the full weight of the consequences.” One even greater than Sammy Davis, Jr. once said, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him.” So before we do missionary work that could get us imprisoned, we must train for imprisonment. A good way to begin is to cast aside the sin that so easily besets us.
- We should not focus on making governments happy or satisfied, and we should accept the punishments they mete out as part of the consequences of being ambassadors for a very unpopular kingdom. When God’s word conflicts with the words of governments, we are to say to those in authority, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Our examplars are Peter and John, who, when they were judged for a good deed done for a helpless man, considered it joy to suffer shame for the name of the Lord Jesus. The public shaming was as essential to their ambassadorship as the good deed.
- We should testify to kings, yes, but not enter into business agreements with them.
One of the missionaries in the Rigby/Kim article is quoted as saying, “We have to come up with a strategy to avoid another case like Kenneth Bae’s.” Myself, I come more and more to the conclusion that the problem with our strategies is that they are already too clever by half. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus actually lays out the strategy he intends us to use. It is disarmingly simple, straightforward, and transparent. I think it is not that Jesus’ strategy has been tried and found wanting with regard to North Korea mission but rather that it has not yet been tried completely and fully implemented.
For this reason, I suggest that the appropriate way forward for us on this side of Kenneth Bae’s release is, paradoxically, not more strategy but less. We must make sure that strategy never becomes a means of avoiding taking up our cross daily. Eliminating carelessness and minimizing risk, yes. Discussions about faithfulness to the Scriptures, yes. But seeking out strategies that shear off the name of Christ in the hope of making things safer for us and others, very dangerous indeed.
After all, if you carry a cross daily in public, it will be impossible to avoid being noticed.