Writes R.C. Sproul, “Most Christians salute the sovereignty of God, but believe in the sovereignty of man.”
That’s the quote that keeps coming to my mind as I think about the ways we Christians are tempted to construe the relationship between God and government when it comes to protecting Christians and the free exercise of their faith. “Governments are God’s chosen instruments to protect religious freedom” is a formulation frequently employed. It’s a formulation that fits well in a worldview where human beings and governments are the primary actors and God, while ultimately active in such matters, is indirectly actively (often through Christians as his “hands and feet.” And voice). Which is why (so the logic goes) we need to appeal to governments (specifically, Western liberal democracies) to intervene to protect Christians.
Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, an Iraqi Christian who is based in the UK, was certainly eerily accurate when in 2010 he predicted (during a service at the Syrian Orthodox Church in London) “If they [Iraqi Christians] stay [in Iraq] they will be finished one by one.” But was he correct in his assessment that governments needed to be the primary and direct protectors of our brothers and sisters in Iraq?
“The Christians are weak – they don’t have militia, they don’t have a (political) party,” he said.
“You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace – nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us.”
He accused the US of not delivering on its promises of democracy and human rights.
“Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We’ve lost many people and they’ve bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries,” he said.
“Why are we living now in this country, after we had a promise from America to bring us freedom, democracy?”
The archbishop called on the UK government to grant Christian Iraqis asylum, and called on the Iraqi government to protect Christians from militant attacks.
“Before they killed one, one, one but now, tens, tens. If they do that, they will finish us if we stay in Iraq,” he added.
These are not matters about which to speak lightly, casually, or hypothetically. Archbishop Athanasios Dawood was right: Real Iraqi Christians did stay…and real Iraqi Christians were finished. Was the problem US and UK government inactivity? Is the solution Christians calling more vocally on governments to care more actively about such matters and engage in greater levels of vigilance?
Liena seems to suggest a very different possibility. Liena is a Syrian Christian who is the narrator of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church video from our sister ministry, Voice of the Martyrs/US. She shares how she has prepared her children for the possibility that violent men may enter their home and kill them unless they renounce their faith in Christ. She counsels her children to maintain their faith even in the event of their parents’ death, and to say only “Jesus loves you, and we forgive you” before they die. And she does not indicate that this is a backup plan to be enacted only in the case of the failure of the local Christian militia. “Am I a good mother for teaching my children such things?” she asks at video’s end.
I suspect Josef Ton, the octagenarian Romanian theologian whom I quoted at length in my post last week on how Christian appeals should be directed to God, not government, would say yes. He wrote about one of his many interrogations for Christian activity this way:
On the 25th of October 1974, I was summoned to the Secret Police Headquarters. They ushered me into a room with a long table, covered with red cloth, having six chairs behind it. In front of it, there was a much shorter table, with one chair behind it facing the long table. I was asked to stand behind the smaller table while six ferocious-looking men came and sat down at the long table and then I sat down behind the smaller one. One of the six men was a Colonel, dressed in full military uniform. That man stood up and read my indictment. It stated that I was accused of committing the crime of “propaganda that endangers the security of the state,” and that offence, according to the penal code, was punishable with 5 to 15 years in prison. Then, the Colonel delivered a speech in which he told me how grave my situation was. When I was finally given a chance to speak, I said, “Mr. Colonel, let me explain to you how I see what is happening here. What is taking place here is not between you and me. It is between me and my God. My Lord obviously has some dealings with me here. I do not yet know what they are. It is very likely that He wants to teach me a few things. I only know, Sir, that you will only do to me what my God has planned for you to do to me. And you will not go one inch beyond that, because you are only instruments in the hands of my God.”
At that moment, I no longer saw six ferocious people with dark, hateful faces in front of me. I saw six puppets, and above them, I saw the hand of my beloved Father pulling six strings. The Colonel did not like my description of the events of that day, but for me it was the best illustration of the sovereignty of God! My Lord is in perfect control, even of His enemies, and He has His sovereign ways of fulfilling His plans even through them. Now, if that is the case, why should I be afraid of them?
One possible cause for fear may be the recognition that our God seems to have a very different set of values from the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” set enshrined in our legal codes. I notice that John 3:16 is cited much more commonly as a favorite Bible verse of encouragement than Matthew 10:28, in which Jesus says, seemingly quite seriously,
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
(Just for context’s sake, it is worth noting that this is the verse that precedes the much more frequently favorited “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” notice how the sentimental greeting card feel is incinerated when the two verses are read together, as Jesus no doubt intended them to be.)
Is it untrue that Christians today seem to be more afraid of ISIS and North Korea than the Lord Jesus? If so, is it possible that Jesus does not regard this as understandable but rather as an odd and unacceptable affront by believers against his Father’s glory?