What distinguishes persecuted Christians from Christians in the rest of the world?
Why do reports of persecution of Christians in so-called “free” countries feel so much less compelling than reports emanating from countries like North Korea and Iraq?
Why do Christians in so-called “free” countries respond to reports of North Korean and Iraqi Christians with awe, respect, and pity but rarely emulation?
The answer begins with the letter “V”.
The Bible never uses the word “vulnerable,” but the word fairly well exudes from every page.
- The Israelites march out of Egyptian slavery…and into desert-driven thirst and hunger.
- David stands before the towering, menacing Goliath…with no armor and a few stones.
- Jesus stands before Pilate as he asks, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Because we have the benefit of reading these stories from outside the book, it is often our reflexive belief that of course the Israelites were safe in God’s provision (we can hardly believe they grumbled amidst God’s mighty miracles!), and of course Goliath was the vulnerable one, not David (we marvel that Saul and the Israelite army were such cowards!), and of course Jesus, not Pilate, had all the power (we chuckle at Pilate’s hubris!).
All of these reactions are correct, of course. And yet they overlook one very central truth:
God’s perfect provision is only discernible to us in these cases because the aforementioned figures entered into absolute vulnerability.
And vulnerability is something that those of us in “free” nations–unbelievers as well as believers–are resolutely committed to avoiding. In Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Scott Bader-Saye suggests that safety–defined as the absence of vulnerability–is implicitly accepted as life’s great good, goal, and inalienable right.
So completely do we embrace safety as life’s great good and goal, in fact, that our orientation toward persecuted Christians is to believe that their sacrifices are not the normal Christian life in action but are in fact either supererogatory (i.e., truly above and beyond the norm) or tragic (i.e., calling forth our deepest concern that these things are a violation of the norm). We embrace instinctively the idea that all Christians deserve a safe place to practice their faith in peace, and that political and even military power should of course be used to enforce this great good and goal.
But we would do well to stop and think deeply about whether the God who told the Apostle Paul “My power is made perfect in weakness” esteems safety and the absence of vulnerability in the same way and to the same degree as we do.
The story of the rich young ruler, for example, may be a story about something deeper than money. Christians often debate just how generalizable is Jesus’ command to “sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” We often comfort ourselves with the reality that Jesus did not repeat this call in this same way to anyone else. The moral of the story, we like to say, is not that money is bad but that we should not put our faith in it.
But what if the issue is not money but vulnerability? What if what Jesus is after is us moving from “safety”–which we define as freedom from vulnerability–to vulnerability itself, on the knowledge that Christian growth requires it? What if the reason why illness, poverty, job loss, and brokenness are such effective precursors to Christian growth is because as long as there is something or someone else for us to rely on, that is precisely what we’ll do?
To go a little further down the rabbit hole, what if Jesus’ calls for the rich to share with the poor aren’t designed to equitably redistribute wealth (toward a world from which vulnerability has been expunged) but rather to consign all of us to a life that eschews worldly standards of safety in favor of divine ones?
Jeffrey Tranzillo suggests that the opposite of voluntary vulnerability is moral vulnerability. In other words, the inevitable consequence of a life rooted in safety is a life that regularly sways into sin–whether fear, covetousness, lust, or any of the other concupiscent indiscretions in which we engage to comfort ourselves. Tranzillo goes on to make an equally remarkable insight, namely, that among those who have no choice whether to be vulnerable or not in a given situation, the ones who accept and embrace their vulnerability experience no diminishing of their personhood, in contrast to those who resent their vulnerability and would wish it away if given the slightest opportunity.
All of this leads us rather quickly back to the questions about persecuted Christians that rattle us so much. How are persecuted Christians different than the rest of us? They are different because not only are they vulnerable, but they accept and embrace their vulnerability rather than shedding it or seeking to shed it; i.e., they act with the conviction that God’s strength really is made perfect in weakness (even weakness unto death). Why do stories of persecution of “free” Christians not move us nearly so much? Because so little vulnerability is evident in their lives (despite their often insistent protestations of the magnitude of their victimhood). Why do we respond to persecuted believers in awe and pity but not emulation?
Because, just like the rich young ruler, the thought of voluntary movement from safety to profound comprehensive life vulnerability as a precursor to meaningful discipleship leaves us walking away, grieving.