Shaped by persecution

Oppressed Christians show faith can't be stopped

Jan 29, 2018 by

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As part of a privileged Christian majority, do Mennonites in North America still carry remnants of their martyr past? For centuries, persecution shaped the character of Mennonite communities. Early Anabaptists converts met in secret as outlaw heretics. Under threat of imprisonment and death, their fellowship become more than a worshiping community. It was way of life. Gathering in rural enclaves, Anabaptists learned self-reliance, economically and socially. The descendants of martyrs silenced with tongue screws let their holy living speak for itself. Persecution made them “the quiet in the land.”

The imprint of persecution that shaped Mennonite identity persists especially in branches of Anabaptism like the Amish and other conservative groups. Those who were faithful unto death remain a living source of inspiration.

Alongside the testimony of martyred ancestors stands the witness of today’s persecuted church. A new report by Open Doors USA, which monitors global religious oppression, presents a sobering reminder that Christians still suffer for their faith. Almost one in 12 Christians around the world lives in a place where practicing their religion is forbidden or punishable by law.

In a time of reckoning for sexual abuse and harassment, the plight of Christian women is gaining attention. Open Doors says Christian women often face “double persecution” due to their faith and gender. Rape, sexual harassment and forced marriages are among the tactics of Islamic and Hindu extremists who target Christian women, according to Open Doors.

While some persecutors have religious motives, entire faiths are not to blame. Christ calls us to make peace with Muslims and others tagged as enemies. Self-styled Muslims who commit acts of terror defy the peaceful ideals of Islam just as much as supposedly Christian white supremacists contradict the faith they claim.

Anabaptist Christians are among those suffering for their faith. In Nigeria (ranked No. 14 on the Open Doors list of countries with the worst persecution), Church of the Brethren members have endured attacks by Boko Haram. Some of the 276 girls abducted in the April 2014 Chibok school kidnapping were Brethren. A Dec. 23 Wall Street Journal article described how Christian girls were threatened with rape or death if they refused to marry a Boko Haram fighter.

The Anabaptists of Ethi­o­pia prove persecution may cause the opposite of its intended effect. From 5,000 souls when Communists gained power in 1974, the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia has grown to nearly a half-million members and adherents. Its sister churches in neighboring Eritrea (No. 6 on the Open Doors list) risk imprisonment and confiscation of property for practicing their faith.

News of repression in China (No. 43) is astonishing: On Jan. 9, authorities demolished with dynamite one of China’s largest evangelical churches, the Golden Lampstand in Shanxi Province. More than 50,000 Christians had worshiped there. Fearing that Christianity threatens its authority, the Communist Party has stepped up its efforts to suppress the faith.

Like the early Anabaptists, persecuted believers today rely on each other when oppressors turn against them. Suffering unites their community and strengthens their faith. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he counted the persecuted among the blessed. What will the comfortable do to receive a blessing?

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