May 29, 2018
Wilberforce A!ert: Silence of the Western church
Around the world, people of faith are routinely denied the fundamental and inalienable human right to confess and express their faith according to the dictates of their conscience. In fact, according to recent Pew polling data, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population lives in religiously oppressive countries.
While the faces of persecution vary — Uyghur Muslims in China, Baha’i in Iran, Yezidi in Iraq, or Christians in Nigeria — the outcome remains the same: harassment, fear, imprisonment, and even death simply because of what a person believes.
Earlier this month, 21Wilberforce participated in a daylong summit hosted by the Institute on Religion and Democracy that focused careful attention on the persecution of Christians globally. The intent was not to ignore or minimize the levels of persecution experienced by other faith groups, but to hone in on the question, “Why don’t Christians care about Christians?”
Global persecution of Christians has risen in the past several years, and Christianity is identified as the most persecuted religion in the world. In the Middle East alone, the suffering of Christians is particularly severe. In 2003, for example, Iraq’s Christian population numbered 1.3 million; today, only 250,000 remain. In Syria, the number of Christians continues to decline as the country’s protracted civil war continues.
Yet, with some notable exceptions, the church in America has been largely silent about the crisis facing the church in Iraq and the broader Middle East. How can this be?
Perhaps some fear being accused of “self-pleading” if they demand justice on behalf of their fellow Christians. Others may have been persuaded by the false narrative that religion in general (and Christianity in particular) is inherently oppressive — always the oppressor, never the oppressed.
These are flimsy objections at best, for we know it is the Christian pursuit of justice that animated the movement against slavery in the 18th century, led by William Wilberforce, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century, championed by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Christians have established respected universities and hospitals around the world. They run major feeding programs for the poor. The Salvation Army responds to every major humanitarian crisis in the world and does so in the name of Jesus. Mother Theresa helped the poorest of the poor in India out of a deep and abiding faith. Chuck Colson forged the trail on prison reform because of his faith in Jesus.
Imagine what the world would be like without Christians acting because of their faith. Indeed, if the church in the West fails to prioritize the plight of the church globally, it is naïve to expect government leaders will do so. Yet, too few in the American church seem burdened to the point of action for our suffering brethren overseas.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King addressed his fellow clergymen, speaking of his love for the church. Later, he admonished these same faith leaders: “I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church…I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent.”
Could we not substitute a few words and be left with a similar critique today? Might the imprisoned Pakistani Christian lament, “I thought I would be supported by the church in the West?” Or, the fearful Coptic Christian cry, “I thought the ministers in America would be among our strongest allies?” Does the Iraqi nun ask, “Why isn’t the church in the West doing more?”
As Christians, we have a moral obligation to respond to those persecuted for their faith. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” Remaining silent is simply not an option for Western Christians. The familiar quote, attributed to a friend of Christian apologist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, underscores this principle: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Frank R. Wolf, Distinguished Senior Fellow
- Watch and listen to Frank R. Wolf’s remarks at the IRD Global Christian Persecution Summit
- Consider how you can help 21Wilberforce advocate on behalf of Iraqi Christians
- Read Heirloom Love: Authentic Christianity for this Age of Persecution by Dominic Sputo
[Photo Credit: REUTERS/Philip Pullella]