The bigger picture

The recent kidnapping of hundreds of school girls by the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, in Nigeria is a tragedy that has both shocked the world and gotten its attention.  Hopefully, the world won’t miss the bigger story going on just behind the scenes.

Let me start here by getting something off my chest: the members of Boko Haram should be hunted down with ruthless efficiency and made to pay the fullest measure possible for their crimes.  Furthermore comparisons of this evil group to any Christian group, Southern Baptist or otherwise, the likes of which I have seen made by multiple ABPnews/Herald authors recently stem from either a willful distortion of the truth or else a disturbingly deep ignorance of the respective worldviews at play.  Islam and any form of Christianity–be it one with which you agree theologically on most points or not–come from profoundly different worldviews, and while those worldviews may on occasion agree about social behaviors, to suggest that they start from the same place reveals that one is badly misinformed about the facts of each.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to the bigger issue.  The kidnapping and who knows what else perpetrated by these evil men on these innocent girls is hardly the first or the worst of their crimes.  They have been murdering, mutilating, and massacring their way across Nigeria for a decade.  A few months ago they sneaked into a college dorm with many Christian students and hacked dozens of them to death with machetes.  But, what seems to have become their signature calling card is bombing churches.  In case I’m not clear enough let me be more so: While Boko Haram has been a thorn in the side of the Nigerian government, attacking a number of state targets, their most frequent targets have been Christians.  If you live in Nigeria, particularly in the north, and you are a Christian, you have a big target on your back.

The truth, though, is actually broader than this.  With a frighteningly increasing frequency, if you are a Christian and you live in or near the Muslim-dominant Middle East, you have a big target on your back.  Whether or not you agree with the premise or execution of the war in Iraq, that proved to be the latest linchpin, or at least the convenient excuse for radical Muslims across the Middle East to reignite a silent war on Christians.  The logic ran: the U. S. is a Christian nation; they are attacking Muslims and Islam; we will kill their brothers and sisters within our borders in retribution.  And, recent evidence shows that it’s working.  The population of Christians in the Middle East has fallen dramatically in recent years.  This is happening in Nigeria, in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq, and others.  Far more than being merely a Christian problem, the attempts on the part of radical Muslims to murder or simply scare Christians out of the region has become one of the most significant human rights issues of our time.

Let’s put some numbers on this just to lend a little extra weight to the gravity.  In 2000 Christians accounted for about 26% of the population in the Middle East.  Today that number is down to 10%.  In Iraq alone prior to 2003 there were 1.3 million Christians.  Today there are fewer than 500,000 and possibly as few as 200,000.  The archbishop of the Armenian Church in Iraq suggested that if the current pattern continues within a generation it may not be possible to find Christians in the war-torn nation.  Church leaders used to encourage believers to remain in the land.  Today they can’t do this any longer with a clear conscience.

There are some courageous Christians who have remained to serve not merely their flocks, but all those who are suffering thanks to the United States’ badly mishandled exit from the region along with the increasingly aggressive actions of various radical Muslim groups in the region.  There are those like the Rev. Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Church in Baghdad who fearlessly and selflessly (his wife does not live in the country with him and he has been battling multiple sclerosis for 17 years) minister the Gospel to all those within his parish.  There are those like Bishop Antoine Audo who at 67 is still actively ministering in his Aleppo parish even as the city has been going down in flames all around him with the threat of the radical Muslim rebels (who have been known to actively target Christians in non-strategic places, who are openly linked with Al Qaeda, and who received support from the U. S.) a constant source of stress.

In spite of these heroes on the ground, though, without a much more coherent involvement at the governmental level, while their work will matter much in kingdom terms, it’s impact will not last long in this world.  Meanwhile, in this country, where in spite of the fact that our freedoms to pursue our faith are eroding we are still a long ways from the threat of extinction, many in the church seem content to fixate on things that will not matter much if practicing our faith became illegal as it functionally is in these other places; issues that pale rather sharply in comparison to what our brothers and sisters around the world are facing.  We debate things like whether or not the church has been wrong for most of the last 2,000 years to condemn a certain type of non-procreative sexual behavior.  We debate things like just how involved in ministry women should be, condemning those who don’t agree with us and comparing them to terrorists.  We debate things like what the original contributors to the Bible meant when they were writing or whether and where a cultural filter needs to be applied to make it more palatable for modern people.

Now, don’t miss my point here: these are not unimportant issues per se, but they are the kinds of issues believers face when the vast majority of challenges to living out their faith are internal ones; the kinds of issues with which Jesus’ followers wrestle when they have a great deal of time to spend theologically navel-gazing, allowing sin-corrupted processes of reasoning to conflate issues of foundational import with those which are mere personal preference.  They are issues that need to be addresses at one time or another so that we can make certain we are faithfully living out the Gospel lifestyle, and God has given believers in this nation a great deal of time to do so.  But, let us not forget that there is a spiritual war raging not far from our borders that makes the kinds of issues over which we spend a great deal of time squabbling seem rather petty.  For many believers around the world the biggest issue they face is whether or not they will survive the walk to church.  We can’t yet touch that with a stick.

So how, then, shall we live?  Three things.  First, let us continue to work diligently to make sure we understand with the greatest amount of clarity possible what it means to faithfully live out the image of Christ in our culture according to the very best apprehension of the Biblical text we can get, and let us winsomely offer this clarity to a culture badly in need of Gospel repair.  Second, let us show a great deal more charity toward those whose apprehension and application of the text differs from ours in one significant manner or another.  Grossly inaccurate characterizations don’t help anyone and often leave our offended brothers and sisters wasting time defending themselves instead of advancing the kingdom.  Third, let us advocate openly and actively for our brothers and sisters who are currently living in harm’s way.  This administration’s record on this has been poor, but it has shown a willingness to act in response to sufficient political pressure.  We need to be sure we are applying this pressure whenever we can.  Let us also be active in prayer for believers around the world.  This is the most effective tool we have.  Let us be praying for those of our spiritual family who are in harms way and unite around this important issue.  Perhaps this will serve to put our usual squabbles in their proper perspective.

Jonathan Waits

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Jonathan is the pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, VA. He's the husband of one beautiful woman and the father of three active boys. A graduate of Denver Seminary, he loves connecting the dots between the Christian worldview and culture.

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