He leaned forward as he paused, before he spoke again: “Do you know what the astounding thing for me is?” he asked.
“That he refused while under such pressure?” I ventured.
“That is remarkable, yes – but, for me, the outstanding thing is that he still lives and witnesses in the same place.”
I was talking to Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International, about the work of his organisation. He was relating the story of a local celebratory in Nigeria, let’s call him Chinua, who spoke openly of his Christian faith on his radio programme.
One day, masked men clutching AK-47 assault rifles entered Chinua’s home. Holding a rifle to his face, they made Chinua kneel in front of his family. The men demanded he renounce his faith in Jesus. He looked at his family then turning to the gang of men simply said: “You know I can’t do that.”
Chinua was shot – summarily, coldly. The gunmen left him lying there, in front of his shocked family.
The next morning, neighbours found Chinua’s traumatised son kneeling beside him. The family had thought Chinua was dead, but the neighbours discovered he was still alive. An amazing story of God’s miraculous touch ensued – it resulted in his face being reconstructed and yes, he continues to live in the same house, proclaiming the same message of grace through Jesus Christ, daily exposed to a repeat of the horror he experienced. Incredible!
My time with Paul was gloriously inspirational, yet deeply challenging as I listened to humbling stories about humble people – ordinary people living in extraordinary situations and facing extraordinary challenges, but accomplishing extraordinary things. Paul’s organisation works with such extraordinary people all the time because Release International has a specialised ministry to, with and for the Persecuted Church. They provide for the needs of families of victims – both martyrs and prisoners – enabling the Church to survive persecution, facilitating the sharing of the gospel with its opponents and being the voice of the Persecuted Church. (For more information about the work of Release, visit the website here.)
In the West, we know that there are millions of Christians in other parts of the world who are persecuted. We hear of the isolated incidents – the abductions in Nigeria by Boko Haram, the imprisonments of house-church leaders in China, the constant oppression from Hindu nationalists in India with their violent opposition of the Church, including the killing or beating of pastors, the intense persecution of Christians in Iraq, first from Shia and latterly from Sunni extremists, in particular IS rebels who are seeking to establish a caliphate across Syria and Iraq and have forced Christians to flee from their homes, from their towns and from their countries. We are aware that it is a widespread challenge. All over the globe, people are suffering because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Often, I hear prayers being offered for our brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution. I don’t doubt that the prayers are sincere and I am sure that, for many who are reading this, such engagement with the Persecuted Church is not just an intellectual exercise, but a spiritual connection that brings emotional pain – a compassion that is felt in the depths of the soul.
But, I must confess that for me, it is mostly an intellectual awareness. I mean, it is not an awareness which travels inwards to the heart. I admit that, sadly, it seldom touches me as deeply as it could, and should.
Perhaps, part of the problem for me is the sense I have of being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this particular matter. It’s too immense to take in, and too big to actually do anything. Then there’s the distance – both geographically and culturally. I feel separated from it… from them…
But Paul’s stories of Chinua and others who walk the road of discipleship in such extreme conditions – who have come to experience what it really means to “deny oneself, to take up one’s cross, and to follow – to emulate – Jesus” (Matthew 16:24) – helped me to make this illuminating journey from intellectual awareness to compassion for brothers and sisters who have heard the same call, have given the same answer, but with such different consequences.
Jesus announced his missional priorities as follows:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord’ (Luke 4:18).
I can pray for those who are persecuted, as well as promote and support the work of individuals like Paul Robinson and organisations like Release International – the deliverance of the captives and the liberty of the oppressed are on the heart of God, therefore, we should do what we can.
Finally, I agree with Paul Robinson that the extraordinary expressions of discipleship demonstrated by these ordinary Christians can be of tremendous inspiration to us in the West. It is unlikely that I will ever be placed in a situation where I will be required to renounce my faith at gunpoint. But the resolve of Chinua, and the thousands like him whom I can read about, may help me the next time I hesitate to stand up for Jesus when my faith is challenged, or when sitting on a bus, I am reluctant to share the good news for fear of offending or causing discomfort to others, or to myself.
Perhaps you should invite someone from Release International to your fellowship for some first-hand inspiration and challenge.