What Real Persecution Looks Like

What Real Persecution Looks Like

FAITH ON TRIAL: Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

For most Christians, answering whether they believe Jesus is the Son of God, died and rose again for their sins is an easy question with an obvious answer.

It’s easy, that is, for Christians across the United States. However, the same answer guaranteeing eternal life could elsewhere yield a death sentence.

While we can imagine that scenario in, say, first-century Rome, a modern-day pastor facing martyrdom in 2011 is almost unconscionable. But it’s really happening for Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor imprisoned right now in Iran. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested two years ago for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools.

Nadarkhani was convicted of “apostasy” late last month and sentenced to death by the Islamic nation. But the story has taken several strange twists since, with Iranian officials now claiming Nadarkhani actually was convicted of crimes of rape and extortion. This curious 180-degree turn by Iran, in the wake of an international outcry against Nadarkhani’s conviction, has left many observers scratching their heads.

Whatever the latest spin from Iran, it’s clear that Nadarkhani’s commitment to his Christian faith lies at the heart of the case against him. According to the International Business Times, Nadarkhani was deemed an apostate because Iranian clerics determined that his ancestors were followers of Islam and that his professed belief in Christ constituted a rejection of that faith.

Given four chances to “repent and convert to Islam,” the Times reported that Nadarkhani refused. And for that, he was sentenced to die.

 “Repent means to return. What should I return to?” he reportedly said in testimony during his four-day trial last month. “To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I cannot.”

And I cannot imagine that level of boldness in the face of actual persecution. This is far beyond being called a “Jesus freak” or a “holy roller.” I’ve even evolved to a point of shakingoff discrimination I experience because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I don’t know what process I’d have to go through mentally to fearlessly stare down death just because I believe Jesus is who He said He is.

Yet we all worship among those who are often quick to call it persecution when they become the subject of the latest church gossip, when others disagree withthem, or even when their bosses require themto work on a Sunday. They’ll sing and shout that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” from Isaiah 54:17, but the battle cry would assuredly have a lower volume if the weapon were death and prospering meant finally meeting Jesus face to face.

Nadarkhani’s case brings home Jesus’ words to his new disciples, formally introduced in Matthew 10, to expect to suffer in much the way He did. While we remember the ridicule, the scorn, and the disregard Jesus suffered and expect to experience it all as we live out a Christian lifestyle, we forget that as He died, we could die also. Western-dwelling Christians have been fortunate to avoid those more serious consequences, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t happen.

And the threat for Nadarkhani remains very real, though his lawyer said last week that the sentence could still be overturned. It’s hard to believe, though, considering Iranian officials have more recently accused Nadarkhani of these additional charges. Others argue that even if he evades execution, Nadarkhani could remain in jail.

As much as I am disheartened when I consider Nadarkhani’s plight, I’m encouraged by his faith, which serves as a platform for witnessing to others — just as Jesus said such persecution would. “Physically, he looks weak,” his lawyer said of him last week, as reported by Reuters. “But emotionally his belief in Christ is keeping his spirits high.”

What if it were you in Nadarkhani’s place? Could you be as resolute in your faith?

When you’re Christian and actively trying to live it out past Sunday, you learn that it isn’t as easy to pull off as some make it seem. You risk losing friends because you might not support some of their lifestyle choices. You endure name-calling because you avoid using profanity. Maybe you don’t go out to lunch as often because you’re giving more money to your church. Those are small sacrifices compared to the possibility that Nadarkhani might have to die for just stating and standing by his Christians beliefs. The prospect alone should be a wake-up call for everyone with the freedom to openly proclaim Christ as Savior of the world.

Such a proclamation doesn’t have to come from a bullhorn. It should be evident in the way we live, the way we treat one another, and the way we support various ministries, including our own churches. Above all, though, it should come in how we share with others the ways that Christ’s life has made our lives more meaningful and abundant.

Rather than wavering, our boldness in professing Christ — loving out loud, living to honor Him, and increasing His kingdom — should increase knowing that, at least for the time being, we can do it without the threat of being executed.

The Troy Davis Dilemma

The Troy Davis Dilemma

REASONABLE DOUBT: Protesters chanted and prayed near the Jackson, Georgia, prison where death row inmate Troy Davis was put to death on September 21. (David Tulis/Newscom Photo)

The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis yesterday evening at 11:08pm. Twitter activity subsequently mushroomed, yielding three Davis related trends — #RIPTROYDAVIS, #DearGeorgia, and #JusticeSystem. This post from Nightline anchor Terry Moran was frequently re-tweeted:

Questions abound. If we begin with a common political science definition of government as the monopoly of legitimate coercion — and our general acceptance of police, taxes, and the like suggest that we do — we might further ask: Under what circumstances can coercion be legitimately exercised? Is capital punishment a legitimate exercise of force?

If so, did it make sense to apply it in the case of Mr. Davis? The question remains relevant, for as Rashad Robinson of the Color of Changes notes, the movement against a broken criminal justice system continues even after Mr. Davis’ death.

Many of the people who lamented the execution of Mr. Davis had virtually nothing to say regarding the plight of convicted white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who was also executed last night in Texas for the racially motivated 1998 dragging death of James Byrd. Many no doubt felt the death penalty was appropriate in that clear-cut case. But some wonder whether a truly comprehensive pro-life ethic can sustain such a morally selective approach to justice.

To dig deeper on the political and policy front, I commend two writings to you: one by former FBI director William Sessions; the other by Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS News. But our task here is to take up theological considerations. The parting words of Mr. Davis himself occasion such reflection. Prior to his death, Mr. Davis said the following to prison officials: “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.” Mr. Davis’ invocation of mercy and blessing raises a deeper question: Does God’s blessing — or more fundamentally, can God’s blessing — reside over the death penalty at all?

One can imagine canonical arguments being made for the death penalty, particularly from Old Testament texts in Deuteronomy. Romans 13, moreover, is frequently cited by Christians who support the death penalty to buttress their view that the State does not bear the sword — or in this case, the tools of lethal injection — in vain. They might further add that the death penalty, rightly administered, contains deterrent value and restrains sin in a fallen world. Finally, the claim could be made — although I have not recently seen anyone explicitly for it — that a rule-of-law society demands that we enforce whatever is in the books, regardless of any private dissent such enforcement might entail. To do otherwise, according to some streams of conservative jurisprudence, would be tantamount to legislating from the bench.

While I don’t find the foregoing points to be persuasive, they are nevertheless a plausible way to construe Scripture given certain conservative commitments about law, punishment, and order. Such arguments, while canonical, are not Christological reasons. Speaking plainly, I cannot envision a Christ-centered argument for the death penalty. Allow me to briefly state my reasons.

At the most basic — and yet subversive level of memory — we recall that Christ himself was unjustly executed on a Roman cross. Neither the glory of the resurrection nor the doctrine of atonement should cause us to airbrush over the atrocity of the crucifixion. To Christians who support the death penalty, I ask: By what exegetical assumptions and theological reasoning does one distinguish the divine injunction against killing — i.e., “thou shalt not kill” — from the public administration of capital punishment, particularly in states like Texas and Georgia?

Secondly, there is the question of moral authority to administer capital punishment. With Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the ever-pithy preacher of Riverside Church, I aver: “Humanity does not possess the moral authority to kill; we only have the means.”

Thirdly, I think Walter Wink rightly argues that Christ’s atoning death on the cross signals the end of the myth of redemptive violence. Wink, in substance, eulogizes the narrative that barbaric means bring about the praiseworthy end of retributive justice.

Ultimately, in every age, Christians proclaim the death of Jesus Christ until he comes. Penultimately, in the age of Obama, we would do well to invoke the unjust death by execution of Troy Davis until democracy comes and our criminal justice system is reformed.

Note: For follow-up on criminal justice reform, visit colorofchange.org and The Innocence Project.