Jesus’ Beatitude about persecution has a special resonance in Punjab, Pakistan, right now.
Earlier this month, Muslim mobs attacked and burned 26 churches, accusing their neighbors of desecrating the Qur’an. Muslim extremists regularly use the country’s anti-blasphemy laws to settle scores with, or to punish, the minority Christian population.
Of course, sometimes anti-Christian persecution is more subtle. Consider, for example, Hitler’s strategy. The Nazis didn’t merely take over Germany by force of arms. They established a Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, headed by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi propaganda machine reached every corner of German society through newspapers, radio, posters, films, and rallies. The media portrayed Hitler and the Nazi party as the saviors of Germany, promising to restore the country to its former glory and eliminate “enemies” of the state, including Jews, communists, homosexuals, and other minority groups.
Responding to the Nazi lies, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to deepen the faith of the Confessing Church and prepare it for the coming storm. His seminary at Finkenwalde employed the Beatitudes.
In the final Beatitude, found in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Eventually Bonhoeffer was arrested and thrown into a Gestapo prison. There, in dismal darkness, the radiant community of Finkenwalde—rooted in the gospel—bore heavenly fruit.
Sigismund Payne Best, an Englishman imprisoned near Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, later described Bonhoeffer as “all humanity and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, or joy in every smallest event in life, and of a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. . . . He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”
Bonhoeffer was ready because the Finkenwalde experience had instilled in him the requisite courage and faith to see Christ through the encircling darkness. As Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come, and to die.”
Such faith regards suffering and persecution as badges of true discipleship, for the cross of Jesus is the shape and substance of our identity. It is not the mark of a super-Christian; it is simply the proof of genuine faith.
You might call this sort of faith “Christianity as Martyrdom.” The word “martyr,” which means “one who bears witness,” illustrates the missional impulse of this vision: disciples who pursue gospel witness as a matter of first importance, even at the expense of their lives.
According to Open Doors, 360 million Christians worldwide face “very high or extreme” levels of persecution for their faith. Consider that the entire U.S. population is only 331.9 million people. Imagine all the people you see during a day: the neighbors, the drivers in the cars next to you in rush hour traffic, your coworkers, the diners in the restaurant, then multiply that across our country, plus another 28 million. That is the number of Christians who face imprisonment, physical violence, or death in many places for the simple act of owning a Bible or fellowshiping with other believers.
Open Doors notes that in Afghanistan:
The Taliban’s takeover of power in August 2021 has forced most Christians either further underground or away from the country entirely. Many (if not all) house groups closed, with believers forced to leave behind everything they own. More than a year after the Taliban’s takeover, any promises they made about recognizing freedoms have proved to be false. Following Jesus remains a death sentence, if discovered.
The rigid form of society imposed by the militant group leaves no room for deviation, meaning Christians – almost all of whom are converts from Islam – must keep their faith secret. Leaving Islam is considered shameful and punishable by death under the prevailing Islamic law. Consequently, Christian converts face dire and violent consequences if their new faith is discovered, even from family members who must save their so-called ‘honor’ by getting rid of them.
“The Taliban are conducting a door-to-door search to find us,” says one secret Afghan believer, named Gulshan. “God alone knows who has informed them about the whereabouts and identities of the believers. If they find us, they kill believers on the spot.”
We in America cannot fully grasp the anxiety and pain our brothers and sisters in Christ face on a daily basis, and we need to pray for their deliverance. And yet, Jesus calls every single one of these endangered brothers and sisters blessed. In some counterintuitive way, they are called to rejoice and be glad as they await their heavenly reward.
With anti-Christian worldviews and propaganda on the rise in the West, do we really believe this? Regarding persecution, the relevant question isn’t Why us? It’s Why not us? If and when the time comes, may our crucified and risen Lord pronounce the same blessing on us.
Chris Castaldo, PhD, is lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville and author of the new book, The Upside Down Kingdom, from Crossway.