In an earlier post I said I’d struggled with Christmas this year, that all the busyness and stress and associated chaos of 2016 had pushed out the reality of the Incarnation. But while that post was an honest attempt to grapple with faith and feelings, I have to confess its self-indulgence. After all, I still freely celebrated Christmas yesterday; I went to the morning service, the family gathered, we ate turkey, kids unwrapped a small mountain of presents.
No-one was arrested. No-one firebombed the church.
As part of the capital-C church, I’m theologically part of a family of believers that encompasses the world. Christians facing presection under IS, or in North Korea, are my brothers and sisters in faith as well as shared humanity. And yet I don’t live like that; I get introverted and insular and neglect the bonds of blood that unite me to the persecuted church. Maybe that’s something to remember on the Feast of St. Stephen, the day on which we commemorate the first Christian martyr.
Many Christians out there face arrest, face violence, face ostracism and shunning. Many find themselves unable to get jobs, or disowned by their families. Many see their churches burned; this happens even in a staunchly Christian environment like the US. Many claiming refuge for their faith find themselves having to articulate complex doctrine or dogma in a second or third language, and yet true faith isn’t a measure of someone’s academic theology, it’s reflected in their lives and their hearts. I’m sure many people turned away for not being a ‘true’ Christian have faith that would put me to shame, even if they’d struggle to articulate a theology of the Trinity on the fly.
How we respond to this affects everything – how we pray, how we worship, how we talk about God. The causes we support, the politics we espouse, how we respond to issues like the selling of arms and the welcome we give to refugees. It affects the rhetoric we legitimise, the actions we’re willing to overlook. If we truly believe we’re the sons and daughters of God, we need to make that a reality. We ignore our family at our peril.
There’s another side to this though; sometimes, in the comfortable West, it’s difficult to identify with the persecuted; rather, it’s easier to become the persecutors. Sometimes that’s because of our apathy, sometimes it’s because we see others as collateral damage in the face of a greater cause, sometimes it’s because we see them as enemies to be crushed. This cannot stand; the church thrives under persecution, but become the persecutor and eventually we die, we die but not before we become Cain.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. There have been plenty more since. We need to remember them, speak for them, amplify them. And we need to remember they’re our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, held together by the same blood, one church that holds together, even in the face of persecution, even in the face of suffering.