“I see dead people”: On Hope in Missions

When considering the task of the Great Commission in light of the global plight, it is an overwhelming mission. If you’ve been watching the Arab Spring revolutions that have been devastating Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey recently you’ll get a pretty stark picture of the human heart. In spite of these nations attempting to throw off tyranny and run after the freedom that other nations seem to enjoy, the fires of revolutions have primarily brought devastation, economic hardship, and instability to regions where the flames have kindled. In Syria alone, nearly 100,000 people have died in a quest that likely ends in greater bondage than what was originally thrown off. In addition, these countries reside in the 10/40 Window, an area known to be incredibly hostile to the influence Christianity. Thus, it is a place where the spiritual lives of its people is reflected in the landscape: dry, arid and dead.  What hope does such a place have?

And yet dwelling on the woes of such an “obviously” troubled region can blind us to the deadness of our own country. If we turns their gaze to states closer to home, we realizes that even in places where freedom  and tolerance are celebrated and embraced, in the “land of the free” itself, there is a very real deadness. People abuse their freedom to indulge in a number of unholy practices, and idolize people, ideas, and things rather than worshiping God. While this may be a land of plenty, it is all the more deadly for its apparent benignity. What hope does such a place have?

In the book of Ezekiel we, along with the prophet, are led to ask the same question. The people of Israel had been conquered, slaughtered and carried off to foreign lands to be slaves. They trusted in the idols and gods of the nations surrounding them and in their own might. They failed to uphold their end of the covenant with Yahweh. He removed his protection after the Israelites consistently rejected the grace God consistently offered. God had promised that they would be a nation forever, that they would be ruled by the line of David for eternity and yet they were scattered to the four winds. How would it be possible for them to regain the land? What hope do such a people have?

When God enters in to clarify the issue, it is not to alleviate Ezekiel’s fears, but to confirm them. God begins by showing Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones (If you haven’t seen this depiction of it, go watch it, it’s well worth the two minutes). The bones are “very dry,” exceptionally lifeless even for bones, and they themselves cry out, “Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; We are cut off.” God asks his prophet, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” In a sense, God asks Ezekiel, “What hope does such a place have?” Ezekiel, standing in the midst of the desolation of an entire nation, knows that there is no way that these bones can live. But he doesn’t stop by just looking at the bones, he looks to the God who made the bones. He speaks to the Mighty One of Israel, and his reply demonstrates his faith and hope: “Oh Sovereign God, you alone know.”

When considering the spiritual status of the world, we need to look beyond what is humanly possible. We need to look to the one who created us, because He and He alone knows whether spiritual life can come to a person or to a people.

Our hope is the same tremendous hope that was given to Ezekiel and the remnant of Israel. In the latter half of chapter 36 God promises spiritual life to his people beyond anything that they could have dared to imagine or hope for. They are promised holiness and cleanliness in place of their sin and idolatry. God promises to replace their hardened stone hearts with hearts of flesh. He promised to set his spirit on them, not for a short time, but perpetually and continually – to be in communion with God and to know in their hearts the way He would have for them.  To drive the point home, God has Ezekiel  walk among the bones and prophesy to them:

“Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” [Ezekiel 37:4-6]

Miraculously, flesh covers bone. Sinews, tendons, muscles, organs and skin form where before there was only dust and death. God is replacing the hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. But there was not yet any breath in the bodies. “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’” In both passages, the word breath can also be translated spirit – thus God is placing his Sprit into the bodies he has caused to form. Then they rose and stood, an “exceedingly great army”.

In these verses we see the impact that a person submitted to the will of God can have on the dead. God could have just formed flesh and breath and put them on the bones as he did in the beginning, without the help of Ezekiel. Instead, God graciously includes his servant in the process and allows him to be a source of physical awakening in the bones, and a spiritual awakening in the lives of the Israelites. The hope that these people have is a mighty God, who has provided a perfect sacrifice, priest, prophet and King to intercede at his right hand forever (see Hebrews, esp. 7:23-8:13). They also have the hope that God’s prophets will see the nations’ dead bones, and prophesy life to them. May we see dead people everywhere and seek to preach the hope of the Gospel to a dying world.

Evangelicals: For Once, Not Lost in Translation

If you haven’t already read Molly Worthen’s illuminating piece on Evangelical ambivalence to the Arab Spring, you’re missing out. Evangelicals, it turns out, are a lot more like other people than the world tends to expect–and Worthen seeks to explain Evangelical motivations in a way that makes sense to everyone else.

For example, contrary to common stereotypes, (some of them perhaps deserved!) Evangelicals are usually more interested in living in the here and now than in  hastening a coming apocalypse. Worthen rightly points out that, for one thing, Evangelicals’ interest in the Middle East is not always well understood:

Given many evangelicals’ commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a “statue of liberty,” it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it’s surprising, that’s only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals’ understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn’t go their way.

Evangelical interest in world events tends to revolve around concerns about ongoing persecution:

Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals’ supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region’s population as pawns in God’s great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals’ true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians — as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.

Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible’s predictions about the end of the world. And it’s no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren’t so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. “Pray for the believers in Syria …[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place,” one missionarytold Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.

Worthen also takes on some of Evangelicalism’s weaknesses and explains them to the uninitiated in a way that both secular and (most) Christian readers will understand:

…American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream — and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today — many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are “being persecuted” at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It’s little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured — in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).

This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine — though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. “Religious freedom” has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy — whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world — if the principle of “one voice, one vote” happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and “how liberals are waging war against Christians,” they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.

Read the rest of Molly Worthen’s piece here, and tell us what you think.

Dying For Religious Freedom: Yousef Nadarkhani

The Iranian government has not executed anyone on charges of apostasy since 1990, when Assemblies of God Pastor Hossein Soodmand was sentenced and then hanged by a Sharia court. Twenty-one years later, another Christian pastor may be the next victim of the courts. Western nations are beginning to take note, but the media is not—and, thanks in part to this ignorance, it may be too late to help the next victim of Iran’s continued flouting of international law.

Yousef Nadarkhani was arrested in 2009 when he publically opposed an illegal Iranian practice that required children of all faiths to receive Islamic instruction. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran signed in 1976, both supports Nadarkhani’s objections and forbids just the sort of persecution he has suffered.   Article 18 states,

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Of course, Iran has a long history of similar international infractions, and Nadarkhani will hardly be the last man targeted. Many have noted a rise in persecution not only of Christians, but also of Iran’s Baha’i and Suffi communities. Some believe this may indicate a rift within Iran’s leadership:

Some sources told Compass the comments of Islamic leaders may indicate a power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This bodes ill for Christians and minorities in general, they said.

“When there is conflict in the government and division, then all the minorities will have a hard time,” said another Christian Iranian who requested anonymity.

Yousef Nadarkhani is still alive, but he may not be so for long; rumors last week of an annulment of his sentence have since been refuted by Iranian Christians on the ground.

Last week both Canada and the U.S. responded to Nadarkhani’s plight with a call for Iran to “uphold its international commitments” to its citizens. Some believe the dramatic uptick in public persecution may backfire on the Iranian leadership:

“The Iranian public basically doesn’t trust the government anymore,” Ghaffari said, “and they don’t trust the Muslim clergy anymore, because they have seen a lot of double standards and hypocrisy.”

Converts in smaller communities still risk persecution from their own families, but tolerance is growing in urban areas and among the younger generation. “In fact,” said Dibaj, “in places like Tehran and more educated communities, if you say, ‘I have become a Christian,’ they will respect you because of your courage and your independent thinking.”

If anything, government persecution has made Christianity much more attractive, said Yegh-nazar. “When government officials are on television telling people not to read the Scriptures, that generates more interest in the Scriptures.”

Let’s hope this is true. Martyrs are powerful figures, as the Arab Spring has so poignantly illustrated. If Yousef Nadarkhani is executed, a sufficiently outraged public might have a chance to spark such a “backfire” and help ensure that his martyrdom was not in vain.

Unfortunately, as Mollie Hemingway points out this morning at the Get Religion blog, the public has largely ignored this story, despite its having been addressed by the State Department:

The Christian and human rights press is all over it. But the only mainstream treatment I saw was from Agence France Press.

Here’s their headline:

Iran ‘annuls death term’ for Christian pastor

So if a court told someone who was facing certain death that he only faced certain death if he refused to recant his faith, would you say that’s an “annulment” of the death sentence? I wouldn’t.

Things don’t look good for Pastor Nadarkhani.

image via Anglicans Ablaze