Violence


ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

 I am back at home, my comfortable, quiet, safe home, after eleven days in Colombia. These abrupt transitions can be challenging to process mentally and emotionally and I’m still not really there yet. Part of me wonders if it might have been healthier in the olden days, when one had a weeks or months long, physical journey during which to think it all through before arriving back to one’s everyday life.

It was an intense eleven days, as a few colleagues and I traveled to four very different parts of the country, meeting local partners, viewing projects and listening to lots and lots of personal testimonies. I’ve visited Colombia so many times in the last eight years that I’ve lost track of the exact number, but, as always, the country continues to surprise me and teach me new things. Who knew, for example, that the drug wars of 1980s Medellin could be traced directly back to Woodstock[1]?![2]

It was a trip of contrasts, as Colombia always is, of alternating tears and laughter throughout each day. We facilitated a workshop run by one of our Peruvian partners, working with local Colombian partners on care for staff who are all too often overloaded with the trauma of the issues and people with whom they work. As a couple of the local staff volunteered to share what they were feeling and experiencing, their stories of helping others blurred over into their own histories and personal experiences of atrocities, massacres, forced displacement, threats and loss. Later that night, we walked with a few of them, and our Peruvian partner, to watch a soccer match between rivals from two of the major cities and spent a laughter filled night, highlighted by a random snack vendor who apparently found our group fascinating and inexplicably hilarious.

Towards the end of the trip, we sat at the front of a rural church, facing around seventy or so people. It wasn’t the safest area and our time there was limited so they, before we had arrived, had selected five people to give their personal testimonies as representative of the others. The majority, if not all of them, were forcibly displaced people who, at different points over the past decade had been forced to flee their homes – which for them represented all they owned in the world, their sustenance, and their future – because of attacks by illegal armed groups. They had come to this place of very relative safety (the armed groups were still present, just not as blatant in their activities – one woman told me how in that same town five of her brothers and sisters had been murdered over a seven year period) and built up a church that looks outward into its community – a church which, despite the ever present risk and with limited resources, still manages to offer spiritual support and material care for the masses who arrive on its doorstep seeking the very basics: shelter, food, clothing as well as spiritual and emotional support and affirmation.

I still find myself thinking about the words and voice of one of those who was chosen to share her testimony. An elderly woman, she told a story of intense hardship – of threats, violence, forced displacement and loss but she concluded by giving thanks, “I have lost much but I have much to be thankful for. I give thanks to God for this church, for these clothes that I am wearing, for food I have to eat, and for these hands with which to work.”

Every time I go to Colombia I am deeply challenged by men and women like her and like the partners and friends at the workshops who told their stories. People who’ve lost pretty much everything but still praise their Maker. People who’ve experienced horrific trauma, who would have every right to shut themselves away from the problems of the country and focus on themselves but, filled with God’s love, keep reaching out in love to others who’ve been traumatized.

While, in theory, I know the answer, I still wonder just how they do it, especially after so many years, decades, and so much horror.

I do know that I, we, are called to do it with them in small and less small ways – at the very least and maybe the very most, in prayer.

“Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear; that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share. Amen.”

Adapted from a prayer by Charles Wesley


[1] The 1969 music festival, not Snoopy’s avian sidekick – though that would make for an interesting Peanuts strip.

[2] For the record, this direct connection may or may not exist – but it certainly wasn’t a theory I was familiar with…

Another quasi-guest posting. This psalm comes from Bishop Benjamin Kwashi in Nigeria with an intro by a colleague of mine:

“As Boko Haram claims responsibility for the violent events in Plateau State last week, here is a second, equally moving lament from the Archbishop of Jos. Please pray for Nigeria. The situation is bleak; no one knows where, whom or how these people will strike next, and the state appears unable (or in some instances, unwilling) to protect its citizens. Their only hope and help is in the Lord and His people are trusting and waiting longingly for His deliverance.”

PLATEAU LAMENTS:

God is working his purposes out…
Tears, sadness, sorrows and fear….
Betrayed, anger, losses, dangers, blood, blood, blood…
LORD have mercy.

Plateau under siege…
Widows on the increase..
Orphans are countless…
The aged disregarded…
The young are angered…
LORD have mercy.

How long Oh LORD..
Turn sorrow to joy,
Change fortunes,
Rescue Your heritage,
Glorify your name!
LORD have mercy.

Egyptian Worship

Isaiah 19:19-21 In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them

Four years ago I stood in a dark corner of an ancient Egyptian temple. There, carved into the wall, were a cross and other Christian motifs. Our guide told us that during periods of intense persecution in Roman times, Christians in Egypt met secretly in the ancient temples, which were avoided by others who feared that evil spirits lurked there.

Fifth Century Carving of a Cross in an ancient Egyptian Temple

I was struck by the beautiful carvings and the way the early Christians had reclaimed something seen by others as evil and frightening, making it into a place of worship and light.

Earlier this year I stood with those men and women’s descendants. Little it seems has changed. They may not have to meet in secret places but they still often struggle to meet legally; they face discrimination and sometimes outright violent persecution on a regular basis. One young woman told of how she was turned away when she went to take her final exams at university because the exam monitor noticed her Christian name and her lack of headscarf. Another young woman expressed her fears after a local religious leader had publicly stated that any woman not wearing a headscarf was “asking to be raped”. Would it then be her fault, she asked, if she was sexually assaulted on her way to attend church? A third young woman shared the horror of witnessing the bombing at an Alexandria church last New Year, and the subsequent injustices she personally experienced in the following weeks.

This is a Church that has been tempered and refined by more than 1500 years of persecution. It is a Church that God has preserved and upheld through dark and darker times. It is a Church that is “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Far from it in fact. This Church continues to venture into those frightening and dark places, where others show more hesitation. The young men and women we met have been involved, from the beginning, in the movement for democracy, challenging the dictatorship from the inception of the “Arab Spring”.  They continue to lead, courageously stepping out into the more and more hostile streets in peaceful protest, and have succeeded in unmasking for all Egyptians the true nature of the military junta that now holds power. In response to the horrendous October massacres, when military trucks mowed down peaceful protestors calling for religious freedom and respect for diversity, they called a three day worldwide fast, looking to God to protect and guide them and their country. These past few weeks, they have headed to the front once again in peaceful demonstrations in remembrance of those killed in the October Maspero massacre. Many have been deeply involved in the most recent protests demanding a true democracy which have been met with a violent response.

Many young Christians have given (Mina Daniel) or have expressed their willingness to give (Michael Nabil Sahad) their lives. With the way things have gone this week, it seems likely that more will do so, and this is something that should deeply challenge every one of us.

Many well-meaning but misguided people in the West have expressed the belief that life under dictatorship was “better” for the Egyptian Church. Many, with some valid reasons, are worried that the downfall of the Arab dictatorships will lead to the destruction of the Church in those countries. But now is not the time to give up hope. For over 1500 years, our Egyptian brothers and sisters have kept the flame of faith burning in that part of the world. Those I met this year, tell me that they continue to believe that there can be a democratic and free Egypt where everyone will be free to worship as they please, without fear of persecution.  Not one expressed a desire to return to the days of Mubarak.

This month they go to the ballot boxes in elections that will help to determine the direction Egypt will go. To my Egyptian brothers and sisters, I say, get out and vote. Do not lose hope. We have not forgotten you, and we will not.

To those of us who cannot vote, pray. Pray for this country, beloved of God, home of an ancient and towering Church. Pray for our brothers and sisters there, for their future as Egyptian Christians.

I met a little girl today and asked if she had any prayer requests. She nodded. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while her face grew stony and then crumbled and she began to cry. She buried her face in the shoulder of the pastor at her side but managed to get the words out, “Pray that everything will be alright.”

She is nine years old. When she was seven she saw her father, a church leader and local community leader, gunned down by members of an illegal armed group. Her parents were forced to flee their homes in 1996 because of violence from the armed groups and once again it had encroached on their lives. It reached its arm into their home and took her father right before her eyes.

Her mother, only 28 years old, did not yield. She carried on the work her husband had been doing, standing up against the armed groups that killed her husband and threatened to forcibly displace the community once again. She offered public testimony at regional and national hearings about what was happening on their land and what had happened to her husband.

In January the threats started. She carried on. Then she was physically attacked by men from the armed group, but she stayed. Then it became clear that she and her family were going to be killed.

She left the community with her two daughters and the clothes on their backs – escorted by Christians from other parts of Colombia and other parts of the world as a measure of protection. She was resettled in a nearby city but then she learned that the armed group was still looking for her and would not rest until she was dead.

She was sent into hiding in another part of the country, to a big city, and left to fend for herself. She has lived all her life in the countryside, working as a small scale farmer and didn’t know how to survive in the city. Christians from our partner organization decided she and her family would be better off in a smaller city where she could receive constant support from a local church.

She and her two daughters live there now, sharing one room. They have few possessions. The little girl studies hard and was promoted to the fifth grade, a year above her age group. But there was no room for another fifth grader at her school so she was transferred to the only school that had room, a school infested by gangs where she is bullied and threatened by the older girls in her class. Her mother wants to put her in a different school, a Christian school, but has no money with which to do so. She can’t even afford to buy her a uniform.

Her mother works in the evening selling arepas, a kind of corn based flatbread, on the street. She can’t work during the day because she can’t afford childcare for her younger daughter who just turned four. She doesn’t want to leave her locked up in the room alone while she goes out to work like some other single mothers do. Childcare would cost about $56 dollars a month. She has a place to work if she could find a way to care for her little girl.

They receive support from the local church but the local church has little resources and many needy people in similar situations. She said to me, as I left, “If I didn’t have God, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Psalm 57
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts—
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

I spent the second half of January in Peru. I often get asked why we work in Peru, since it’s not exactly well-known for being a place of serious religious persecution. I have to answer truthfully, that there is no active persecution going on today but ten, twenty years ago things were very different.

My work there is almost entirely dedicated to the dead: the six young men pulled out of a Presbyterian church in 1984 and shot and bayoneted to death by members of the military, the evangelical pastor who was crucified by the Shining Path in a remote part of Ayacucho, another evangelical pastor who was disappeared by the military, and then tortured and killed in 1989, the Christian population of Putis who sought the protection of the military after their mayor was murdered by the Shining Path only to then be slaughtered – 123 men, women and children.

The internal conflict in Peru that lasted for almost twenty years has never caught the media’s imagination the way that the plight of the disappeared in Argentina or Chile did. This is despite the fact that the estimated number of deaths as a result of the violence, upwards of 70,000, dwarfs what happened in either of those countries. Perhaps it’s the sheer scale that overwhelms those who try to explain it but there are other reasons too. One of the most important is that we are still, ten years after the restoration of democracy, and seven years after the publication of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, finding out what really happened.

Stories are still being told. The bulk of the violence occurred in remote parts of the country, in non-Spanish speaking, often illiterate communities. This, interestingly, is where some of the most impressive growth in the Church occurred over the past thirty years – but there is a massive disconnect between these people, many of whom live in the same way their ancestors lived 1000 years ago, and the educated middle and upper class who line the Peruvian coast.

The story of the Persecuted Church in Peru is still being revealed, little by little, as these communities are approached and asked to share their stories. The cases are being documented by our partners in the country – not only in the interest of justice but also in an effort to restore dignity to the victims and their loved ones – to affirm that their stories matter. God has always known these stories and He has never abandoned His people – but the worldwide, even the Peruvian Church have not been as faithful to our own. This wasn’t entirely our fault, but God has never accepted ignorance as an excuse. Surely now that we have the possibility to find out, to know, we can come along our Peruvian brothers and sisters whose suffering was hidden from us by fear, violence, language and geographic remoteness. It may be late but we can stand with them in prayer for healing and reconciliation, in their search for the truth, and in many cases the physical remains of their loved ones, their desire for justice.

Every time I go back to Peru and meet with these communities I am struck by the rawness of the wounds. I should know by now that time alone cannot and does not heal the pain of injustice or atrocities. The blood of the dead, so many of them our brothers and sisters, still cries out. Jorge de la Cruz Quispe, was sixteen years old when he was pulled out of an evening prayer service in the village of Callqui and shot and bayoneted to death just outside. To date no one has been held account for his murder – in fact the man thought to be responsible was declared dead a number of years ago in very suspicious circumstances (he’s been sighted several times since then) and as such cannot be tried. A trial of lower level officers thought to be involved has dragged through the courts since 2003 and still shows no sign of resolution.

I took part in a ceremony while I was in Peru. We visited the Ojo que Llora (the Eye that Cries) memorial to all the victims of the conflict. Each of us were handed a flower and asked to walk through the labyrinth of stones, where the names of the 70,000 victims are written. We were encouraged to read the names and when one called out to us, to lay our flower there. As I walked slowly, in silence, thousands of names slipping past me I wondered where I would lay my flower. There were so many. But then I got to the “C’s” and I remembered Jorge, the teenage boy whose life was brutally taken even as he worshiped and sought God and I looked to see if I’d find him. When I saw the stone that said Jorge de la Cruz Quispe – and the year 1984 – I knew I’d found my stone and I knelt to lay down my flower. I wasn’t prepared for the emotion that suddenly overwhelmed me – Jorge was my brother, he is my brother, and while he now rests with our Heavenly Father, his earthly father grieves for the son that was stolen from him. I grieve with him.

God does not want us to fixate on death or to become obsessed with those who have died – but the Bible is full of references to respect for the dead. The tombs of the patriarchs were important, even sacred places. Long after his death, Joseph’s bones were carried out of Egypt to rest with his people in the Promised Land. There is something to be said for honouring those who have gone before us – not to deify them or give them powers that belong only to God – but to remember them.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I spent the past week with a living example of this verse, which was funny because I’ve been reading about the beatitudes for the past few weeks and the significance of the Kingdom of Heaven. The book, The Divine Conspiracy, makes the argument that the promises are not just promises for our future but promises for our present. We who live in Christ also live in the Kingdom of Heaven, here today, but all too often interpret these promises as something for our far off future, not something we can receive now.

I had the privilege of escorting our special guest around the UK last week as she spoke at churches and shared her story, exhorting everyone she met to never doubt God’s faithfulness and challenging them to pray for and write to our brothers and sisters in the Persecuted Church, sharing what an encouragement that kind of support had been her for and her family over the past two years. Everywhere she went, people were deeply touched. She left every single man in a Welsh Baptist congregation last Sunday weeping. A member of parliament who we had never met before spent an unprecedented two hours with us, inviting us to worship at mass with him (in a private chapel in the parliament!), giving us a lengthy tour of both houses of parliament and treating us to a drink on the terrace of the Stranger’s Bar in the parliament. A senior officer at the Foreign Office, clearly deeply moved, swore up and down he would do all in his power to raise her case and the cases of others like her – and his colleague then proceeded to give us yet another unprecedented tour around the “important bits” of the FCO. A church of 200 women laughed, cried and applauded as she shared her story. Everywhere we went, people would come up afterwards and ask if they could simply hug her.

My friend’s husband, a pastor, disappeared two years ago. Disappearance is one of the cruelest acts committed by man – families go on for years, sometimes a lifetime, in the emotional torture of not knowing. Hope itself, one of the “three things that remain”, is twisted and used to cause an unrelenting pain. I have met women who have not seen their husband or children for twenty or thirty years and exist in a kind of excruciating limbo – torn between hope that they still live, that they will be reunited and the fear that they have been truly gone all this time and are never coming back.

My friend believes her husband is alive. She holds onto that hope – but she rests in something greater. Her pain is evident. As she spoke, the tears were always at the surface; but she is also without a doubt the most joyful person I have ever met. I laughed more last week than I have laughed in a long time because her joy was infectious. She is indeed poor in spirit, the pain and uncertainty she lives on a daily basis is something few of us will ever comprehend. The paradox of this beatitude, however, is made manifest in her – hers is the kingdom of Heaven and she knows it and has claimed it – living in hope and firm in the faith that our God is a faithful God. Lest I leave the impression that her faith and hope are focused on the return of her own husband, I’ll conclude this post with her own words. “I hope that my husband is alive. I believe that he is alive and will be returned to me. But whatever happens, whatever the answer, I will go on loving my Lord, because He is Faithful. Amen!