There are not many contemporary books on the on-going persecution of Christians so when I had the opportunity to get a review copy of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution I took it. This is an important book and I encourage American Christians to read it, but it is not without its weaknesses. It is helpful for American Christians to understand what their brothers and sisters in many parts of the world experience. This is not a book about what American Christians experience. It goes outside of our experience and this is important to do. This is why I think they should read it. They need to pray for their siblings in Christ, and also themselves because such persecution may not be too far away for us.
The author, John Allen Jr., is a senior news correspondence and has many connections around the world to gain access that others may not have. He also draws on the research of a number of government and private agencies that track these things. As a result he will talk about bigger picture systematic persecution as well as more personal stories. These stories are not pretty and they can be difficult to read. For instance, in the introduction he talks about the Me’eter military camp and prison in Eritrea ( a country I hadn’t even heard of before) that is pretty horrifying to consider. Here the one-party nation, ironically called the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, continues to imprison, torture and rape its citizens who are without legal representation and often without medical care in this desert prison. Though their actions are well-documented this has not been a matter of concern for the press, the UN or any nation.
The weaknesses of the book are obvious in some ways. It is hard to write a book like this. Due to the number of narratives it often feels disjointed. While they all follow a similar theme they aren’t connected by characters. This is not the author’s fault, but just the nature of the type of book he’s chosen to written. The reader can feel overwhelmed at times. At others confused as he will make mistakes in how he communicates this material. There are paragraphs in which he shifts from one event to another when there is no specific connection between the events except what all of them have in common.
At other times there are issues with placement. The initial chapters are organized by continent. Then he will place an expanded profile in that chapter that really belongs to another chapter. As a result there is a lack of consistency.
I think the book also suffers, to a degree, to his Roman Catholic bias. He does not neglect Protestants or the Orthodox Christians who suffer. In fact he lumps in some groups that I would not consider Christians but cultists. But at times he talks about “famous” events I’ve never heard of- like the most famous “martyr of the Amazon”. My mind goes to Jim Eliot and the others whose martyrdom who made the cover of Life Magazine. Nope, Sister Dorothy Stang. Never heard of her.
He is not dishonest however. In about the persecution of Protestants in Mexico he admits “it’s often fueled by traditionalist groups of Catholics who see the mushrooming evangelical and Pentecostal footprint in the country as a threat to Mexico’s Catholic identity.”
These two incidents point to reasons for persecution that are not explicitly religious at their root. Sister Stang was killed as part of the “clash of civilizations” as her faith led her to protest against those who were exploiting the poor and the natural resources of the Amazon. The persecuted person’s reasons for engaging in the activity can be rooted in their faith, but those persecuting them are not necessarily rooted in faith or religious reasons. She wasn’t killed for being a nun, but an activist.
Many times persecution is tied to national identity, that may have some religious roots, but is directed at what are perceived as outside influences (that may or may not be religious) that undermine what they perceive to be their national identity. We see this not only in Mexico but in Turkey. The problem isn’t so much they are not Catholic or Muslim but represent a threat to the sense of nationalism (we are Catholic or we are Muslim) in those nations.
This brings us to a controversial matter. He has a rather broad understanding of persecution. He rests it on the intention of the person persecuted rather than the persons persecuting. If a Christian is seeking to live out their faith in a way that places them in danger from organized crime, for instance, he sees this as persecution. At times I’m okay with that, but at times I don’t really agree that it is part of a global war on Christianity. While the person may be a martyr, they are not being persecuted because they are Christians. It really isn’t clear which way we should go, but most of his estimates regarding the extent of persecution is founded upon this assertion.
The second half of the book addresses myths about the war on Christians. For instance, it only happens when they are in the minority, only at the hand of Muslims, no one could see it coming and more. This could be a more helpful book. Instead of speaking more time arguing he lapses into more accounts. While such accounts are necessary, they seem to dominate again instead of allowing for some more thinking about the issue and interacting with those who may perpetuate such myths (for their own benefit).
The last section of the book focuses on how persecution will affect the Church and the world, as well as how we can respond to the reality of persecution. This section could be a book itself, but not one I think he is quite qualified to write. This does not mean there aren’t profitable parts to this. I think it requires greater theological acumen to ponder how the Spirit works to sustain, and grow, the Church in the midst of persecution and thru the persecution of other parts of the Church.
He does rightly note the shifting face of Christianity. In the developing world it is more conservative socially & morally (as well as theologically) and less conservative economically. They don’t really fit the molds we find in the West. His hope, and mine, is that the much larger church there will hold back the effects of progressive moral thought in the West. The hope is that eventually these will be the people who fight for religious freedom for all in the world.
He notes that persecution has rarely killed the Church, but usually the Church tends to grow as people reveal the worthiness and greatness of Christ by a willingness to die for Him who died for them.
He anticipates a rise in ecumenicalism. This movement often takes place in places where Christians are in the minority and persecuted. They gather together, minimizing the differences in their beliefs. They are often lumped together by the majority who fail to recognize the differences in doctrine that matter so much to us (and, I think, God).
As western Christians we often respond to hearing about these things wondering “what can I do about it?”. I’ve had some of those conversations on Facebook after reports of the latest wave of persecution takes place in Syria or another country. I really never get an answer. We tend to have an activist mentality. There is nothing wrong with contacting your representatives to put pressure on those nations that persecute Christians (and others) or that turn a blind eye to persecution in their borders.
Allen notes that we should pray for God to preserve our brothers and sisters, to end the persecution, to grow the church there numerically and spiritually, that we would not face that level of persecution.
He also encourages us to think globally about the church. We can start to remember that we are all part of the same body though separated by geographic distance. We can also assist them thru micro-charities. We can support institutional humanitarian relief, though we have to recognize that corrupt governments often want their piece of the pie.
So, this is a book that many Christians should read. It isn’t easy reading or fun reading but it is helpful reading to gain a greater awareness of the plight of our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world.
[I received a promotional copy of the book for the purposes of review.]