I try to discipline myself to refrain from most public criticisms of fellow Christians, at least up to a point, whether toward the theological/political left, or to the right. The blogosphere culture of constant critique does little for the building up and the unification of the Church, and much toward self-aggrandizement.
Today, I’m going to flirt with the line here a bit – but I mostly want to raise respectful questions, and without pointing the finger any one direction too heavily.
I especially find myself flirting with that line when it comes to how we talk about persecuted Christians (or how we don’t talk about them).
You see, I’ve been struck by an interesting contrast of late.
Thankfully (in my opinion) the new Left Behind movie seems to not really have gained a whole lot of attention. But I have seen the occasional article or endorsement or movie trailer. And when I do, I’m struck to see Hollywood-sensationalized images of apocalyptic events.
(It behooves me to point out that this all comes from a particular interpretation of apocalyptic events, one of many, an interpretation I honestly don’t find Biblical support for, and an interpretation I am very uncomfortable with largely just because of the fact that no Christians believed in this sort of ‘rapture’ idea of Christians disappearing from the planet until the 19th century).
So, on the one hand I’m seeing these amusement-part looking images of planes and car crashes and science fiction drama.
And on the other hand, I see pictures from Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, where Christians are facing unbelievable suffering. I see something that looks much more realistically like a tribulation.
And then, there was this video from Willie of Duck Dynasty endorsing the film as an evangelistic tool: encouraging Christians to bring “people who need to see to believe.”
“Opening the door to unbelievers has never been so much fun.” (I have fun sneaking up on people and saying ‘boo’ so I guess scaring people is fun?)
I am not here to bash Willie, or Duck Dynasty… but something about his language really disturbed me. He says what many have said about this book series, that it is a helpful tool for evangelism, because it shows people how much it will stink to be ‘left behind.’
I imagine walking into Syria right now, and telling a Muslim man or woman with a movie poster in-hand: ‘come be a Christian so all these bad things don’t happen to you, so you can avoid the 7-year tribulation. Come see it to believe it.’ And I imagine that Muslim man or woman looking at me, and pointing to a burning church across the street, limbs scattered across the street, horrid comments spray painted overtop a Nazarite ‘N’ symbol.
“Avoid what tribulation?” they might say. “If this is about avoiding a tribulation, I’d rather not be a Christian, because those people are really suffering. I can see it quite clearly, without a movie, and I’m not going to believe.”
(that said, being a Muslim is no guarantee of safety in Iraq or Syria, ISIS’s carnage is hardly a respecter of religion.)
For whatever reason, whether it’s in our apocalyptic books, or Joel Osteen’s church, American Christians have a hard time wrapping our minds around suffering. The end-times view that was made popular by Left Behind and pandered by folks like Joel Rosenberg is very unusual in the course of Christian history. Very rarely have Christians had a view of the end times that gives them a free pass out of suffering (postmillennialism notwithstanding), that speaks of a Church that gets to high-tail it out of here when things go to pot.
Christians who have known tribulation in this life recognize that there really is no escape. They know that our call is straight into the pit of death and suffering, just as Christ’s was.
Why do we preach a gospel that sounds like a smoke and mirror trick? A gospel that tells people that being a Christian gets you a free pass out of suffering? Our whole worship, our whole life, speaks of something different: We are called to partake of the spilt blood and broken body of Christ. We are baptized through the waters of judgment and chaos. We are sent out to love and feed a dying world with our very selves, as Christ did.
Following Christ means running straight into tribulation. To tell people otherwise is to preach a very misleading message.
Indeed, even scare tactics about hell and judgment are kind of besides the point. I mean, salvation from judgment is certainly central to our story – but we need to be careful here: Many people, many Christians, still taste quite a bit of hell on this side of eternity.
We sometimes aren’t really good at ministering to people who suffer and are in pain, because we don’t really have a good place for it in our theology. Or, actually, maybe that’s the problem. We try so hard to fit it into our theology that we don’t actually understand pain. We don’t feel it, we don’t let it be what it is – we’re so quick to cover it up, explain it away, try and work out a way to slip out the back door and ignore it. And therefore, in the way we talk, the way we minister, the way we evangelize, we leave behind those who are suffering. We have little to say to them except platitudes that really sound like bold-faced lies in the face of real suffering.
All we really know to do when we see Christian suffering in the Middle East is to organize a political campaign to go ‘save them’ (ignoring that most of these attempts in the past have usually left them worse off). And, goodness, if there’s a way we can help alleviate it (in a way consistent with the Gospel) I’m all for it. And for most of us, our heart is absolutely in the right place. We want to help those who are hurting so much. But we’re so quick to act, to make ourselves the savior, to get involved in what we barely understand. We don’t know how to just look at suffering and pray through it. We don’t know how to stand in Psalm 22: “Why have you forsaken them?”
God is close to those in pain. He does not leave them behind. That’s always where His heart gravitates. Let’s not leave them behind.