“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”
A False Choice
Do the oppressed care about my ideology? My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS. My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.
I’m not sure why this is. My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be. There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about. Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative. If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal. I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.
Since both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong. It’s more ping-pong than discourse. So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.
But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice. We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.
Reclaiming Our First Family
Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself). In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern. When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is: “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)
Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.” We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10) After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church. It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV) The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.
In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him. Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state). Let charity start at home. As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.
In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb. They cry out, “How long?” How dare we pick and choose among them. All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy. Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer. God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious. If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by God. And it should be by us.
Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them. Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression. Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.
The Seed of the Church
I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon. He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague. Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese. Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women). Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified. Diocletian would be proud. Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass. Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.
The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church. But let us not make martyrs of each other. What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border? If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed. Sounds like a good start.
In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done. Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten. And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.