What Persecuted Christians Teach Us

The following is an address that I delivered at the opening convocation of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida on September 1, 2017.

President Towey, Chairman Timmis, faculty, and students, it is a great honor to speak at your opening convocation and to help you launch your academic year.

Travel with me to Rome, through which runs the Tiber River. On what is known as the Tiber Island there sits a 10th century church which is full of interesting relics. In Rome, old churches and relics are not unusual. But look closer. These relics are not of Christians beheaded or thrown to lions in the first centuries. Rather, they are the Bible of Pakistan’s Shabhaz Bhatti, whom terrorists shot dead only in 2011. And of the missal of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed while celebrating Mass in San Salvador in March 1980. And a letter by Christian de Cherge, a Trappist monk in Algeria, whom Islamist terrorists killed in 1996.

The Church was commissioned by Pope St. John Paul II to remember the stories of martyrs of our time in preparation for the Jubilee Year, 2000. In front of the altar stands an icon some 8 ft. tall whose manifold scenes depict martyrs of the past century: Mexico’s Miguel Pro, Poland’s Maxmilian Kolbe, Janani Luwum of Uganda, killed under Idi Amin in the 1970s. Behind the altar stands the stark reality that more Christians have been martyred in the past century than in all previous centuries combined, as reported to us by Todd Johnson and the late David Barrett, two demographers.

Religious persecution continues around the world today. The Pew Forum estimates that some 75% of the world’s population lives in a country where there are high restrictions on religious freedom. Of this number, Christians make up a high proportion. Credible sources claim that some 80% of all acts of religious discrimination and denials of religious freedom are directed at Christians.

To see where most of these denials take place, exercise your geographical imagination once again. Begin on the coast of North Africa, say, in Libya, then move southeast to Nigeria, back up to Kenya and up through the Gaza Strip, Syria, and Iraq, up to Central Asia, down to Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka and then east to Indonesia, Vietnam, and China. North Korea is worst of all. It is on this latitudinal bandwidth that the vast majority of persecution takes place.

The types of regimes that do the persecuting are strikingly diverse. Much of the headlines these days go to Islam, and Islamist regimes are one type of persecutor. But there are others, including regnant Communist regimes like China, Vietnam, and North Korea, religious nationalist regimes like India and Sri Lanka, and secularist regimes like the “stans” of Central Asia. Then, too, there are persecutors who are not states at all, but renegade armies such as the Islamic State, or ISIS.

To speak of the persecution of Christians is not to forget that Christians have been on the other side of persecution, as they were in many episodes from the 4th through roughly the 17th centuries, or that Christians have denied the freedom of other Christians, as they did in the religious wars of early modern Europe and as they do even today in countries like Mexico and Russia, or that members of other religions also suffer persecution on  large scale. Today, though, as the Church of San Bartolomeo attests, Christians are by and large persecuted and not persecuting and are the bulk of the persecuted – the lion’s share of the lion’s den.

By now, numerous analysts have documented and described the persecution of Christians. I especially commend to you the writings of the journalist, John Allen, whose articles regularly appear in Crux. This persecution still does not receive disproportionate attention among human rights organizations, the mainstream media, and western governments, including our own, though there have been signs of progress. Nor does the persecution, in my view, even receive adequate attention among Catholics and other Christians, who are still largely unaware of what our brothers and sisters suffer. But the knowledge of the persecution of Christians is available.

What is important to me, though, is not just becoming aware that Christians are being persecuted but also learning how they respond to persecution. What do they do when their religious freedom is egregiously denied? This is important to know if we are to be in solidarity with members of the “household of faith,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase. As I shall argue today, it can also teach us important truths for our situation here in the West, which Pope Francis has described as “polite persecution.” And it can teach us important truths for our lives more generally.

My interest in how Christians respond to persecution has led me to undertake the project, Under Caesar’s Sword, which began in 2014 on a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust. Conducted as a full partnership between Notre Dame, with the sponsorship of the Center for Ethics and Culture, and the Religious Freedom Institute, a Washington, D.C. based organization, Under Caesar’s Sword aims to investigate and communicate how Christians around the world respond to persecution so that the relatively religiously free world may be in solidarity with them and so that they would be strengthened in their responses. We commissioned a team of 17 world class scholars of global Christianity to go to countries where Christians are most persecuted in order to learn how Christians respond. We have then sought to disseminate the results through a major international conference in Rome in December 2015, a documentary, a report that was launched in Washington, D.C. this past April, a volume of essays forthcoming from Cambridge University Press, and curricula for schools and parishes. All of this can be found at our project’s website, ucs.nd.edu. These investigations, I am convinced, have much to teach us and I will focus on one insight in particular, as I shall explain.

I want to begin, though, by focusing for a moment not on the persecuted but on the persecutors. Straightforwardly, persecution is the egregious denial of the human right of religious freedom, the right to express and practice one’s faith without coercion. Today’s Caesars practice arbitrary detention, unjust forms of interrogation, imprisonment, forced labor, torture, murder, the seizure and destruction of church properties, and related acts, as well as severe forms of discrimination.

Persecution also has a more theological dimension. Here I rely on the insights of one of the co-leaders of Under Caesar’s Sword, Dr. Timothy Samuel Shah of the Religious Freedom Institute, who spoke about the theological character of persecution in his lecture for our learning materials. Persecuting Caesars defy God’s justice and love in how they treat the persecuted and do so in the name of their ruling ideology – Islamism, Communism, secularism, religious nationalism. In exercising their authority in this way, these Caesars engage in a project of social and political construction, constructing a city that rivals the City of God. In defying God, they have made themselves into a little God themselves. If their project is to succeed, they must coerce into conformity the conscience of anyone who would swear loyalty to a rival God.

We can thus see why Christians were threatened by a literal Caesar, that of the early Roman Empire, which found these Christians to be threatening in a way that it did not find followers of pagan gods to be threatening. Christians worshipped a God over and above Caesar, to whom they regarded Caesar as accountable. The pagan gods, by contrast, were serviceable to Caesar, for they helped tame disorder while posing no challenge to the god-like status that Caesar claimed. Frequently, it was Christians’ refusal to swear an oath to the emperor that led to their persecution.

Rome’s Caesars would not be the last temporal rulers who would demand oaths from Christians on behalf of authority in defiance of God. King Henry VIII demanded assent to an oath of supremacy over the church that arose from his desire to enter a marriage declared illicit by the pope. Thomas More was the only high government official and John Fisher the only English bishop to refuse to sign. Thomas Hobbes theorized Henry’s authority by arguing for the supreme authority of the temporal ruler, the Leviathan, over the church. Rousseau called for a civil religion that would recognize the state’s sovereignty and would be enforceable by the death penalty, presaging the oaths demanded by the French revolutionaries only a few decades later. So, too, today’s Caesars demand that Christian subjects forswear the exercise of any portion of their faith that stands in the way of their idolatrous construction project.

It is in the shadow of these construction projects that I wish to call attention to one of the most important findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword Project, an insight that also emerges from Christian martyrs down through the ages – namely the sense in which persecuted Christians also engage in acts of construction. The “central feature” of such a Christian, argues Shah, is that “he or she possesses and embodies an active faith in God – a vibrant, abundant faith that God the Great Lover exists, that He is there for us, and that He mercifully and generously receives our adoration, our sacrifices, and our good deeds.” Out of this faith, by grace, this Christian constructs goods for the Kingdom of God – an alternative realm of rule — even as he or she is undergoing great duress.

Please understand that I do not mean to romanticize or idealize persecuted Christians or martyrs. One of the findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword project is that Christians respond to persecution in a great variety of ways, including fleeing from danger in great numbers, as they have in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and elsewhere. We must not judge hastily what Christians do when they and their families are in danger of imminent death. We must acknowledge also those cases where they respond by more or less joining the persecuting regime. The project’s China scholar, Fenggang Yang of Purdue, noted cases of Christians who enthusiastically joined themselves to the Communist project of the 1950s, seeing it as realization of the Social Gospel.

Still, I want to focus on those responses to persecution that manifest an authentic Christian faith through their construction of good – not because of how numerous they are but because they have much to teach us. These responses manifest the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, a sacrifice that he underwent in response to persecution. It is a sacrifice, though, that is not merely a death at the hands of political authorities. It also achieves a victory over sin, evil and death. It does so because it ends in the victory of the resurrection. The resurrection, in turn inaugurates a transforming renewal of the world, one that will be achieved finally at the end of time.

This victory and transformation are the constructive dimensions of the Eucharist.

In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis, he employs a remarkable metaphor to describe the Eucharist – nuclear fission. He writes: “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.” Pope Benedict goes on the declare that Eucharistic transfiguration even involves the world’s social and political structures. Through God’s vertical salvation of the world through incarnation, cross, and resurrection, the horizontal transformation of the world, including social, political, economic, and cultural reality, is inaugurated and can be furthered. Think of Pope Benedict’s metaphor when you next behold the blood and wine being consecrated at mass – an unleashing of transfiguring power.

When Christians act to construct justice, whose meaning in the biblical sense is right relationship, in the face of persecution, they act eucharistically. We could even say that they participate in the Eucharist. Through grace, they are drawn into the work of construction in sacrifice. In some cases this is true for martyrs. But it can also be true for Christians who live under persecution and experience hardship short of death. Interestingly, our research for Under Caesar’s Sword turned up fewer martyrs than we thought it would, at least the sort of dramatic martyrs whose death attracts international attention. But we found many Christians who, experiencing the suffering of the denial of their freedom, engaged in construction.

We found that responses to persecution could be placed into three categories.

First, there were strategies of survival, where Christians and their communities sought mainly to preserve their worship and their most basic characteristic activities. Second, there were strategies of association, where they sought to build ties, either with other Christians, other religions, or secular actors in order to counter the power of the persecuting state or militia. Third, there were strategies of confrontation, where they openly took on the persecuting authority, through protest, through legal strategies, and sometimes through armed resistance.

What surprised us were the prevalence of strategies of association, the creative and courageous ways that Christians both strengthened their hand and increased the sphere of friendship and right relationship. Catholic and Protestant Christian communities in northern Nigeria, for instance, formed ecumenical partnerships as well as close ties with mainstream Muslim leaders in the face of the rampant violence carried out by the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram.

Another constructive response is simply working for and witnessing to the religious freedom that is being denied. Pakistan’s Shabaz Bhatti, a Catholic in a country in which Christians make up 2 percent of the population, dedicated his life to the cause of religious minorities and became Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, a cabinet post that he accepted for the sake of “the oppressed, downtrodden, and marginalized” of Pakistan, as he explained.

Lobbying against Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy law, promoting interfaith cooperation, and advocating for minorities of all faiths, including the browbeaten Ahmadiyya movement of Islam, Bhatti knew that his life was in danger. He had renounced marriage because he did not want to leave a family fatherless. In a video that he made to be released in the event of his death, he stated, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community . . . and will dies to defend their rights.” He was speaking eucharistically.

On March 2, 2011, he was assassinated right near his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, in a shooting for which Tehrik-i-Taliban, a militant Islamist group, claimed responsibility. The constructive witness of Bhatti’s life continued after his death. Thousands of Muslims attended his funeral, paying tribute to him and demonstrating their support for religious freedom.

Another Christian response to persecution is the building of ties between churches, increasing Christian unity. Pope Francis said in 2016, “when terrorists or world powers persecute Christian minorities or Christians, they don’t ask, But are you Lutheran Are you Orthodox? Are you Catholic? Are you a Reformed Christian? Are you a Pentecostal? No! You are a Christian! They only recognize one of them: the Christian. The enemy never makes a mistake and knows very well how to recognize where Jesus is. This is the ecumenism of blood.” Our research showed that in Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, and elsewhere, persecution has brought Christian churches into closer cooperation. The icon of the new martyrs in the Church of San Bartolomeo includes Christians of many churches and places. At its center appears the verse from the Gospel of John, Chapter 17: “That they may be one.”

Sometimes persecuted Christians construct closer ties between religions separated by enmity. Christian de Chergé, abbot of the Trappist monastery in Atlas, Algeria, had lived with his fellow monks among Muslims for two decades, befriending them and providing them with medical care. When civil war broke out in the 1990s between Algeria’s repressive secular government and Muslim opposition forces, the monks were in danger of being murdered by Muslim terrorists. As portrayed by the recent film, Of Gods and Men, the monks decided to stay and remain true to their mission. Abbot de Chergé then penned a note to his future killers. He did not desire martyrdom, he made clear, lest it reinforce caricatures of Muslims as fanatics. But should he be killed, he desired to “immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ.” Here is neither syncretism nor triumphalism but rather Christ-like love for Muslims. Then, “to the friend of my final moment,” he writes “that we may find each other, happy `good thieves,’ in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.” As with Shabhaz Bhatti, the funeral for de Chergé and his fellow monks, held in June 1996 in Algiers, drew a crowd of 100,000, displaying Algerian Muslims’ love for the monks.

In his last testament, Abbot de Chergé willed to “forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.” Forgiveness is another way that Christians can respond to persecution through construction. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness is a gift that one who has been offended or wounded gives to the offender. It is not only a waiving of charges or a cancellation of debt but also an invitation to conversion and reconciliation. The Eucharist is an act of forgiveness because it performs the sacrifice by which God died for humanity “while we were still sinners” and in doing so lifts up humanity. Paul Bhatti, Shahbaz Bhatti’s brother, forgave his brother’s killers in April 5, 2011, when he traveled to Rome for a conference in his brother’s memory. When Shabhaz was killed, Paul was living in Italy and was filled with rage and shunned appeals to move back to Pakistan and carry on his brother’s fight for minorities. When he traveled back to Pakistan to attend his brother’s funeral, though, his heart was moved by the love for his brother that he saw among the people, including Muslims. He said at a conference in Rome in 2011 that his family had forgiven the assassins “because . . . our brother Shahbaz was a Christian and the Christian faith tells us to forgive.” He even took on his late brother’s cabinet position in order to fight for minorities.

There are other ways, too, in which Christians respond to persecution faithfully.

Jesus is clear: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Great is your reward in heaven. This, too, is a constructive response, one that asks for God’s help for the one who is doing the persecuting. There is a sense, after all, in which the persecutor is the one who is diminished the most. The persecuted may have suffered death, injury, or loss of property; the persecutor is in danger of losing his soul.

Today, in America, to speak of persecution might seem a great exaggeration. No American has suffered the fate of Helen Berhane, the Eritrean gospel singer whose evangelizing earned her two years in a shipping container in the middle of a hot desert.

You might insist on the complexity of persecution, but you would be accused of having a persecution complex. Still, in the last decades American Christians, like Christians across the West, have faced a rising trend of what Pope Francis has termed “polite persecution.” As the pope explains, “if you don’t like this, you will be punished: you’ll lose your job and many things or you’ll be set aside.” At the hands of bureaucrats, bosses, judges, and deans, Christian merchants, universities, schools, hospitals, charities, campus fellowships, students, public officials, employees, and citizens have been fired, fined, shut down, threatened with a loss of accreditation, and evicted for living out traditional convictions, primarily regarding marriage and sexuality.

In the face of polite persecution, witness is unlikely to merit martyrdom but it may well incur costs. In these situations, American Christians, too, must decide how to respond faithfully. Here, I want to thank and salute Ave Maria University for its decision to sue the Obama administration over the HHS mandate in 2012. Part of the calculus will be avoiding formal cooperation and illicit material cooperation with regulations and decisions that ask us to be involved in wrongdoing. But as Christians around the world has shown us, there is also the call to respond constructively, thus participating in the Eucharist and its embodiment of cross and resurrection.

Showing us how is Baronelle Stutzman, the florist at Arlene’s Flowers in the state of Washington who, like other Christian merchants, was sued for not being willing to supply a gay wedding. The would-be purchaser was a man named Rob who had been her customer for nine years and whom she counted as a friend. But while Stutzman, a devout Southern Baptist, could sell him flowers in general, she could not decorate his ceremony, for the purpose of flowers is to magnify, memorialize, and celebrate the union being established. As she put it, “Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ. As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me.”

At the urging of the state attorney general of Washington and with the help of the ACLU, Robert then filed a discrimination suit while the attorney general filed, too, in the most aggressive fashion he could, confronting Stutzman with the prospect of financial ruin. In part, Stutzman’s witness was to hold firm in her insistence on her religious freedom. She refused an offer to pay a fine of $2000 with an agreement to provide services for same-sex couples in the future. In addition to justice, though, mercy was also a theme of Stutzman’s witness. She commented to the Christian Science Monitor that her telling Rob that she could not support his wedding was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.” She added, “I would love to see Rob again. I would love to just hug him and say I’m sorry if there is anything he’s going through that is hurting him.”

We may learn from Stutzman’s model of constructive witness in the face of polite persecution. Polite persecution is a prospect that many of us my well face in coming years. In some ways, the Trump administration has provided a temporary reprieve. But as a recent article in The Hill argued, the administration has not ended decisively or firmly the regulations that compromise religious freedom. A future president could easily decide to enforce them again. Polite persecution also comes from many sources other than the executive branch, including the courts and manifold employers.

Stutzman’s case is still in the courts; this past February the Supreme Court of Washington ruled 9-0 against her. She may well lose her case and face financial ruin. In the same way, many persecuted Christians around the world will not live to see the vindication of their cause. Here, the Christian may take comfort and courage from what the great Second Vatican Council Document, Gaudium et Spes, teaches, that the goods that we construct in this life are burnished, transformed, and placed on eternal display in the next.


This talk drew from the following publications;

Daniel Philpott, “Polite Persecution,” First Things, No. 272, April 2017, 17-19.

Daniel Philpott, “Modern Martyrs,” America, Vol. 207, No. 14, November 12, 2012, pp. 13-18.

In Response to Persecution: Findings of the Under Caesar’s Sword Project on Global Christian Communities report published April 20, 2017


About the author

Daniel Philpott

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.