Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. The International Day(s) of Prayer for the Persecuted Church are on November 6 and 13. With so many American Christians understandably anxious about the results of the election, I cannot think of a better way to frame the Election than with prayerful remembrance of faithful, marginalized Christians.
Learning from the Persevering Church
The Persecuted Church teaches us that Christians in the U.S. — perhaps “white evangelicals” in particular — are far too accustomed to social privilege and acceptance. We feel entitled to social power. We are allergic to marginality. We have quietly believed in a sort of prosperity gospel that makes us feel uncomfortable with being a religious and “moral minority” in society. Indeed, the Persecuted Church teaches us the meaning of that First World-confounding promise, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
The Persecuted Church teaches us that religious freedom is a blessing worth protecting. But the Persecuted Church also teaches us that religious freedom is not essential for Christian faithfulness. Christian “influence” in society is valuable; we are called to be “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:13-14). But the Persecuted Church reminds us that God often shows up with greatest power in the margins of society. Indeed, the Persecuted Church teaches us that you cannot fully see or know our Marginal Messiah apart from the embodied experience of marginality. Which tells us that Christians in the West who long for the fullness of Christ urgently need to be in fellowship with persecuted believers around the world.
The American Church needs the Persecuted Church. We are not only pray for our suffering sisters and brothers; we pray with them. We not only seek to serve them; we are served by them. We learn from them. As Karen Ellis has taught us to do, we honor their testimony not simply as the Persecuted, but as the Persevering.
For anxious American Christians zeroed in this week on the use (and misuse) of political power, our persevering extended family shows us a more excellent way.
Recovering Our Paradoxical Identity
After all, “Christian mission has always thrived by surging in the margins and under the radar,” as Jared Wilson rightly observes. My friend Scott Sauls articulates the same phenomenon this way: “Christianity always flourishes most as a life-giving minority, not as a powerful majority.” Although Americans Christians often struggle to believe it—well-resourced and relatively socially privileged as we are—scripture consistently testifies to this paradox. So does Christian history.
God works in and through the lowly, foolish, forgettable, and weak (1 Cor. 1:18-31). The world-renewing kingdom begins like a minuscule mustard seed: unimpressive, vulnerable, small (Matt. 13:31-32). Persecution mobilizes Christ’s witnesses and advances the gospel (Acts 8:1-8). The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church (Tertullian).
And why should we be surprised that this should be so? We serve a Suffering Savior, the God of the Cross, do we not?
(Do we not?)
Indeed, we repent of our surprise. And we repent of our fear, the panic and apocalyptic angst that betrays an unarticulated belief that the ballot box controls the Kingdom, and that we care about the common good more than the One who died for it — as though He is suddenly un-Resurrected and un-Ascended, and we un-Adopted.
We repent of our pride, our collective sense of entitlement to moral affirmation and social privilege, as well as the unspoken belief that we really do have the ability, by our own might and wisdom, to “build” God’s kingdom and to change the world (cf. Zech. 4:6; 1 Cor. 3:5-8). And we repent of our romance with worldly glory, the seductive assumption that Christian mission only thrives on center-stage and only flourishes as a powerful majority.
The American Church must recover its paradoxical identity, especially with respect to its mission to the world — its identity as understated, garden-planting, faithful, disempowered, sometimes suffering, “exilic” servants of the common good (Jer. 29:4-7). We are at our best when we are “least” (1 Cor. 1:26-31; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 12:1-10). Will we believe this again?
And will we receive and learn from those who have gone before us, modeling Christ-honoring faithfulness in the margins, joy in powerlessness, and perseverance in the face of opposition? I’m speaking of the Persevering Church around the world, of course.
I also have in mind the Black Church and the immigrant church in the U.S. From the example and instruction of these brothers and sisters, the wider American Church can learn, in the words of my brother Thabiti Anyabwile, “how to joyfully accept the plundering of [our] possessions and persons,” seeking to be faithful, spiritual, moral, social “minorities” whose discipleship and theology “gets worked out in the crucible of suffering and under-privilege.”
Which, again, is how it was always meant to be. This is simply a vision of kingdom cruciformity, isn’t it? It’s time to reclaim it. It’s time to take up the Cross again, Church. Because we are at our best when we are “least.”
Dear American Church, whatever happens on Tuesday, we’re going to be alright.