To share in the body?

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Craig writes... are Christians worth persecuting? My assumption in To Share in the Body is quite simply that most of the time we are not. Martyrdom, when it ever happens to Christians, is something Western Christians are far removed from. It either happens in countries far away or in periods of history we can read about from an equally safe distance. “We” are not the ones being martyred. But is that as it should be?

What if the reason has less to do with Western governments being benevolent and more to do with the church’s compromise to culture?

In the book, I try to take seriously the fact that the New Testament often seems to assume martyrdom and persecution. Was that more than a historical curiosity that we can look back on? What if instead our reading of the Bible causes us to wonder whether we are not persecuted for the right reasons? This is the question I put to my investigation into the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus was a threat to power. Part of what made him threatening was his refusal to use force. This is why fighters and soldiers can’t be martyrs. Martyrs don’t fight for what is right; they refuse to fight for what is true.

A major target in my book is the idea that only Jesus had to suffer and die. Christians may be thankful that Jesus did something extraordinarily difficult, but we sure are glad that he did it for us (meaning instead of us). But surely this is a false belief. It arises out of our comfort and the ease of living as Christians in the modern world. If we were suffering for our faith, we would be looking for (and by now probably have found) ways of talking about our own suffering in light of Jesus’s. We would not suspect that we have been let off the hook.

The point is that all of the disciples were supposed to suffer and die. What else is the cup of suffering they all shared the night before Gethsemane but then refused when they fled in the middle of the night? What else might it mean to “take up your cross and follow me” if not come and be a martyr and endure the cost of your opposition to the world?

Not as though their deaths would mean something or accomplish something, though. An equal danger is certainly that of our courting danger simply for its own sake. What seems wrong with doing this is not so much its recklessness as its attempt to take one’s life into one’s own hands precisely by so taking one’s death and attempting to control it and its meaning. That would not be martyrdom but suicide. Christian martyrs cannot kill themselves or force their killers to kill. This not only distinguishes them from suicide bombers, but from every over-zealous attempt to try to achieve something apart from God’s gift. If the deaths of martyrs do anything at all, it will only be because God has fulfilled a promise to them.

The political danger of the church in the West probably disturbs me the most. By “danger” I mean precisely the fact that we are so obviously not in danger of needing to suffer for the confession that Christ is Lord. It is a dangerous situation for the church since it means the church is likely to be satisfied with the deal it has struck with the powers that be. We will behave ourselves and police the radical edge of the gospel in exchange for being left alone to do . . . what was it exactly?

I worry that for too many, church has become a place to go in order to meet with like-minded people whose personal encounter with God will be reinforced but not ultimately challenged or questioned, where Jesus is praised and thanked but not finally followed to the cross.

Let’s face it. The gospel radically reorients Christian loyalties, forms a new people called out of the world for the sake of the world, called and equipped to live differently in joy before the promises of God. In baptism, Christians are not just washed, but drowned. We have already died there. In Mark 10, James and John wanted the goods of baptism without the costs. When we share in the Lord’s Supper, we share in the body of Christ—a reference to both Jesus himself and the church—and both are broken. We cannot partake of it as though there is no cost involved.

Whether we like it or not, every Christian is a member of a martyr-church. That does not necessarily mean that you and I will be killed for our faith. We might; we might not. After all, nothing is certain in this life, not even the mode of our deaths. But let’s be sure that if we do not die the death of Christ that it isn’t because we fled and left Jesus to die alone.

Craig Hovey