Theologian Karl Barth said Christians engage the world best with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Recently, the testimony of struggle from the first-century letter to the church in Thessalonica came in close contact with the news in Iraq of a massacre that occurred on Oct. 31 when nine al-Qaida-aligned suicide bombers invaded a Roman Catholic Church gathered for evening Mass.
Iraqi security forces broke into the church, and the bombers detonated their bombs. When the attack was over, 58 were dead and nearly a hundred others were injured.
Tony Peck, general secretary for the European Baptist Federation, reported that the pastor of the Baptist church in Baghdad informed him that the “Christian community is now very fearful for its safety,” and that “some of the Baptist believers are talking about moving away from Baghdad to northern Iraq, others to Jordan and Syria.”
Such is a place where persons we don’t even know, who speak another language and whose world of experience differs dramatically from our own, in solidarity and kinship we call our Iraqi sisters and brothers in Christ.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, our church’s partner for missions and other projects, intentionally focuses on places in the world where the gospel of Jesus has not yet reached – places that are known simply as “the hard places.” CBF takes small groups of pastors into those hard places so they can visit Baptists – nationals of those countries and CBF field personnel alike – to get a feel for what it means to be a Baptist Christian in those places.
To that end, four years ago I traveled with eight other pastors to Lebanon where we visited with a gathered group of Arab Baptist pastors who had come to Beirut to attend a missional church conference at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.
There were Arab-speaking Baptist pastors from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Iraq. My impressions of the whole lot of them were very positive. They were bright and committed. They were chatty and interesting, full of spirit and life. They had great energy to give to their ministries and, like most gatherings of Baptist pastors, they were very competitive with one another. (Not much changes from one culture to another among ministers, we might surmise.)
The pastor of the Baptist church in Baghdad was just like that. He was young, probably in his young 30s, of average build, and it was obvious he bore no grudge against this group of American Baptist clergy who eagerly wanted to talk with him.
We’re taught to dissociate our personal feelings about those with whom we wage war so we might demonize them in order to justify our actions meant to kill them. I found it difficult, as you might imagine, to support our invasion of Iraq with the full vengeance of our military and not feel some guilt when brought face to face with a colleague in ministry who’s serving the church in that country.
It’s much easier to drop bombs in a country where you don’t see them as fellow believers and share meals together in a weeklong conference on sharing Christ with our neighbors. It’s even easier to demonize another’s faith as the sole reason for terrorism, as we’ve done in this country with Muslim believers.
Reading from 2 Thessalonians 2 helps us remember we live in a blessed time and place in the relative safety of America. The letter was written in a time of fear and anxiety. The people were afraid and their faith was shaken. At least a partial reason the letter was written was that the fear of the people had caused them to be susceptible to erroneous teaching and to those who would willingly deceive them.
So the letter opens with a prayer for the church before it addresses those other concerns:
“Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:4).
In this and in other places in the Bible, those believers are described as “standing firm.” What an interesting phrase to describe the spiritual strength to endure! It takes character and backbone to stand firm under pressure.
When push comes to shove, and one has no place to hide, one stands. When one knows who they are, one can stand. When one holds a truth deep in their heart and believing means standing, one can muster the strength to endure.
But in every act of courage or firm resolve, there is an admitted struggle with fear. The opportunity to live courageously is an admission that one has also faced his or her anxiety and found the resources to stand in the face of their fears.
“Standing firm” under the weight of the threats one is facing helps us understand more about what it meant for first-century believers to take a stand for Christ. It’s too easy to get swept up in our own security and overlook our blessings and forget them, assuming they are assured and ours forever.
“Standing firm” is the ultimate commitment. Finding a new, easier way of living faith based on unsound teachings from fraudulent teachers who have found ways to make a living preaching these shallow lessons draws the weak.
The strong stand firm. They stand on truth, as they know it, not needing that truth to be easy or self-serving. They stand on truth that is hard.
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).