Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Lessons from Turkey, part V

Persecution is more than just having an awkward conversation.

In 2 Timothy 3:12 St. Paul gives the warning that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” I often wondered what to do with this verse and many similar statements throughout the New Testament. I mean, who really gets persecuted per se in 21st century America? What more would I have to endure than simply having an awkward conversation with a friend or family member? And the message often given by American Christians when non-existent “Christian rights” are violated—How dare Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins write their anti-theistic books! How dare they legalize abortion! How dare Neo-Darwinism get taught in our schools!—is much like that of Islam: the religious fight back in a shouting match of who can exert the most power and reassert his rights to not be offended.

A brilliant young Turkish theologian and human rights activist named Ziya Meral, who himself became a follower of İsa Mesih when he was seventeen, gives this insight to the daily travail and grind of converts who lose the esteem of their communities:

So when a Muslim becomes a follower of Jesus, the first reason he or she is persecuted is not the belief in Jesus or any other god. In most cases he or she is persecuted because they [sic] are perceived to be betraying their national identity by associating themselves with the West. This means that to be a Christian in the Middle East is seen as a shift — a detachment — from everything that makes a person "a person." Within the strong worldview of Islam that separates the world into two camps ("us" versus "them"), the convert is now often defined as one of "them." To the Islamic fundamentalist's mind, apostates deserve death. Even if they are allowed to dwell within the community, their characters are deemed untrustworthy, their testimonies and arguments invalid. For a single woman, finding an honorable husband becomes impossible, and no family will give their daughters to a disgraceful convert. . . .

Physical persecution is temporary and heals, but this social persecution remains and takes deeper roots in the soul of the convert. A deep sense of loneliness develops with a deep-seated sense of shame. Families and old friends are now gone; the name of the convert is now an unspoken memory. A lot of converts suffer from depression, which regularly comes back, even if they emigrate to the West. Many of those who stay in the East live continually as social outcasts with a limited range of work and social interaction.[1]

I have met wonderful men and women who, early in their lives of faith, had to suffer loss of jobs, ridicule from friends, and estrangement from their families. To put it in context, imagine for a moment that you desired to live an openly homosexual life in Texas in 1950. Sure, Turkey is in many senses a modern, secular republic with religious freedom (especially as demonstrated by the massive protests this spring against the religious conservative Justice and Development Party). But even in the largest of cities, life is often governed under codes of tightly woven neighborhood and family structures of honor and approval. And a long-prevailing cultural mantra is that “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim.” (Whether or not one actually believes and practices the tenets of Islam seems to be of lesser importance.) Conversion to Christianity is therefore often, but not always, seen as a subversive act against the devlet (state) and even Turkishness itself, [2] and missionaries and church workers are slandered as Westerners working for the CIA or MI5 trying to corrupt and weaken Turkey from within to be later absorbed by Western (read: American) imperialism.

Such an erroneous mindset that led to the martyrdom of three of our brothers in Christ—two Turks, Necati Aydın and Uğur Yüksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske—in the eastern city of Malatya in April. And this crap just keeps on going. How would you like to be arrested and prosecuted for collecting the weekly offering in your church without having the official papers? We are blessed enough in the U.S. to not have to face the daily problems of believers in other countries, and the affliction of God's people by itself is never a good thing. (Just consider how many psalms speak of how God will liberate his humble, downtrodden people from their oppressors.) But we need to wake up to the reality of real persecution in the church around the world. We need to cry to God day and night for our fellow saints (Luke 18:1-8). And as we are able, we need to let them know we care for them and are seeking the aid of the Victorious Lord for them. Maybe if we quit being a complaining church and more of a church marked by radical hope in our (future) vindication, our message will have a bigger impact.

[1] Ziya Meral, A Message to the West From the Persecuted Church, Institute for Global Engagement.

[2] In the Turkish legal system, there are actually a lengthy number of punishable “crimes against Turkishness,” including insulting the republic’s founder and war general Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and referring to the sudden deaths and emigration of some 800,000 Armenians in 1915 as “genocide.”

1 comment:

Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Makes me feel pretty whiny about facing any persecution I do from working at a Jesuit institution.