The call to follow Christ is not an easy one. Some of Jesus’ hardest words were spoken in the context of his calls to discipleship. In John 12, shortly before his arrest, Jesus reflected upon his imminent death and interpreted it for his disciples: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). So the principle is a universal one; it’s woven into the very fabric of nature. All life-yielding fruit bearing begins with death. Then, Jesus goes on to apply this “death principle” to his followers. What was true for Jesus was true for them as well. If they were to bear much fruit, they too must fall into the ground and die: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also” (vv. 25-26). Those who would follow Jesus in his fruit-bearing life would have to follow him in laying down their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (1)
For most Western believers, the call to die is usually understood very metaphorically. So while they correctly recognize that Jesus’ call to take up our cross is fleshed out in the disciple’s life on many levels and in many ways, the possibility of really suffering life-threatening persecution for their faith seems foreign to them. The idea of literally dying for Christ’s sake seems far removed from the realities of 21st century American Christianity. And yet, the suffering and persecution to which Jesus called his disciples is a clear and present reality for millions of believers around the world today. The evidence is indisputable. “Christians are suffering in numbers exceeding historic proportions” (2). John L. Allen states it succinctly: “Christians today are, by some order of magnitude, the most persecuted religious body on the planet, suffering not just martyrdom but [many] forms of intimidation and oppression mentioned above in record numbers. That’s not a hunch, or a theory, or an anecdotal impression, but an undisputed empirical fact of life. Confirmation comes from multiple sources, all respected observers of either the human rights scene or the global religious landscape” (3).
Perhaps the reason that the persecution of believers seems so far away is because it is thought to be happenings only on the other side of the world in countries where Christians only represent a small minority. But in reality, persecution is much closer to home than we think.
In June of 2014, the “World Watch List” research team from Open Doors released a new list of the 10 most violent countries in the world toward Christians. This list was different from most such lists because rather than being based on countries’ general climate of intolerance, persecution, or on known faith-based killings, it was based on the number of actual “persecution incidents” over a 17-month period of time, from November 1, 2012 to March 31, 2014. Not surprisingly, the list included countries such as Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt- all well-known hot spots of anti-Christian persecution (4). What caught my attention, however, is that Mexico is number five on the list, ranking higher than Pakistan, India, or Kenya. This seems surprising, and yet, as a missionary in Oaxaca, Mexico, I often hear reports of the extreme persecution that takes place in the isolated animistic tribes of Mexico’s southern states. Southern Mexico’s mountains are home to thousands of small indigenous villages, each governed by their own laws and customs. Most of these villages practice a syncretistic mix of tribal animism and folk Catholicism, and exercise “zero-tolerance” toward members of their communities who convert to Christ. Here’s Open Door’s explanation of Mexico’s inclusion in the list:
Tribal antagonism is Mexico’s main source of violence against Christians… Even though Mexico is home to a Christian majority, local communities in the southern states of Mexico are led by indigenous traditional “laws of uses and customs” to force all community members into a homogenous lifestyle. Community members who do not wish to adhere to these customs or accept a different faith- such as Christians- are met with serious threats and attacks. They are driven from their lands or are victims of physical violence. Christians that are attacked consist mainly of Evangelicals and Pentecostals and to a lesser extent also Presbyterians. In the states of Hidalgo, Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, local government officials follow the local laws of uses and customs, and ignore the Mexican constitution. Especially in rural areas in southern states of the country, Christians have been fined, jailed, beaten or murdered because of their faith.” (4)
In July 2014, the To Every Tribe Mexico team was privileged to meet some of Mexico’s persecuted indigenous believers. To protect their identity, we’ll call them Martin and Rosa. Martin attended a dental outreach our team was conducting in an isolated indigenous village deep in Oaxaca’s mountains. I happened to sit down next to Martin in our clinic’s waiting area. I engaged him in conversation and quickly learned that he was a believer. As our conversation continued, he began to tell me his story- an amazing story of faith, persecution, and perseverance. In the past we had heard stories of the persecution of believers in the area, but weren’t given many details. Now, providentially, we were able to meet one of these believers personally!
After Martin’s consultation with our dentist, three members of our team accompanied him back to his home in a neighboring village. There we met his entire family and heard his whole story. In 2008, Martin and Rosa, along with their seven children and his 80-year-old mother, Romana (not her real name), were run out of their village after years of intense persecution for their faith in Christ. Martin had come to Christ in 1998 while visiting a city near Oaxaca’s southern coast. He returned to his village and shared the gospel with his family and friends. His wife and mother came to Christ, and two or three others in his village professed faith as well. They began to meet regularly in his home for worship. After her conversion, Romana, then 70 years old, taught herself to read so that she could read her Bible!
Things went well for them until Martin was assigned the annual task of taking care of his village’s “Santos” – idols of Catholic saints that are worshiped in the village, especially during the village’s annual cycle of religious festivals. Worship of the Santos is an important part of indigenous village life and is closely linked to their animistic beliefs about spirits. The Santos are worshipped, appeased, and celebrated as a means of manipulation to ensure prosperity and health and to protect against sickness, drought, accidents, and other perceived evils. Because of the centrality of Santo-worship in the life and worldview of tribal villages, when new believers refuse to participate in these religious activities, they are almost inevitably marginalized and persecuted. It is this reality that accounts for Mexico’s place on the list of countries with most violence toward Christians.
The persecution that Martin and his family faced the next few years was intense. Once the onslaught began, the other professing believers of the village fell away (“turned back to the idols,” as Martin put it). But Martin and his family stood firm. On several occasions men of their village invaded their home during their regular worship time and severely beat Martin. In an effort to drive the family out of the village, fellow villagers killed some of their animals, threw large rocks down the mountain onto their home, and cut off their water supply. This kind of persecution persisted for several years until one night in November of 2008. Martin, by God’s grace, was out of the village when it happened, or he would very likely have been killed. Men of the village attacked their home. They broke down the front door and entered, looking for Martin. When they couldn’t find him they began to dismantle the house piece by piece. They removed the doors and windows from his house into a pile in his yard, set them on fire, and began to burn his chickens. They looted the house, taking anything of value including the tin on the roof. Thankfully, Rosa, Romana, and the children were not hurt, but they were forced to leave the village, walking several hours through the night to a neighboring village where they found Martin. The family ended up settling in that (more tolerant) village where, for the past six years they have rebuilt their lives. As we sat in Martin’s humble home last month eating almuerzo (late morning breakfast/lunch) and listening to his story, we were moved to tears. The account of their persecution was amazing, but even more amazing was their testimony of persevering faithfulness by God’s grace throughout the years. Martin, Rosa, and Romana are new heroes for me. Their joy and confidence in their faith bear eloquent witness to the inner strength that years of hardship for the sake of Christ have yielded. Their love for Christ and knowledge of Scripture are evident as they speak.
When I think of Martin and Rosa, I am reminded of Revelation 14:4: “It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” What a perfect description of disciples of Jesus Christ! “They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” Indeed, they conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:22).
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
2. Gregory C. Cochran, What Kind of Persecution is Happening to Christians Around the World? SBTS Journal of Theology, Spring 2014.
3. John L. Allen, The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (New York: Image, 2013), 33. Cited by Cochran.
*Editor’s Note: Originally Printed in the September 2014 issue of Ekballo