Features

Books: Not for the beachbag

International | But these stories of persecution make good summer reading

Issue: "The Man Behind the Duck," July 26, 1997

The greatest challenge to writing a book about persecution, according to Herb Schlossberg, is making the material hold still long enough to analyze it. From recent reports of American missionaries in Ukraine threatened with deportation, to Muslim-led riots against Pentecostal churches in East Timor, the landscape for oppressed Christians is an ever-changing host of exotica.

To pray discerningly and work assiduously on behalf of the persecuted, Christians have to be equipped with more than headline news. Congress takes up several bills related to religious persecution in the fall, and Christians will see issues dear to the church put through the political meat-grinder. That's why Mr. Schlossberg's 1991 book, A Fragrance of Oppression, along with a few new books, are important-if uncomfortable-summer reading.

Given Mr. Schlossberg's admission, it is ironic that his book, written just prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, is so timely. Its strength is in a long-lens perspective. Going beyond now-dated anecdotes of Stalinist abuses, much of the book is devoted to developing a theological understanding of persecution.

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That understanding is held in tension, according to the author: Scripture promises that persecution will always continue just as it obligates believers to seek remedies for it. "Normalcy," Mr. Schlossberg writes, "is not the same as legitimacy."

Spiritual battles demand spiritual weapons, so readers are admonished to seek more than political fixes. Tyrants should be called to account ("There is a connection between believing what is false and doing what is evil," he explains). So, too, should the church. Even the victims of persecution aren't let off the hook. Persecution can be "a judgment of the Lord against his people for their apostasy," says Mr. Schlossberg. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Josef Tson, an Orthodox believer and a Romanian pastor who experienced severe persecution at the hands of Communists, both attest to lukewarm faith prior to communist takeovers in Eastern Europe and Russia that created an atmosphere ripe for oppression.

Mr. Schlossberg says limp-wristed diplomats are also part of the equation. "Realpolitik foreign policy" made apart from ethical foundations is an ultimate loser. "Pragmatism often sacrifices real interests and opportunities in an effort to secure short-term gains," Mr. Schlossberg notes.

Applied to Saudi Arabia, for instance, Washington's kowtowing to the ruling House of Saud and its strict application of Islamic law-even to American civilians and soldiers stationed there-may keep the oil flowing short-term. Long-term, however, it not only stifles the church but also discourages moderate Muslim elements from pressuring for change.

Two new books add up-to-the-minute documentation to Mr. Schlossberg's philosophical angle. In the Lion's Den by Nina Shea is the three-day excursion package; Their Blood Cries Out by Paul Marshall is the seven-day cruise.

Ms. Shea's book is 93 pages without appendixes and endnotes (and with abundant photographs and maps)-a compelling, one-sitting read. Mr. Marshall's is 233 pages minus appendixes and endnotes, covering the state of persecution with greater attention to its many causes and ample guidance on practical ways American Christians may become more engaged.

Ms. Shea is director of the Puebla Program of Freedom House and has spent more than 15 years compiling first-hand accounts of atrocities committed against Christians in Sudan, China, and elsewhere. A Roman Catholic, she was appointed last year to the State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.

Mr. Marshall also took up the cause of persecution more than 15 years ago and developed his expertise as a fellow at the more liberal Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.

After describing persecution in more countries than anyone would wish or imagine, Mr. Marshall spends several chapters on Western apathy and its multiple guises in and out of the church.

Ms. Shea begins her book with a critique of Western failure to uphold its own constitutional principles. On a consistent basis, she writes, "Western journalists, scholars, diplomats, international analysts, and politicians either ignore incidents of Christian persecution or downplay their significance." She concludes with a call to action for grassroots American involvement united with Washington political muscle. Sandwiched between are horrific accounts of government-sanctioned violence against Christians in Islamic countries from Africa to the Far East and in communist holdover states.

Personal accounts are what make the problem of persecution jump off the page for Americans who've never known such trouble. Without Allen Yuan (who has spent more than 20 years in Chinese prisons and chose to close his large house church last year rather than register it with Communist officials) or Mary the young Egyptian (whose small wrist is a bracelet of scarred flesh where Islamic captors poured sulfuric acid), the political arguments lose their point. Both authors put faces to the cause without risking sensationalism.

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