Richard Showalter wrote this column shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer on Dec. 14 at the age of 74. His columns have blessed and challenged MWR readers since 2012. An obituary in the Jan. 13 issue described his devotion to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ and encouraging the global Anabaptist church.
We are experiencing a new day of global Christianity — and a new pattern of persecution. Persecution is not a new phenomenon for the church. It began even as the church itself began.
However, a huge shift in public attitudes and practices toward serious disciples of Jesus is taking place around the globe.
Until now, this shift took place largely unnoticed by believers in the United States and Canada. The God-and-country nationalism so pervasive among evangelical Christians in North America has so gripped our attention that we disregard or downplay this shift.
As a result, the very term “evangelical” is no longer used freely for our identity by many Western Anabaptists, for understandable reasons.
However, this global change is real and pervasive. We should understand and care about it, no matter what our theological or political reasons may be for questioning or rejecting a term like “evangelical” or even “Christian” for ourselves. (I still claim a globalist evangelical Anabaptist identity, though I recognize evangelicalism’s various perversions in the West.)
The shift toward persecution is affecting Anabaptists and other disciples of Jesus around the world, including in the West, in ways we are only beginning to recognize.
In the autumn of 2019, foreign and local believers in the tiny but growing Turkish church (maybe 10,000 believers in a population of 80 million) experienced major increases in anti-Christian pressure. Roughly 100 foreign witnesses who had lived in Turkey for more than 10 years were quietly deported. These pressures affect not only foreign witnesses but also Turkish believers, who are considered followers of a foreign religion and often referred to derisively as “missionaries.”
The Chinese government is undertaking a major repression of religious faith. Like Turkey, China is arresting house-church leaders and pressuring even the registered churches on a regular basis. India, too, is following the same pattern.
What does this mean for global Christianity? It’s not too early to discern a major shift. Many Western Christians have long been locked into a pattern of highly negative anti-Communist rhetoric based on the stories of Bible smugglers and narratives from Eastern Europe. Others have taken a more informed approach.
Now, with the huge political change taking place around the globe, it’s time for Christians everywhere, with whatever perception of persecution they have had in the past, to evaluate what these changes mean. If we assume persecution has never happened in the West, or see ourselves as saviors of the world and of suffering Christians, we need to reassess our understanding of persecution.
It bears repeating: Persecution is nothing new. God has used it to refine the church and spread the good news, and will continue to do so. The Acts of the Apostles have not ended.
Richard Showalter was president of Eastern Mennonite Missions from 1994 to 2011 and a leader in founding the International Missions Association.