The Politics of the Global Suffering Body of Christ

Jason Bruner

Very early on the morning of Thursday, May 10th, President Donald Trump greeted three Korean men who had just been released from imprisonment in North Korea and flown to the United States. All three, not coincidentally, are Christians. Later that same day, speaking at the Global Christian Persecution Summit, organized in Washington, D.C. by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Frank Gaffney — the conservative strategist known for his Islamophobic activism — reasoned that the three Koreans had been arrested for preaching that “there is some God besides Kim Jong Un.” For Gaffney, their release demonstrated that “this Trump administration wants to save persecuted Christians as much as or more than anyone in this room.” Which was saying something, since the room was filled with a number of eminent and long-standing activists for international religious freedom, including, among others, the Honorable Frank R. Wolf, Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, and Michael Horowitz.

To look upon the world through the eyes of the panelists and the several dozen people in attendance was to see a world filled with suffering Christians whose duress was being ignored by human rights organizations, Western nation-states, and the U.N. The attendees were already convinced of the reality of global Christian persecution, which was quantified in various ways throughout the day: 215 million Christians are “heavily persecuted,” echoing a statistic calculated by Open Doors International; 1.5 million Christians had been displaced from Iraq; another 1 million displaced people — many of whom are Christian — in the Nuba Mountains on the Sudan/South Sudan border; “21,000 Christians killed in Nigeria”; the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS fighters in 2015; Andrew Brunson, the imprisoned pastor in Turkey.

Categorizing this wide range of suffering and pain as being “Christian” aggregated these disparate events in order to make them visible. In so doing, these stories and statistics evinced a global anti-Christian pandemic that was hidden in plain sight. These are the realities that other commenters have asserted amount to a “global war on Christians,” though no one at the event used that specific phrase.

Given this set of facts, the summit was oriented around a pointed question: Why don’t Christians care about Christians? For the organizers and panelists, the question contained a moral judgment of American churches. American Christians, many speakers lamented, were simply unaware of the “persecuted church”, as the suffering Christians overseas were referred to; they failed to grasp the important spiritual reality that “we are one body of Christ” and that a significant percentage of that body was suffering. It was their belonging to a single metaphysical community of the body of Christ that formed the basis for both the judgment and the ethical obligations that were proposed at the summit.

This corporeal metaphor, taken from a variety of New Testament passages (Matt. 25; Gal. 6) served to make clear a theological truth that the pain experienced by the persecuted church was also the pain of American Christians, for all Christians are “in Christ,” and “if one part [of Christ’s body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26, NIV). According to various panelists at the summit, American Christians had become unable to see the suffering body of Christ in the world because of their myopic focus upon denominational differences, a preoccupation with personal salvation, or an acceptance of a “health and wealth” theology of prosperity.

The fact that the suffering body of Christ around the world was invisible to American Christians meant that their suffering couldn’t be felt, and if it could not be felt then it could not be acted upon. In other words, panelists lamented that American Christians had a failure of global imagination. Speaking at the IRD summit, Jordan Allott, a documentary filmmaker, made clear that the representation of the persecuted church is crucial in order for Americans to “develop a personal connection” to Christians elsewhere, a connection that will make them “feel like friends or family.”

Jordan Allott speaks at the Global Christian Persecution Summit hosted by the Institute on Religion and Democracy in the Dirksen Senate Building on May 10, 2018. The photo displayed behind him is one he took of a Coptic widow of one of the 21 men beheaded by ISIS in 2015. Photo by author.

From the mid-twentieth century, the existence of the idea of the “persecuted church” has been inseparable from the images of persecuted Christians. Groups like Voice of the Martyrs (not present at the summit) have long distributed jarringly graphic images of tortured and mutilated Christian bodies, always accompanied by harrowing accounts of the genuine faith that endured the brutality.

These images of persecuted Christians share much in common, stylistically, with other photographic genres that attempt to capture and represent pain and suffering, such as is often found in war, humanitarian, or disaster photography. Susan Sontag’s essay On Regarding the Pain of Others raises fundamental questions about the direction of this gaze with respect to the capacity of such images to share another person’s pain. In both images of disaster and images of persecution, it tends to be “us” in the West who view, passively, the pain of others “over there.” For Sontag, such questions evince the unbridgeable gap between an “us” and a “them”, which becomes reproduced especially through images:

What would they have to say to us? “We” — this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through — don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. … That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

What can we know of the pain of being sold into slavery, of the despair of decades of unwarranted imprisonment, of the horrors of seeing one’s family killed — experiences of Christians worldwide which were recounted at the IRD’s summit? Sontag’s sobering conclusion is that the horror of suffering cannot be represented or shared, that the experience of suffering isolates because suffering is untranslatable.

Sontag’s conclusion stands in contrast to the assumptions of those who seek to represent the suffering of the persecuted church. The gaze which is directed upon the particular suffering of Christians is not the same as that which is cultivated by war or disaster photography. But is there something about suffering due to religious persecution — say, an unjust prison sentence — that distinguishes that suffering from those who are imprisoned unjustly for a “non-religious” reason? Is there something uniquely translatable about suffering endured in religious persecution, or, more specifically, in Christian persecution?

Outrage and compassion are not often the primary responses that Christians are asked to cultivate in relation to images of the persecuted church. The most fundamental question is not Can I identify with this pain? — the goal of so much disaster or humanitarian photography, but rather What is the state of my soul? At least, that seems to be a common function of gazing into the “martyr’s mirror” throughout Christian history. Scarred faces and severed limbs become evidence of both physical and spiritual survival and are often described as testimonies to the triumphant power of God over evil. Whether in narrative or visual form, describing and representing the pain of the persecuted church has often been intended to make obvious a theological point: the suffering of “brothers and sisters in Christ” is the suffering of Christ.

This difference suggests that questions of the translatability of pain — whether Christians in the West can know the pain of their “brothers and sisters” — are simply the wrong questions to be asking. When Westerners look to the suffering of the persecuted church, the direction of their gaze is similar: “We” — the West — are looking “over there.” But there is at least the potential within a Christian theological framework for the agency of viewer and viewed to be reversed. “They” critique “us” because, as the images of persecuted Christians are framed, they ­– the persecuted — are the ones with more sincere faith, perhaps they even have a sense of the presence of Christ which is unavailable to Christians elsewhere who are looking back via images and stories. They question us rather than simply asking for compassion or anger.

The work of those who advocate on behalf of the persecuted church is premised upon an imagined belonging which makes a particular kind of suffering carry more weight — or at least a distinctive kind of weight. These advocates believe that some suffering can be translated — from raw experience into “religious persecution” — and in being translated it can be shared with those in the West. This basic conviction, that suffering need not be an inherently atomizing experience but something that makes possible a global spiritual communion is quite beautiful. Indeed, the literature around Christian persecution contains a number of testimonies asserting the power and meaningfulness of that communion. Anti-Christian persecution advocates, therefore, believe that some suffering can be defined not only as pertaining to religion, but also that some suffering is understood to be, in itself, religious. This key move is premised upon the labeling of this pain and suffering as being uniquely “Christian”, which then allows that suffering to be made visible to Western eyes and then acted upon. This process has produced a new construction: a global Christianity defined by experiences of persecution.

On this point, many of the panelists at the summit referenced Matthew 25 as a way of indicating that it was when fellow believers were hungry, naked, or imprisoned –which was to say “persecuted” — that Christ was present with them. They judged that American Christians are neglecting Christ himself by neglecting the persecuted church, and they tended to pride themselves on being able to locate the myriad ways and places in which Christ is suffering globally, even as the summit was meeting.

Since the persecuted church is generally regarded as the righteous, suffering body of Christ enduring the trials of evil, the plight of these Christians is often understood as being explainable without recourse to any factor outside of religious identity or adherence, which is to say, persecution is largely understood without reference to history. The implications of this analytical conviction are numerous. One panelist scoffed at the idea of using “socio-economic” or “cultural” or “political” lenses to explain anti-Christian persecution. In another context, Ambassador Brownback confessed to not really being sure why religious hostilities seem to be rising around the world. And despite the fact that at least three different panelists spoke movingly about the dramatic decline in the Christian population of Iraq “over the last 15 years” (from approximately 1.5 million to around 200,000), there was not one mention of the US invasion of Iraq (Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated that the total cost of the “War on Terror” in the Middle East has been between 1.3–2million “direct and indirect deaths”). In fact, Sarah Roderick Fitch castigated those who insisted upon a continuous “penance over US imperialism,” which she said was a “penance for which Christians in the East are paying the cost.” (To be clear, in suggesting that the Iraq War is an important contextual factor here, I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between US foreign policy and the Islamic State.)

The points of US and evangelical history that were referenced at the summit included William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement, the participation of Jews and Christians in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s, and American mobilization to save Soviet Jewry in the twentieth century. Historical precedent mattered when it provided evidence of the righteousness of Christians’ (and Americans’) actions and, therefore, history could be dismissed when it did not. For most of those present at the summit, to act on behalf of persecuted Christians elsewhere is to act as American Christians. But there was considerably less attention given to the fact that their actions occur within history, that they carry the uneven weight of a past that cannot be purely righteous. To be more specific: Did Christ suffer with the more than 80,000 peasants who were killed in El Salvador, overwhelmingly at the hands of the US-supported military dictatorship? Does Christ suffer as families are separated at our border?

It was American Christians’ responsibilities to their fellow “brothers and sisters in Christ” that was paramount for most panelists at the summit. Luke Moon criticized the American Christian leaders who signed an open letter in The Washington Post in February 2017 opposing President Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”. Moon was irate that these leaders failed to see that the language excepting “religious minorities” in the executive order “was code for Christians” and that by opposing the order, these Christians were abandoning the suffering body of Christ.

But to see suffering — Christian or otherwise — isn’t to know what to do about that suffering, especially if that suffering is thought to be understandable outside of the categories of nation, economics, politics, culture, and history. Stated in other terms, the bodies of those who comprise the living body of Christ also have relationships (as citizens, asylees, or refugees) to particular nation-states. Organizations that publicize anti-Christian persecution do want one to be moved to compassion upon seeing the widow of a martyr, or to feel outrage at international inaction to help Iraqi Christian refugees. Yet they also want one to use such images to question one’s own sense of discipleship — one’s relationship to the global body of Christ. This method muddles the politics of outrage with the disciplining of the soul. This muddling of outrage and spirituality is due to the fact that those of us looking at the images of the persecuted church ostensibly have the power to do something about their suffering.

It was not at all clear, however, which foreign policy proposals might fit the suffering body of Christ. Should American Christians insist upon a prioritization of suffering Christians overseas? Should they maintain a broader commitment to “international religious freedom” that is fought for on behalf of all people? For those who see global anti-Christian developments as simply a manifestation of evil, how do the politics of evil fit into the politics of American foreign policy? In other words, the question of what could be done was made more difficult by the layers of identity among those who are defining the conversation around persecution.

From the perspective of the panelists who spoke at the IRD summit, the tragedy was not simply that American Christians were unaware of the plight of their brothers and sisters in the faith elsewhere, but that in their lack of awareness they were unable to leverage their American citizenship in their behalf. Here the gap between New Testament Christians’ theology of persecution stands in stark relief with the contemporary possibilities of American foreign policy. The Apostle Paul did not have the ear of his senator. Peter did not preach to his congressmen. The early Christians received no direct word of support from an ambassador. For these reasons, it was striking to hear New Testament texts about caring for persecuted fellow believers while seated in the Dirksen Senate Building at a meeting attended by an ambassador and multiple former and current congressmen. It is worth reflecting on what it means to read New Testament texts about persecution from a position of political power rather than severe marginalization.

Contemporary politics around the suffering “body of Christ” is, therefore, shaped by the ways in which suffering is and has been categorized, and whose suffering is believed to have impacted Christ’s body. If there is to be an American form of Christian politics that is organized around the shared suffering of the body of Christ, then we need to be clear about who gets to be included in that body, who is excluded, and why. In other words, the politics should entail a more serious reflection on the disciples’ question from Matthew 25: “Where did we see you, Lord?” which, at its best, would seem to make visible acute forms of occluded suffering and to bind people together in a communion around that suffering. The suffering body of Christ ought not be conflated with suffering that is categorized as religious persecution. Otherwise, this form of political mobilization could easily devolve into a myopic politics of global American righteousness. If it is the latter, there are Salvadoran paisanos –a “crucified people” — who will ask us to remove a plank from our eye.

A mural on the walls of Divina Providencia, the small compound where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated. Note how all people share both the wounds of Christ on their hands and feet, as well as the assassin’s bullet wound in the chest. San Salvador, El Salvador. Photo taken by author.

Jason Bruner

Written by

Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Historian, ethnographer, writer, and, occasionally, photographer.

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