The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All: Towards a Theology of Martyrdom
Are you theologically prepared to be a martyr? “Martyrdom and persecution has constantly accompanied Christianity throughout its history,” (25) proposes Schirrmacher, and he claims persecution is promised to believers for all times (85). Thomas Schirrmacher has three earned doctorates (Missiology, Cultural Anthropology and Ethics) and is Professor for Ethics, for Missiology and of International Development at seminaries in the U.S., Germany, South Africa and India. He serves as President of Martin Bucer Seminary in Bonn, as the director of the International Institute for Religious Freedom (Bonn, Cape Town, Colombo) of the World Evangelical Alliance and as President of Giving Hands gGmbH, an international charitable institution with projects in areas of the world where human rights are being denied and Christians are being persecuted. He has written or edited 94 books on ethics, missiology and cultural anthropology, which were translated into 17 languages. He has pastored in protestant churches in Germany and won awards in Ethics and Human Rights and Religious Freedom. His long-term scholarly work, broad international exposure and first-hand involvement on continents dealing with the issue of persecution certainly qualify him to speak to this issue.
Persecution was written as part of the preparation for the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church organized by the German Evangelical Alliance to help Evangelical believers give the subject of persecution new attention. It is designed as a new Biblical-theological and ecclesiastical review of persecution. As such, Schirrmacher seeks “to demonstrate that martyrdom is not an embarrassing side effect of Christianity, but an intrinsic element of Old Testament, New Testament, Jewish and Early Church faith,” and that working to help persecuted Christians is a central task of the Christian Church (14).
Schirrmacher develops the topic of persecution and martyrdom by exploring 70 theses divided into 9 categories. The first chapter raises the relevance of the topic of persecution from both present experience and the formative influence of martyrdom on the theology of the early church. Next he gives a broad topical overview of martyrdom in the Bible. Following that, there is a discussion of the relationship of Jesus to martyrdom and then an explanation of the church’s experience of persecution. Starting with a discussion of behavior under persecution, Schirrmacher comments on martyrdom and missions, on martyrdom and persecution as “Contra a Religion of Prosperity,” and on persecution and the state. Schirrmacher ends with a chapter on the Christian’s needed, compassionate, practical response toward persecution. As appendices Schirrmacher includes two of his essays on Human Rights.
Schirrmacher uses the methodology of 70 theses, brief statements supported by usually one to three paragraphs of explanation and discussion. These are necessarily brief, but are further buttressed by relatively extensive footnotes which provide the reader with further information and documentation for more in-depth study and understanding. There is also an extensive, 31 page select bibliography on persecution of Christians listing books, journals, articles and other scholarly publications, augmented by a list of web addresses. The bibliography equips the reader for further study and research on the subject of the persecution of Christians. (It should be noted that a large percentage of these resources are in German).
The diffculty of full accuracy concerning the present statistics on martyrdom is acknowledged in an extensive note. The fact of Christian persecution of Christians (40–42) and the fact that not all persecution is religiously motivated (criminality or sheer political activism, for example are other motivators) are also openly admitted. These honest confessions lend credibility and keep Persecution from seeming reactionary.
A valuable contribution to the discussion of martyrdom is made by the theses contrasting the biblical teaching on the reality of persecution with the notion of prosperity (theses 45–52). Schirrmacher brings an eternal perspective on persecution which encourages the suffering and even dying believer. Another interesting section is in thesis “58. Resisting the State,” (92–95), where the ethicist in Schirrmacher comes out as he explains the ethical reasoning behind obeying God rather than the state.
An index of scripture references would significantly enhance the value of this book by making the wide range of topic-relevant biblical text more easily accessible to the reader and researcher. This is an unfortunate omission in light of the book’s goal of moving towards a theology.
To a good degree Persecution accomplishes its goal of helping evangelical believers give the subject of persecution new attention. It faithfully gives scriptural grounding from the Old and New Testaments for its theses and li s the subject out of a church-historical past into the present day through examples of recent persecution and martyrdom (See, for example, “Appendix 2: Faith is a Human Right”). However, the goal of demonstrating that working to help persecuted Christians is a central task of the Christian Church remains largely unreached, supported mostly by implication and a single subsection (“62. When One Member Su ers”). Schirrmacher’s final, practical section is not much more than a list of (informed) ideas and opinions (information, education, liturgy cell- church structures), but lacks the biblical grounding that characterize other sections of Persecution.
Schirrmacher’s 70 thesis approach profoundly affects the result of the book, making it more a list of ideas or thoughts than a systematic treatment of persecution. This fact is also evident in the
“Towards a Theology of...” subtitle. The reader who is looking for complete theology of persecution, in-depth biblical study, or a balanced examination of relevant topics should look elsewhere.
The thesis approach also causes some inconsistency. For example, in Thesis 18, “Jesus is the proto- type of the Martyr,” (45–46) Schirrmacher declares that Jesus is the archetype of martyrdom. This is inconsistent with both the definition of a martyr given in Thesis 7 (one who dies for the confession of his faith, 28) and with the clear, and biblical statement in Thesis 21 that “Paul did not regard his own suffering as redemptive” (47). Jesus’ suffering and death was an atoning sacrifice for others which was unique, rather than a pattern for others (58).
However, Schirrmacher’s list has the bene t of being a product of his long consideration of the topic of martyrdom and persecution as both a scholar and as one involved in ministering to Chris- tians experiencing persecution. It is, therefore, not a simple list just anyone could concoct, but rather a compilation of biblical perspectives, historical, and practical concerns that are of great relevance. The book raises issues and provides key relevant texts for a broad range of vital issues on the subject of persecution and martyrdom, along with supplying highly valuable access to sources for further study through the footnotes and select bibliography.