Tara’s Blog

Ajith Fernando on Responding to Personal Attacks


by Ajith Fernando

How should Christians who are a minority in their land respond when fellow Christians and churches are attacked? I have thought about it a lot because churches are often attacked in Sri Lanka too. One thing is certain—never should our motivation be one of tit-for-tat or revenge. I want to suggest a three-pronged response.

We live in a region where the understanding of the concept of honour requires that if someone hits us we must ht back. In some countries the so called ‘honour killings’ are even sometimes ignored by the authorities. This is totally different to the Christian understanding of honour. Paul said: ‘Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all’ (Rom. 12:17). In Christianity the honourable thing is not to hit back.

Then there is the fact that Christ has asked us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). So the general response when we are hurt is to love our enemies. This is a teaching that is repeated over and over again in the Bible (Matt. 5:43, 44; Luke 6:27, 35). We are told, ‘Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you’ (Luke 6:28 ). Referring specially to persecution, Paul says, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them’ (Rom. 12:14). Paul says of himself, ‘When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure’ (2 Cor. 4:12b). Peter writing to a church suffering persecution said, ‘Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing’ (1 Pet. 3:9). Note that in this last verse a blessing is promised if we bless our persecutors.

This is a pretty strong case for loving and blessing those who persecute us. I believe the witness of history is that the reaction of Christians to persecution left a strong impression on the persecutors. After painful initial suffering, they left such a powerful impression upon their persecutors so that large numbers of people ended up coming to Christ. This is our dream for our nations. We want large numbers of people to come to Christ. It may seem impossible now, but that is how the conversion of the Roman Empire looked to the small persecuted band of Christians in the first century to whom the passages I quoted above were first written.

When people in our nations get tired of the endless cycle of violence coming from revenge, may they be challenged by seeing Christians refusing to take revenge and loving their enemies. When they get tired of the corruption that is ruining our chances of progress, may they be challenged by seeing Christians willing to suffer loss and taking on poverty because they refuse to break their principles. When people realise that all their wealth has not given them satisfaction may they be challenged by seeing Christians truly happy and contented by living godly lives and realise that the life we have in Christ is the greatest gain (1 Tim. 6:6). Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5:16). That is our ambition for the church.

Actually the persecuted Christians in the New Testament era looked forward to nothing short of world conquest by Christ. They saw their sufferings as temporary means towards achieving that end. That is how we see our sufferings too. So knowing that Christ is the truth, yearning for our nations to bow their knees to Christ and believing that Christ will conquer the world in the end influences our attitude to persecution.

Of course only a pure church where people truly love God can react this way. The churches in South Asia are anything but pure. This is a much more serious problem than the persecution we are going through. We must pray that God will use this persecution to make our people truly holy which is the biggest need in the church today—a much bigger need that the need to avoid suffering.

Now that is one side of the coin. The other side is that the Bible shows that the early Christians did all they could to win legitimacy for Christians. In Philippi, when Paul and Silas were released after being unlawfully beaten, they did not meekly leave the prison. They protested that they had been treated like that even though they were Roman citizens (Acts 16:35-39). They wanted it recorded that Christians had been treated in an illegal way. Luke is careful to record that the proconsul in Corinth Gallio who was from a famous family and was a well-known figure in the Roman empire gave a verdict very favourable to the Christians (Acts 18:12-17). The early Christians did all they could to achieve a legitimate legal standing for Christianity and for evangelistic activity.

In the same way today Christians need to use the court system to appeal for our right to practice Christianity. When something illegal is done against Christians we may need to go to the courts to agitate for our rights or against the actions that have harmed Christians. This is so that people are warned against the repercussions of doing it and will think twice before trying it again. In this way we help the whole church, not just ourselves.

If Christians are being denied a basic human right like access to the village burial place, it may be necessary for Christians not to give in when they are stopped from using the cemetery. They may need to grapple with the authorities until permission is granted. This has happened a few times in Sri Lanka.

Sometimes it may be necessary to apply pressure on the authorities by using the pressure of foreign interest groups and governments. It may be necessary to highlight in the press nationally and internationally the injustices meted out to Christians.

Like the great thinkers in the first few centuries (whom we know as apologists), we must produce great thinkers who will devote their energies to producing material in defence of Christian belief and practice. This is a long-term strategy. We need Christian people who will grow in stature to become respected lawyers, politicians, journalists and economists. They can represent Christ to the nation better than we preachers can. This is a long term strategy, but we must be thinking about this and urging people in this direction.

There is a third thing that needs to be done at this time: those affected by the attacks need to be comforted. Physical attacks are very hard to endure. They humiliate the person; they produce fear of another attack; and they can produce severe anger over the way the person’s body or property was violated.

Indeed we have seen people like Stephen who have reacted with wonderful faith when attacked. But my experience has been that some time after the attack people go through all sorts of difficult feelings. They become vulnerable to Satan’s attacks at this time. They could get over-discouraged and lose heart. They could become angry and develop vengeful feelings.

Another need for outside help from Christians is that in times of persecution Christians could act rashly and in an unwise way. Sometimes persecution is triggered by unwise behaviour of Christians when they antagonise others by things that were not necessary to do. An example is having loud worship which disturbs neighbours. Another is unwise ways of distributing material aid to the poor and needy which gives opponents the impression that we are using unethical lures to coerce people into becoming Christians.

This, then, is a time when those who have been attacked need the support of the body of Christ. We need to be close to them and help them regain some balance as they go through different emotional moods. When Peter and John were told for the first time that they must not speak in the name of Christ again, the first thing they did was to go ‘to their own people’ (literal translation) or ‘to their friends’ (ESV; Acts 4:23). If they cannot come to us we must go to them. Leaders must ensure that those who have been attacked are personally ministered to.

So my answer is a three pronged one. Firstly we are committed to radical personal non-retaliation. We will not resort to violence to achieve our ends. Instead we will demonstrate the power of the gospel by exemplary lives. Secondly, we are committed to using the existing structures to present a case for the legitimacy of Christianity. Towards this end we develop strategies that will be effective and leaders who will be qualified in presenting the case for Christianity. Thirdly, we care for those who have been attacked.

May we be faithful at this time.