A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Bishop Mano Rumalshah of Pakistan to hear about life as a Christian in a land of violent persecution. He spoke of the day and aftermath of the bombing of All Saints’ Church in Peshawar on September 22, 2013. The bombers came to their parlor, as they socialized with food and drink after Sunday services, as Anglican congregants do. The attack essentially wiped out a generation of the congregation. Some of the dead he had christened, then buried only a few years later.
Rumalshah and his wife, Benita, returned to Pakistan shortly after that talk, just in time for the twin bombings in Lahore last month. More death. More horror.
It often surprises me, the things that one remembers when big moments come. The bishop particularly remembers a young girl who came to church with her aunt a few weeks after the bombings and whispered to him that her parents had died near where they were standing. The part of his story that stood out for me seems less grave, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more worried I’ve become.
He told us about the cross he wears around his neck. He’s only taken it off once since becoming a bishop: by request, at the Western Wall. Even in Pakistan, where Christian persecution grows, he wears it, always. He regrets the time he did remove it.
Wearing a Cross
When we lived in London, I attended a Tuesday morning women’s Bible study. The United Kingdom has gone further down the road of cultural assumptions against Christians than the United States, so one morning our discussion turned to wearing crosses. The British and Scottish women found it difficult, like walking about while wearing a dunce cap. There, only true believers wear a cross. While U.K. society accepts cultural Christianity, such as going to church on Christmas and Easter, actual believing is just not right.
Francis Spufford put it colorfully in his book, “Unapologetic, The Emotional Lives of Christians,” when explaining that he and his wife would soon have to break the news of their actual faith and attendant lack of cool to their young daughter:
Nothing is so sad, from the style point of view, as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday. If we couldn’t help ourselves, if we absolutely had to go shopping in the general area of woo-hoo and The-Force-Is-Strong-In-You-Young-Skywalker, we could at least have picked something new and colorful, something with a bit of gap-year spiritual zing to it, possibly involving chanting and spa therapies. Instead, we chose old buildings that smell of dead flowers, and groups of pensioners laboriously grinding their way through “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Rebel cool? Not so much.
I didn’t realize how strong these assumptions against Christians were in the United Kingdom until we had lived there for a while. Here in the United States, wearing a cross is often a pose, something some do to signal they are good people. I had to unlearn that.
I wear a cross. My husband gave it to me for my first Mother’s Day. I started wearing it so my children would see this symbol of faith every day. So, as usual, I was wearing my cross one memorable afternoon during our early days in London when I got out of our flat for a few hours. I found myself in London, at a French bakery, La Maison Blanc (“The White House”), reading David McCollugh’s “1776.” Originally, this jumble of facts is why I remembered the afternoon. It’s just the kind of coincidence I would fall into.
I went inside to order another coffee, and an older British lady asked me about my cross.
“You are wearing a cross. Why? Are you really a believer?”
“Yes,” I answered, making the American assumption that she was challenging me about putting on a pious show.
“Oh,” she replied, tight-lipped and eyebrows raised. I took the expression for slightly surprised, not disapproving. She hastily left. I had gotten used to not connecting with British women on first meet. I didn’t think much about her question and fade until that cross-wearing discussion a few years later.
That morning, I realized that I was wearing my cross not just for my kids but also because it was easy for me. Even when friends would struggle to avert their eyes from the oddity and I guessed what they were thinking, it didn’t bother me. Plus, I figured Christian women in the United Kingdom needed a little backup. They did wear crosses, but it was more of a burden for them. The more women who did so, the more it helped. So I continued to wear mine.
I’ve thought about those moments from time to time, but now, as the stories of Christian persecution hit my inbox (very little makes the mainstream news—I have a Google alert), as I have listened to Bishop Rumalshah, as I have followed the story of Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Bagdad—I realize that my burdens are feather-light. Wearing a cross is such a small, easy thing for us in the United States, and what the cross symbolizes only emphasizes that ease.
How Strong Are American Christians?
That ease troubles me now. In an email discussion about the Indiana religious-freedom law, Sean Davis mentioned something that gave me pause. American Christians have not been tested for a very long time. We haven’t even had to deal with the embarrassment of faith like our members in the United Kingdom until very recently. That is changing, rapidly. In the face of growing organized and culturally approved intolerance, what will our resolve look like?
I think the faithful will find that our ranks are smaller than we expect. Our churches are full on Sundays, true, but they are swollen by Prosperity Gospel teachings. “God wants to give you things, all you have to do believe and pray for what you want,” they say. But this idea only thrives in lands with small, surmountable problems. It offers no comfort or recourse when life isn’t the happy standard. In the pressure days to come, it is just a path to despair.
American churches are also full of messages of perfection here on Earth. Americans do. We fix things. One can find this proclivity in everything from market capitalism to foreign policy to our numerous Great Awakenings. We look for the formula, the rules to follow for success. This isn’t always a bad thing, but, first, Christianity is not about rules, quite the contrary; and, two, rule systems come with temptations. Rules are easy to change. When they don’t suit us we can change them or go looking for new rules we like, for ways to be spiritual without cost. That’s where those new and colorful, gap-year zing philosophies with chanting and spa-ing come in.
The coming days will show us that the Body of Christ in the United States isn’t as large as the guide books tell us. And it might not be as strong as assumed, either. I fear that some among the rest of us might counsel silence by reminding us that we don’t face violent persecution like Christians overseas. We don’t, and we should keep our own burdens in perspective. But we should not use that perspective as an excuse to hide and hope the hate goes away. As Christians overseas might tell us, it doesn’t.
Our tests are coming. We need to gather our resolve now, while our burdens are still relatively light. They aren’t going to remain so.