Our group of seven had just placed our order when the police officer walked through our section of the busy restaurant saying firmly, “This building is being evacuated. I need everyone to leave through the side door, now!”
Within a few seconds, we were outside wondering what was going on. From what I hoped was a safe distance away I looked back to see a grandson politely holding the door for everyone as they left the building. “This is not a good time to be so polite,” I remember thinking as I called his name for him to leave his post and scurry to safety along with the rest of our group.
Standing there, random thoughts of perils kept running through my mind: Perhaps somehow a robbery is involved. Is it a bomb threat? If it is a bomb, are we far enough away? Is this a terrorist thing and someone is about to blow themselves up or start shooting everyone?
When the situation was not resolved within a few minutes, we left the area to go to another restaurant. As so often happens in a large city, the evacuation of the restaurant did not make the news and apparently nothing happened other than the restaurant’s business was disrupted and the patrons were inconvenienced, some mid-meal. Our event appears to have been a false alarm.
Sometimes though, the alarm is not false. Sometimes the person strolling through the crowd is not a law enforcement official helping everyone to safety; he or she is bringing violence and death into the peace of everyday lives, forever changing families, communities, and nations.
Today, the World Health Organization attempts to track and report trends regarding violence. Their belief appears to be that the rule of law would curb most violence, if enacted and enforced in every nation throughout the world. They report: “The enactment and enforcement of legislation on crime and violence are critical for establishing norms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and creating safe and peaceful societies. On average, the laws surveyed were reported to exist by 80% of countries but to be fully enforced by just 57%” (Global Status report on Violence Prevention, 2014). of course, “acceptable behavior” would logically include a common belief system that encourages respect for all and violence toward none, which unfortunately, is not universally accepted.
While the World Health Organization is not religious in any way, they have stumbled upon the purpose of government in the world from a biblical perspective. World governments are identified as serving God in a special way, not as part of God’s kingdom, but as protectors of the common citizenry by using the fear of punishment as a deterrent to violations of law.
Paul was inspired to write: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom 13:1-7).
One area of increasing violence today involves killing in the name of religion, either because of the religion of the murderer, or because of the religion of those being killed. Jesus talked about those who would think they were serving God in killing the disciples: “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me” (John 16:2-3). While those words were addressed to those who would be first century Christians, it is amazing how very current they are today in many places around the world including the United States.
In October 2015, when a gunman opened fire at a community college in Oregon, survivors reported that the shooter asked individuals if they were “Christians.” If they said “Yes,” he replied: “Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second… And then he shot and killed them” http:// http://www.people.com/article/umpqua-community-college- gunman-allegedly-targeted-christians-report
Today, none who are persecuting those who claim any allegiance to Christ are doing anything new. They are at the end of a long line of those who have done the same throughout the centuries.
In the first days of the church, our brother Stephen was killed when an angry mob threw rocks at him until he died (Acts 7:58-59). On the heels of Stephen’s death, a zealot named Saul decided to do his best to destroy the Lord’s church. “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem… As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:1,3).
Imagine being at home in those days when the banging on the door was a demand to know if there were any Christians inside. At that moment, the inhabitants faced a horrible situation: lie and live (maybe), or tell the truth and die a horrible death. either choice had both immediate and eternal consequences.
Years later, when Paul talked about that time in his life, he remembered the violence in which he participated. “And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him” (Acts 22:20). He also recorded: “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities” (Acts 26:9-11). Since Paul was a witness against those who would not recant their faith in Christ, he was also most likely among the first to throw rocks at them to kill them (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).
We are to be thankful for those in our nation whose work is to protect all citizens and to administer appropriate punishments allowed by law regardless of religious affiliation. At the same time, we need to remember it is not our place as Christians to be administrators of those punishments. Vengeance is not ours (Hebrews 10:30) and carnal battles are not ours to fight: Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (John 18:36). A practical application of these truths is that we cannot serve in the military, or in a gun carrying position of law enforcement, or in a political system as a judge or legislator.
Refusing to participate in the law’s vengeance does not prevent us from taking advantage of all the rights we have as citizens of the land in which we dwell. Paul used his Roman citizenship to avoid being flogged (Acts 22:25) and to appeal his legal case before Caesar (Acts 25:11). This was within his rights as a Roman citizen and was not a violation of the law of God.
Of course, there is no guarantee that all the laws of any nation will be appropriate for Christians. It may be that some laws of a land are contrary to the Bible’s instructions. In that event, we have no choice but to respectfully decline to follow that particular law since we must obey God first(Acts 5:29), even as we do our best to be loyal and faithful citizens of our nation. For example, if the freedom to assemble were withdrawn, we would quietly gather for worship anyway.
If violence against those who believe in Christ comes to our community, or even our home, may we have the same faith and courage as all those who have suffered and died because of their faith in God. The Holy Spirit inspired special mention for redeemed martyrs: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9- 10).
If government based persecution happens where we live and it appears dangerous to continue to live there under such circumstances, it is difficult to know what course is best. Still, it is not appropriate for Christians to arm themselves and become part of a movement to drive out the government. The scriptures tell us to “honor the king” (I Peter 2:17).
We have Bible examples of what others did in similar circumstances. When the church was persecuted in Jerusalem after the death of Stephen, most Christians fled from the area so they could live where there was less danger (Acts 8:4). Similarly, when the Roman ruler Claudius did not want any Jews in Rome, Aquila and Priscilla left town and found a new place to live in Corinth (Acts 18:2) Moving to a new area in our community, another state, or even another nation may all be considered if persecution invades where we live.
As God’s faithful, our task in a world of increasing violence is to remain a people of peace. Paul wrote, “Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:17-18).
In my recent restaurant experience, it was frightening to be asked to leave, to have the peace of the moment disturbed. I cannot imagine what it was like to be in San Bernadino, California, Roseburg, Oregon, Charleston, South Carolina, and Paris, France when multiple individuals were slaughtered there in recent months.
Let us not forsake our faith and let us not be afraid in such difficult times. rather, let us remember the words of Jesus as he instructed the twelve: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
March 2016 issue of the Old Paths Advocate