Love calls for Solidarity. Loving one another includes especially caring for those who are persecuted and in prison for their faith and witness. If one part of the body suffers, all parts suffer with it. We are all, like John, “companions in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, Hebrews 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26).
Cape Town Commitment
At the 2012 International Council of Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) I led a session on ‘solidarity’, specifically: How can theological education promote solidarity in the body of Christ? This summarizes some key conclusions regarding how we might better train Christian leaders to stand in solidarity, as part of global church.
First, solidarity is not pity. Rather, in solidarity we value and honor the other, whether oppressed, persecuted, powerless or simply poor. In solidarity, we seek to understand and stand with those whose reality is different from our own. We choose to share in the sufferings of the global body of Christ. Solidarity is reflected in intentional, costly love that takes seriously the realities faced by the world church. Solidarity is at the heart of church unity, “critical to our witness in the world”, in the words of Salim a Palestinian friend and scholar. (John 17:20-21)
Theological educators and students can prepare to demonstrate solidarity with the whole church, first, by expanded theological reading. Then, pray and act.
Expand Theological-Biblical Reading
The location of theological study matters, notes Cesar, a Brazilian educator. Residential theological education most often occurs in settings removed from the reality of suffering, especially in the West. ScholarLeaders from a variety of regions stressed the importance of theological study that engages the world from multiple perspectives.
A quick review of my bookshelf illustrates the issue. I have two of the most commonly used systematic theology textbooks. Neither even includes the word ‘solidarity’. Themes of suffering, persecution, martyrdom, poverty and oppression receive only brief treatment, with little reflection on how one lives in the midst of these realities. This gap in the books mirrors the reality of the classroom. In contrast, the Global Dictionary of Theology (IVP), with numerous contributors from the Majority World as well as the West, has dozens of pages on themes including poverty, oppression, and suffering. The lack of focus on these issues in the West reflects “either blissful ignorance or willful negligence”, according to Abhijit, an Indian ScholarLeader.
Scott Moreau, Professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College, writes that “almost no missiological training in the West… will help future missionaries face persecution.” He adds, with some irony, that preparation and reflection on persecution is an important focus at some Chinese house church seminaries.
Our reading of the Bible is shaped by context. As one example, in North America we typically teach the Exodus as a story of God’s deliverance, the defining event for the nation of Israel, and a precursor of salvation. Throughout the Old Testament, however, slavery in Egypt and the Exodus provide the rationale for many of Israel’s social laws, especially those related to treatment of the widow, orphan, alien and marginalized. God continually reminded his people not only of his own heart for the suffering and marginalized, but also that they too had been in that position and must never forget; i.e., they must remain in solidarity with the poor. Marcos, another Brazilian leader, notes that in Latin America the Exodus account receives considerable attention as the ultimate story of God’s action on behalf of the poor and powerless.
Leaders from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East face challenges related to poverty and powerlessness daily – and their theology reflects it. Liberation theologians point out that from a context of poverty, the world looks different. In the same way, the church looks different where it faces persecution or operates as a minority. Differences in biblical-theological perspectives demonstrate the need to read and seek input beyond our own experience and tradition, and the value of doing so.
For the church to grow in solidarity, we must expand our theological understanding to include global perspectives and learn from theological reflection outside our home context.
In prayer we find the critical starting point for solidarity with the global body of Christ. The church – including its theological educators and their institutions – must worship and intercede regularly. In prayer we are united through the cross as much-loved children of our heavenly Father. We in the West unite with the poor, oppressed and suffering – who often, by the way, provide the richest examples of fervency in prayer.
We must both pray and listen. Munther, a Palestinian leader, speaking of the persecuted church: “We don’t always need people to speak for us, but we do need people to listen to us.” I am particularly inspired by leaders in Ethiopia and Egypt who express caution about praying that persecution end. In Ethiopia, the church grew tenfold under communism. Hailu, an Ethiopian, requests that we pray for strength and courage to accomplish God’s purposes in the midst of persecution, rather than simply for persecution to end. Tharwat, an Egyptian, writes: “Do not pray for more freedoms for us, rather that we will have courage to make the most of the freedoms we currently have, for the sake of the kingdom.”
Antonio, a Brazilian leader: “prayer without action is hypocrisy”. Those who pray fervently for deliverance look for those who will take action.
If, in solidarity, we choose to stand with those whose reality is different than our own, then theological institutions can help by teaching and training leaders who affirm the richness of the global body of Christ through listening, understanding, advocacy, prayer and pursuit of justice together. Faculty and students benefit from expanded theological perspectives, and grass-roots, cross-cultural experiences.
At ScholarLeaders International we see these opportunities as not only the call of theological institutions, but that of the global church to which we all belong.
Christianity is a multi-colored fabric where each new thread, chosen and refined by the Designer’s hand, adds luster and strength to the whole. In this pattern of faith affirmation we should stress the importance of interwoven solidarity with fellow believers, past, present and future.
Whose Religion in Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West.