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From Persecution To Witness By Elizabeth Eaton,
Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
For many months now people have been asking for some kind of statement about the persecution of Christians around the world. It seems to be a straight-forward issue. Christians are suffering in Iraq and Syria, in Nigeria and Egypt. Palestinian Christians encounter intense pressure. Christians in some parts of India are threatened. Some would even claim that U.S. Christians are under siege. Atrocities committed against Christians by the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and others are regularly in the news. We hear that more Christians have been martyred in recent years than in the first three centuries of the Christian movement.
Each circumstance of violence against Christians is deeply painful. There are brothers and sisters around the world whose lives are part of the passion of Christ. People are targeted in some countries because they are Christians. But this is a complex issue. Are Christians suffering and dying as witnesses to the faith? Yes. But in many places interreligious conflict has been used as a calculated pretext for political gain. A narrative of religion vs. religion, or religion vs. society, is an effective way of generating support for one’s cause. And, regrettably, suspicion and fear of the “other” leads to intolerance and discrimination.
The persecution of Christians is not new. Martyrs have existed since the beginning of the
church. Stephen was martyred with the consent of Paul, who was martyred by the Roman
Empire. Paul quoted the psalms, writing: “For your sake we are being killed all the day
long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).
Outrage is a natural reaction to beheadings and crucifixions. The instinct to strike back is understandable. Many Lutherans accept that in a broken world deadly force might be needed. Revenge, however, is not an option for a Christian.
I pray that none of you ever suffers violence for the faith, but every generation has faced hostility. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”
“Martyr” is a Greek word that means “witness,” “to give testimony.” A witness can also be a symbol that testifies a promised action has been accomplished. When we speak about the persecution of Christians, the real question is: “What will be our witness?”
Here is a story about how some Lutherans in Ethiopia answered that question. It happened in one of our companion synods. Some Muslims burned down a church, thinking they were attacking Roman Catholics. Instead, they burned down a Lutheran church by mistake. They were arrested and sent to jail. In that region it’s the responsibility of families to take care of prisoners’ hygiene and food. Instead, members of the Lutheran church asked authorities if they could dig the prisoners’ latrines and feed them. That was their witness in the face of persecution.
Christians aren’t the only ones being targeted and persecuted. More Muslims have reportedly been killed by the Islamic State than any other group. Our witness must be as peacemakers and as defenders of religious minorities in our country and around the world. We must be the ones who speak out when entire religions are falsely characterized by the actions of extremists. We would not accept Christianity being defined by the Ku Klux Klan or the Christian Identity movement. We should not define entire communities by the distortion of to their religion.
The cross is God’s visual symbol that a promised action has been accomplished. It is God’s stake in the sand. It is God’s witness to the truth that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
CHICAGO – In response to the recent terror attacks at three churches and a police station in Surabaya, Indonesia, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), sent a letter offering prayers and support to The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) National Committee in Indonesia.
"On behalf of your brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I join all of you in the 13 Lutheran churches across Indonesia as you advocate for peace and harmony among all Indonesian people, especially between the different faith communities; as you call on your government to prevent radicalism and acts of terror in Indonesia and beyond; and as you find God's wisdom to guide you," Eaton wrote.
The national committee represents the 13 LWF member churches in Indonesia, which together have more than 6 million members.
The committee has issued a statement calling on the government of Indonesia to investigate the terrorist acts while also addressing the root causes of terrorism in Indonesia. According to the LWF, the statement urges Christians in Indonesia to respond to acts of terror in a way that will lead to peace and harmony among the different religious communities in Indonesia.
About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.5 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribban region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
For information contact: Candice Hill Buchbinder 773-380-2877 Candice.HillBuchbinder@ELCA.org
Like so many here in our country and around the world, I am appalled and saddened by yesterday's escalation of Israeli military action against protestors in Gaza. Many reports indicate that at least 60 Palestinians, including six children, have died and more than 2,000 have been injured as a result of Israel's disproportionate use of force. Our church will support a planned medical mission from The Lutheran World Federation's Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem to Gaza to assist the wounded.
I join Bishop Sani-Ibrahim Azar of our partner church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), who today said:
We mourn with the families of the dead and dying and pray for the recovery of the injured. We believe that violent actions against the Palestinian civilians will hinder the potential for peace and reconciliation efforts between Israel and Palestine and will only lead to more violence and bloodshed.
I endorse his call "upon the Israeli government to show restraint and to pursue negotiations with Palestinian leaders rather than choosing violent action against unarmed protestors."
Yesterday's events should also be seen in the context of the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. When that decision was announced late last year, I said:
This unilateral action would not support the cause of peace and a two-state solution but rather would unnecessarily create further tensions and possible violence that would make efforts to bring them back together for talks much more difficult.
I also support the ELCJHL's long-standing position, affirmed by Bishop Azar today, that "any final status agreement will include Jerusalem as a shared city for Jews, Christians and Muslims with free access to holy sites for all and that it must serve as capital of both Palestine and Israel."
Always, but especially in this time of deep distress, I urge us all to join his call to "continue to pray, advocate and faithfully work towards a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Rev. Ann M. Svennungsen, Minneapolis, was re-elected May 5 to serve a second six-year term as bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The election was held during the Synod Assembly May 4-5 at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Ramsey, Minn.
The bishop was re-elected on the second ballot with 337 votes to 50 votes for the Rev. Jeffrey P. Nehrbass, pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
Svennungsen has served as bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod since 2012. She served as interim pastor of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., from 2011 to 2012 and as president of Texas Lutheran University in Seguin from 2007 to 2010. St. Olaf and Texas Lutheran are among the 26 ELCA colleges and universities.
Svennungsen earned a degree in mathematics from Concordia College, an ELCA school in Moorhead, Minn., and a Master of Divinity degree at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in 1981. Luther is one of seven ELCA seminaries.
Information about the Minneapolis Area Synod is available at mpls-synod.org/.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.5 million members in 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
For information contact: Candice Hill Buchbinder 773-380-2877 Candice.HillBuchbinder@ELCA.org