My wife has been overtaken by the Hallmark Channel—you know, the one that plays romantic (and, yes, predictable) Christmas movies, back-to-back, 24/7. These are custom-made for the Hallmark Channel. The template is routinely the same: a male lead and a female lead end up in the same small town at Christmastime, one “coming home” from a career in the city, both are single; one widowed or tragically left alone, the other trying to figure life out. By Christmas Eve, they have figured out that they were made for each other, Christmas carols, snow-covered town squares, and hugs and kisses (not too racy kisses) all around.
Okay, occasionally a Hallmark Christmas movie will have one of the singles in a palace (the lonely heir to the throne), others throw in a few kids (belonging to the widow or widower), just for good measure.
No harm, no foul here. The movies are guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings, they are always squeaky-clean (no skin on or sleeping around on the screen), and small-town churches and pastors often figure into the mix. The films feed our nostalgic dreams of Christmas, even if set in the present day. I am all-in for cuddling on the den sofa with Mrs. Lyon to watch Hallmark’s holiday game. I can appreciate the romance as much as the next guy.
But, the original world of Christmas was not conceived in Hallmark moments with inevitably happy endings. Yes, Joseph stands tall as the man taking Mary and her unborn child under his wing; Mary is a phenom, truly a woman for the ages. Bethlehem was appropriately “little” (“how still we see thee lie,” per Philips Brooks, writing his famous carol), and the “city of David” is fit by prophecy to be the birthplace of the King greater than David.
The wise men come from the East with extraordinary gifts, the star shines and guides. Angels sing, shepherds wonder. The sequence and timing of all of the above is not condensed into a day (or week) like our celebration and Christmas cards, but lots of warm fuzzies here, just the same.
Nevertheless, the Christmas story opens the door to unspeakable brutality. The birth of Jesus would deeply trouble the established order and power structures (think King Herod the Great). All the young boys of Bethlehem (two years old or younger) would be horrifically murdered because hell itself understood the threat from heaven’s Light. Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, would later behead John the Baptist because he dared challenge the sexual ethics of the king (notwithstanding Herodian political commitment to protecting and enhancing the traditional Jewish religious practices and standing in Roman-occupied Palestine). Herod Antipas would also stand in judgment over Jesus Himself, on the night before He would be nailed to the cross. Imagine the hubris: Herod’s family thinks it is competent, given all its moral failures, to opine about the future of Jesus in the world.
The Christmas story that came to life in Bethlehem so long ago would birth extraordinary chapters along the way as Jesus grew into manhood and showed us the Father. Yes, He would triumph over the grave, but let us not forget He was first nailed to a cross. In our smug dismissal of the Jesus hanging on the cross, portrayed in a crucifix, proudly pointing instead to our crosses free from the bent form of Christ, I fear we too often drive by the terrible cost and suffering of Jesus on the cross; we would do well to remember both.
Jesus gave us a heads up while he was walking among us, in the flesh. He told us we, too, will experience rejection and pay a price for honoring Him. In the United States and Canada, which is the primary audience of this column, we have suffered little for our faith. Yes, maybe some social ostracism at school, an eyeroll at work, and so on. But, persecution of the kind that came with the first Christmas and the years following? No, not so much.
Open Doors is a top-tier ministry “serving persecuted Christians worldwide.” Their research and reporting have been proved true over many years. Open Doors does not release inflammatory news bits or attempt to goad Christians in comfortable zones to write checks by exaggerated storytelling. It assembles data, does its homework, and informs the world of the hard realities on the ground, here and now. Here are the sobering stats for the last year, bringing us to Christmas 2019:
- Over 245 million Christians live, right now, in environments in which it is not safe to follow Jesus, experiencing high levels of persecution.
- Over 4,300 (4,305, to be exact) murders of Christians for their faith have been documented in the last twelve months.
- Another 3,150 Christians are known to have been detained without trial and imprisoned for their faith in the same time frame.
North Korea has been named as “the most dangerous place in the world to be Christian,” for 18 consecutive years; for each of these 18 years, North Korea has qualified as “extreme” in its persecution of believers. Five years ago, it was the only nation to have earned the “extreme” label; this year, there are eleven nations that have been named “extreme,” as a measure of danger for Christians.
Islamic extremism is one of the leading causes of Christian persecution in the world today, but not the only one. India, once seen as altogether religiously free, has moved into the Top Ten of Open Doors’ World Watch List in recent years, with the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, intolerance, and the sanctioned proclamation of “to be Indian is to be Hindu.” The union of religious faith and nationalism, whatever the context, can be very dangerous and breed intolerance.
Both of the world’s most populous countries, China and India (each with populations exceeding one billion people) sit squarely on the World Watch List, becoming more closed, year-by-year.
At last year’s General Assembly meeting in Orlando, a resolution was passed encouraging congregations of the Church of God to observe a Sunday in November for prayer for persecuted Christians, drawing attention locally to this global tragedy. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. We’re in this together.
If your local church did not set a Sunday aside to this end, it’s not too late. Get it on your church calendar sometime in the new year—anytime.
If you’re a President Trump fan, write him a letter and ask him how he is wielding his considerable influence on the world stage to be an advocate for religious freedom all around the world. He is often seen with (and praising) China’s President Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkey’s President Tayyio Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and, of course, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. All are heading governments repressing Christianity, and tightening their grip on religious freedom; all are on the World Watch List.
If you’re not a President Trump fan and are searching for another candidate, write him or her and pose the same question. How would you leverage your office to protect Christians—and others—persecuted for their faith? In the years before World War II, we turned a blind eye to developments of religious persecution abroad, preferring to turn inward instead. Today, as then, the United States has power to speak into the moral order, if it chooses to use it.
In Canada, a bright new young member of the federal Parliament seated in Ottawa is a member of our Church of God congregation in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Jeremy Patzer has a passion to keep issues of advocacy for religious freedom worldwide on the front burner of the Canadian government. Reach out to him and see how you can help. You can also, of course, write to the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.
In the end, of course, prayer matters most and our commitment to holding other believers, in faraway places, close to our hearts. Our local church debates often swirl around things of much less consequence. Read the news. Become a world Christian. See your allegiance to the kingdom of God above party or nationality. Know that Jesus always threatens those who govern without grace.
I am so thankful I have not been apprehended anywhere because of my faith. I have lived a life of relative ease. I have been given much. So have you. Of us, much is expected. That’s Jesus talking.
If you think you have problems, start praying for the persecuted church. The Lord will bless your interest and help iron out the wrinkles in your own world, close to home.
Which brings me back to the Hallmark Channel this Christmas. Christmas is a time to celebrate, to reflect, to polish our generosity (not just materially, but of our spirits, too), to gather around the family table (and invite some others to join us who have nowhere else to go), to worship and embrace the beauty of Christ and His birth.
But, this year, take a moment with your family to remember the “slaughter of innocents” in Bethlehem, to not drive by the desperate oppression of the Herodian age and the epochs that have followed. The Church of God has always been a free people, inviting souls pressing into the kingdom to meet Jesus, without fear. This Christmas, let’s not forget those pressing into the kingdom who face obstacles more difficult that we can, by experience, imagine; let us stand up for them, even at cost.
“Fear not,” the angel said, “for I bring you good news of great joy; for unto you this day is born, in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” It’s more than a text or a carol. It is the hope of the world.
Merry Christmas. My favorite Hallmark movie so far? A Veteran’s Christmas. Whew.
And, as a footnote: Thanks for supporting the annual Christ’s Birthday Observance (CBO) offering this year. When you give to CBO you will help both Christian Women Connection (CWC) and Church of God Ministries stand up for those caught in the crosshairs, at home and all around the world. Your gifts weave you and your local church into the fabric of your larger Church of God family. Women suffer disproportionally from persecution and marginalization; help us help them. Find more by clicking the button below.