In the light of the Sri Lankan suffering

What’s the real story of the Sri Lankan bombings?

Is it that Christians are being persecuted around the world in great numbers? That’s certainly true. More Christians have died as representatives of our faith in the last hundred years than in the rest of the Christian centuries put together.

Is it that the Western news media, reflecting the attitude of certain Western elites, generally refuses to acknowledge that massive, bloody fact? That’s certainly true. The Received Narrative among right-thinking people in our culture is that Christianity does the persecuting: Crusades, Inquisition, and all that. What doesn’t fit the paradigm isn’t news that’s fit to print.

Is it that ISIS hasn’t gone away but has been driven out of the Middle East in its own nasty diaspora, spreading its toxic version of Islam to angry people at the ends of the earth? That’s certainly true. With no country on the planet willing to welcome ISIS fighters or their families, they will go where they can, but now fueled by new resentments against a world they hate and who hates them in turn.

I wonder, though, if at least one of the most basic stories here is that Christians are not exempt from the suffering and death that afflicts everyone else. Despite the heresy of the “prosperity gospel” hucksters, Jesus never promised his followers that life in the Spirit would somehow insulate them from life in the world.

So Christians get cancer. My mother did. So Christians die in car accidents. Friend Gerry Sittser’s wife, mother, and daughter did—all in one horrible crash. So Christians get unjustly fired, get injured, get sued into bankruptcy, get raped—or see their loved ones suffer so.

Why doesn’t a loving Jesus protect his own?

I think he does. Why wouldn’t he? I think he allows nothing to happen to Christians that mustn’t happen to us according to the good purposes of God. Why wouldn’t he?

But God uses the bad things of the world to accomplish good things that otherwise won’t be accomplished. And God asks us to trust that God knows what God is doing—with Jesus as our number one reason to do so. For Jesus is good, and Jesus is God: therefore, God is good.

The worst event in the history of the world was just celebrated by those Christians in Sri Lanka, Catholic and Protestant alike: the undeserved and unspeakably brutal suffering and death of the nicest man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth. And then on the very same weekend, those Christians celebrated the best event in the history of the world, Jesus’s resurrection—which also proved that the previous Friday, despite horrific evidence to the contrary, was actually a good one…in fact, the best one ever.

Jesus suffered no more than he had to. Why would he? But he had to suffer, and even die, in order that good would come that otherwise wouldn’t. And God is all about maximizing good, as one would hope a Supreme Being would be. So Christians hope the Supreme Being is, in fact, busy securing the best good possible out of this torn, topsy-turvy, turbulent world.

That means, among other things, God submitting Christians to the normal difficulties and disasters of this dysfunctional epoch. Otherwise, who wouldn’t clamber aboard the Christian religion to escape, just as people did to advance themselves once Emperor Constantine began to favour that faith in the fourth century?

God knows that authentic conversion to the life of the world to come cannot be had by the inducement of avoiding the life of the world we have now. We can live as we should only by living this life in the light of that one. Only by using the experiences of today in the hope of tomorrow…in order to be ready for when that glorious tomorrow finally arrives.

That was the hope of those Sri Lankan Christians: that whatever happened to them, they belonged to their loving Lord, they would serve him no matter what, and he would accomplish only good in their lives—and in their inevitable deaths.

That is the hope of all Christians, especially on Easter weekend. Death is terrible, but it’s also merely transitional. It leaves people grieving, but not without hope (I Thessalonians 4:13).

And if suffering and death come particularly because one is marked as a Christian, one recalls that that mark is, of all things, a cross. One likewise recalls the words of our Master, who said: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11).

Blessed, then, are our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka—and Nigeria, and China, and Sudan, and Louisiana, and everywhere Christians are suffering and dying—which is to say, living according to the pattern of their Lord’s own life—whether anyone notices and counts it as newsworthy.

God notices, weeps, and presses on.

So should we.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).