Jesus may have run the worst marketing campaign in history. The way you sell a product is to associate it with positive emotions and aspirations. A fizzy drink isn’t just a concoction of water, sugar and chemicals – it’s a window into fun, love, and – ironically – fitness. Go ahead and look at any number of fizzy drink ads and you’ll see what I mean. They are populated with the happiest people on the planet, all ecstatic over a little fizz.
But Jesus did something very different to the marketing gurus of today. Talking to potential followers, He said: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” If this statement came from someone who had an easy life, I suppose it wouldn’t be so confronting. But if you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you’ve gotten a little taste of the reality of Jesus’ life.
Who in their right mind would follow a man spat on, humiliated, tortured and ultimately executed in the most excruciatingly sadistic manner? Especially when Jesus said “if you follow me, you can expect the same!” No one, right?
Wrong. Today there are 2.4 billion people who claim to follow Christ. That is, by any standards, a rather impressive number. The group includes quite a cast a characters – some of them rather surprising. Everyone knows Israel Folau is a Christian, but so was the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Everyone’s favorite, Keith Urban, is a Christian, but so is shock rocker Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper once quipped about his Christian experience, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call.”
If it is tough for Alice, it is substantially tougher for many of the Christians who do not live in the relative peace and security of western nations. Today there are more Christians in India than there are in the entire South Pacific. There more than twice the number of Christians in China than there are in the UK. And while the US remains the largest majority Christian country, it is projected to be overtaken by the most unlikely of nations. Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University’s Centre on Religion and Chinese Society predicts that, within a generation, China will become the country with the largest Christian population in the world. Already there are estimated to be more than 100 million Christians in China.
All this change has not come easy. Today many Christians live in nations that are very intolerant of their faith. Recently Open Doors International released their 2018 report on the persecution of Christians globally. The report names 11 nations where extreme persecution exists.
Some of the most repressive nations are not surprising. The worst persecuting nation? North Korea. What is surprising is that there are any Christians left in North Korea after generations of brutal repression. And yet, today, there are in the range of 300,000 North Korean Christians. Would you follow a faith if you knew it could get you thrown into one of North Korea’s infamous gulags? Why do 300,000 North Koreans follow Jesus?
Of the ten other nations on Open Doors list of extreme persecutors, many would not be surprising. There’s Iran, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia – all of which make regular appearances in the news, and almost never for a good reason. Tragically, there also are both Afghanistan and Iraq, which raises the question of precisely what kinds of societies western militaries fought and died to create. The number of Christians in Iraq has dropped from roughly 1.5 million before the Iraq invasion to somewhere in the range of 300,000, depending on which estimate you trust (getting good demographic data from a nation that has been in one form of turmoil or another for 15 years is not easy). It is a tragic reminder of the unexpected consequences of conflicts.
It may be surprising that Pakistan is rated as the fifth most dangerous nation for Christians in the world. How could a nation that we play cricket with, that is a fellow member of the Commonwealth, a nation that produced the youngest Noble prize winner in history, the inspiring Malala – how could it be one of the worst nations in the world for its almost 4 million Christians? The answer comes from the same quarters that keeps Kiwi and Aussie cricket teams from playing in Pakistan: Terrorism. Whether its a suicide bomber detonating himself at an Easter event or a drive by shooting at a church, the bad news keeps seeping out of a nation that is both the victim and the incubator of violent extremism.
The last nation on the list is the most surprising of all. It is the world’s largest democracy. Christianity has been a part of the culture since the first century AD. Today it has rough 30 million Christians – roughly the population of Australia and New Zealand combined. That nation is India. You’d think that in a democratic nation with a large Christian population with a very long history, Christians would be safe. Sadly, that isn’t the case. I know as I traveled to India to meet the family members of Christians who were killed by violent Hindu extremists, and I toured first hand the destroyed churches and burnt out homes of Christians. Meeting women who had lost their husbands in the violence. Talking with children who had lost their parents. It was a very bracing experience that I will never forget.
At the end of one of the conversations, I asked the group what we in western nations can do for them. I expected a laundry list of needs. Help rebuilding. Pensions for those who had lost loved ones. Security measures to protect their property and their personal safety. But instead of all of that, one of their leaders stood forward and, through a translator said simply: “We’ve got God, we don’t need anything from you.”
It was a statement of such inspiring faith that it haunted me. How could a man standing between his destroyed church and a home burnt out by mobs, say he didn’t need anything? And if his God was so great, why hadn’t He protected these faithful people? What did he mean that he had God and didn’t need anything else? Then I remembered two sayings of Jesus. First, that Christians can expect to be treated like Christ. Tragically, that is exactly how this community had been treated. The second thought came from a story Jesus told about a man who found a piece of real estate. On the property he discovered an amazing treasure. He ran home, sold everything he had, and did the obvious thing – he bought the land. Wouldn’t you do the same?
Which brings me back to the question at the start of this article: Why would anyone follow Christ? Particularly when so many Christians face severe persecution around the world? I think I know the answer. It’s because they’ve found in Jesus something so precious they are willing to give up everything else for it.