Pray For Them: John Wesley’s Advice For A People Called Methodist

Perhaps on this very account I might advise you, Fifthly, “not to talk much of what you suffer; of the persecution you endured at such a time, and the wickedness of your persecutors.” Nothing more tends to exasperate them than this; and therefore (although there is a time when these things must be mentioned, yet) it might be a general rule, to do it as seldom as you can with a safe conscience. For, besides its tendency to inflame them, it has the appearance of evil, of ostentation, of magnifying yourselves. It also tends to puff you up with pride, and to make you think yourselves some great ones, as it certainly does to excite or increase in your heart ill-will, anger, and all unkind tempers. It is, at best, loss of time; for, instead of the wickedness of men, you might be talking of the goodness of God. Nay, it is, in truth, an open, wilful sin: It is tale-bearing, back-biting, evil-speaking, — a sin you can never be sufficiently watchful against, seeing it steals upon you in a thousand shapes. Would it not be far more profitable for your souls, instead of speaking against them, to pray for them? to confirm your love towards those unhappy men, whom you believe to be fighting against God, by crying mightily to him in their behalf, that he may open their eyes and change their hearts? – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist

Tens of thousands of religious minorities have been forced to flee since IS, a Sunni Muslim group formerly known as Isis, launched its onslaught. – BBC News, Aug. 7, 2014

Emily Wyant knew from the beginning: Columbine “martyr” Cassie Bernall never said “Yes.”

Wyant, who survived the Columbine massacre April 20, told the FBI months ago that the famous “unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” immortalized in a best-selling book by Cassie’s mom, Misty, never happened. She told Misty and Brad Bernall, Cassie’s parents, the same account, and she also told the Rocky Mountain News.

But it wasn’t until Sept. 24, one day after Salon News broke the story that investigators doubtedBernall’s famous gunpoint declaration of faith, that the News printed a long story detailing Wyant’s account.

How did the paper react so quickly, with a detailed, never-before-public account of Bernall’s death, a day after the new revelations? Sources at the paper confirm that the details weren’t actually new at all: They’d been sitting on the story for quite some time. The News ran the article nearly five months after obtaining the true story from Wyant, and two weeks after running news stories promoting the release of “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” — news stories that presented the account of Bernall’s martyrdom as fact. – Dave Cullen, “Who Said ‘Yes’?, Salon, September 30, 1999

One of the strangest, and most durable, stories to emerge from the Columbine horror, immortalized in the book She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernallpersists despite having been debunked almost immediately following the claims being made that young Cassie, confronted by one of the Columbine shooters with the question, “Are you a Christian?”, answered “Yes,” prompting her death.  Among the many reasons for the persistence of the story – the book came out long after reporters and officials knew it was wholly fictional – is a constant need to confirm the outsider status of believers among a certain kind of Christian.  Comfortable socially and financially; influential within their own communities; they seek signs of rejection wherever they might be.  What was a bit of exaggerated teenage gossip became Gospel truth among a segment of Christian believers.  For those who continue to believe Cassie said “Yes”, efforts to debunk the story are perceived as secular hostility to the Christian faith.

Yet, Christians face very real persecution.  Not here in the United States.  We might find it far more difficult to speak the language of faith in an America that is increasingly secular.  That isn’t persecution, but just changing times.  The example cited above from the BBC, of Iraqi Christians leaving with the coming of ISIS forces and the demand for conversion, emigration, or death, is the most dramatic.  There was the long drama from Sudan, of the woman who converted to Christianity after marrying a Christian man.  As in many other Muslim countries, conversion is illegal under apostasy laws; consistent with Muslim practice (and, I would add, historically long Christian practice as well), apostasy is punishable by death.

Outside the west, being a Christian can be a very real danger.  Whether it’s Muslim legal practice, communist intimidation and attempted control, as in China, or historical animosity as in Vietnam (the former Francophone indigenous ruling classes, converts to Catholicism, were not only violently hostile to Communism; the late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a vicious crackdown on Buddhist practice as well), just admitting one is a Christian brings suspicion, legal sanctions, and the possibility of torture, exile from one’s home, and death.  Christians in the west, knowing that persecution up to and including death is not only part of the Biblical witness but the early history of the Church, long for signs of faithfulness that include martyrdom.  20th and 21st century martyrs are few and far between; most mention Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this regard.  The late Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed by American-backed Salvadoran troops during Mass, continues to be a hero among many in Central America.  The emergence of a story that one of the victims of the mass murder at Columbine HS confessed her faith and was murdered for it offered someone, at long last, far-too-comfortable western Christians could lift up as proof that their faith was true.

While the harassment and social ostracism early English Methodists face never quite rose to the level faced by contemporary non-Western Christians – the era of deathly religious persecution, whether legal or popular among the masses was over even though hostilities continued to be fanned wherever Christians of different sects mixed together – it is nonetheless true that for the emerging petit bourgeoisie and working classes who were the original adherents to British Methodism, social, cultural, and even financial rejection amounted to a kind of persecution none of those experiencing it either expected nor particularly enjoyed.  Wesley’s advice here, like much of the pamphlet, was as much aspirational as it was practical.  Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians facing any kind of rejection or persecution would suffer in patient humility, loving kindness, and prayerful steadfastness?  One imagines that Wesley insists that those to whom he writes endure  with long-suffering faithfulness precisely because they were not taking ostracism very well at all.  Like their grandchildren in the faith two-and-a-half centuries later, the need to demonstrate faith by pointing out how the world hates them can be quite strong.  Exaggerating the reality, even making up stories, well that’s just part of the game, and it might well go all the way back the earliest years of the church, when tales of martyrdom and persecution often stretched the bounds of truth.

We Christians who live in the west should not seek out persecution where it does not exist.  Rather, we should stand with our fellows in the faith who face very real threats to life and health for the faith.  We should pray for them, for safety and their steadfastness in the faith in the face of very real dangers of death.  We should contact officials in government to lodge official protests and seek an end to the varieties of punishments Christians face for their faith.  The one thing we should not do is seek persecution among the social and cultural slights western Christians encounter on occasion.  It is not only wrong to lie; it insults those who really do face persecution.  For these reasons, I think “pray for them” extends not only to those places that threaten life and limb.  I think praying for them should also be for those who suffer.  The best way to remain faithful is to remember that real persecution just isn’t a part of the life of faith in the west.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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