Dr. Maggie Bailey has looked down the barrel of a Russian machine gun and lived to tell about it. While ministering among the underground churches in Eastern Europe, she was held at gunpoint for three hours, surrounded by a crowd that could offer no help. In the midst of her ordeal, unable and unwilling to defend herself, Bailey experienced God’s presence. He didn’t provide a means of escape; instead He manifested Himself.
“The manifest Presence of God came over me and suddenly I thought, ‘I love this man,’” Bailey said. “God gave me His love for my assailant, and He gave me His words to say. God empowered me to treat the young man like he was my son. It was amazing. Eventually the man just gave up.”
In those interminable moments between life and death, Bailey experienced a divine impartation of God’s love for her enemy. This same love animates the persecuted church, a revelation Christians in closed nations hope to impart to their Western brothers and sisters.
“The persecuted church has taught me that they don’t want us to pray for the elimination of persecution,” Bailey explained, “but to pray for their strength in persecution. As an American, though, I think, ‘Just eradicate persecution! Talk to global leaders! Go to the United Nations!’ But that’s not what builds the church. What builds the church is God’s love, not politics. Over and over and over again, we have watched Christians come out of these very dark parts of the world for a short period of time, only to return to their country—and certain persecution. They return because they ask, ‘Who will be the loving presence of Jesus Christ if I leave?’”
They return because they ask, “Who will be the loving presence of Jesus Christ if I leave?”
Dr. Bailey is a powerhouse of grit, faith, intelligence, discipline, and hard work. She has served in the U.S. Senate and worked as a naval logistics officer. She launched the Center for International Development at Point Loma Nazarene University. As an economic development expert she has toured dozens of marginalized communities in emerging nations, brushing shoulders with Sandinista rebels on coffee plantations in Nicaragua and visiting the hungry inhabitants still living in the ruins of Soviet high-rises in Armenia. Still, nothing in her experience prepared her for what she has seen within the persecuted church.
For more than a decade, Bailey has served on the board of directors of Open Doors USA, one of 24 global divisions comprising Open Doors International, the largest outreach to persecuted Christians in the world founded in 1955 by Brother Andrew. Through her work with Open Doors, Bailey travels within the underground church in many closed nations. She hears first-hand stories of families and faith communities ravaged by murder, rape, beatings, poverty, and imprisonment. Children go hungry. Healthcare is withheld. Education is impossible. Bibles, evangelism, and worship gatherings are illegal or closely monitored. Often the persecution is more subtle but painfully chronic and insidious: ongoing bribery, lack of employment, physical threats.
Often the persecution is more subtle but painfully chronic and insidious.
Although Bailey has witnessed the unspeakable suffering of persecuted believers and their loved ones—a reality for no less than 75 percent of the global body of Christ—she has come to understand one of the most significant truths of the Gospel. “Brother Andrew once said to me, ‘Love them into the Kingdom,’” she said. “It doesn’t matter how terrible the persecution. The commandment of God is to love thy enemy.”
Against Human Nature
Dr. David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, has seen how contrary this radical command of God is to human nature.
“It’s very counterintuitive to pray for our persecutors,” he said. “The world doesn’t understand this point of view of Christians praying for jihadists and Islamic rebels in Syria and Iraq. Instead of praying for the persecuted church to be rescued, those who are being persecuted ask us to pray that they might stand in the face of persecution and love their attackers.”
Instead of praying for the persecuted church to be rescued, those who are being persecuted ask us to pray that they might stand in the face of persecution and love their attackers.
Steve Ridgway, former interim CEO of Open Doors, told the story of a woman in her early 30s, a member of the underground church in the Middle East, who came into this deep maturity of the faith. His close friend, Ellison, who met the woman during a ministry trip, reported the story to him.
“When this woman became a follower of Jesus she was brutally beaten, raped, and falsely accused of criminal acts. She told Ellison that when she returned to her country, she would stand trial for those crimes and then be sentenced to one year in prison. She would be allowed one month of freedom before she would serve out her sentence. The time off was granted in hopes that she would leave the country and destroy the impact of the church’s witness in her country. She declared to Ellison that she would not leave, but remain and serve her year in prison—to be a witness for Christ, continuing to suffer persecution for the sake of the lost. A young man across the table from her then spoke up. He said that when she finished her time in prison, he would marry her. In his culture, it is shameful to even associate with a woman who has been raped.”
Ridgway considered the remarkable choice of the woman and her brother in Christ: “Why would she return to this place of ‘shame’? Why would this young man marry a woman who is ‘shameful’? It is because God’s love is transforming. To not go to prison, and to not embrace the shameful, would be, in fact, shameful. Jesus wrecks our lives in wonderful ways because He destroys sin and shame and makes us new creations.”
Jesus wrecks our lives in wonderful ways because He destroys sin and shame and makes us new creations.
The Brutal Truth
Open Doors defines Christian persecution as “any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian.” This hostility can include “verbal harassment to hostile feelings, attitudes and actions … beatings, physical torture, confinement, isolation, rape, severe punishment, imprisonment, slavery, discrimination in education and employment, and even death.”
Open Doors cites the Pew Research Center’s study on persecution, which found that, every month, more than 300 Christians are killed for their faith and more than 200 Christian churches and properties are destroyed. Nearly 800 Christians are beaten, abducted, raped, or arrested monthly.
North Korea is reported to have the worst persecutions, described as “absolutely inhumane” by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights, with nearly 30,000 people imprisoned for their faith under unimaginably difficult conditions. The COI on Human Rights published a 400-page report documenting testimonies from more than 300 witnesses from North Korea’s prison system, “reeducation” and internment camps that have been brutalizing prisoners for years—outdistancing Russia’s gulags and Germany’s concentration camps with tortures as extreme, if not worse. Open Doors’ World Watch List has ranked North Korea first for nations with the worst Christian persecution for over a dozen years running.
In the midst of these horrors, Christians persevere—through love. Nik Ripken, author of The Insanity of God and The Insanity of Obedience, has served the persecuted church with his family in more than 72 nations for 30 years. Revered by many as a pioneer missionary to closed nations, Nipkin has witnessed many Christians dying for their faith while filled with the love of God. He set out to collect hundreds of stories about families that willingly serve as witnesses in nations where their lives are at risk.
The following story that Ripken relates is reported as true, but it almost rings of myth because of its otherworldly character:
“The house church leader explained that the Holy Spirit woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to gather the fruits, vegetables, and meat that the house church had stored up to care for people in need. The Holy Spirit told the man to take this load of food, by horse and sled, to a pastor’s family that had been left to die in a one-room hut in the frozen tundra. The man reminded the Holy Spirit that it was 30 degrees below zero outside, and there was no way he would survive the trip. The man reminded the Holy Spirit that the wolves would probably eat his horse and then eat him. Then the words of the Holy Spirit rang in his ears: You don’t have to come back; you simply have to go.”
“We must grow up,” Curry said. “Christ calls us beyond ourselves to care for the stranger and the foreigner, not to look after ourselves. When people met the first disciples, what did they say? Look how they love one another! They loved everyone, forgave everyone. This love was so radical that thousands were added in one day.”
Curry travels frequently throughout the countries on Open Doors’ World Watch List, which ranks the top nations for Christian persecution around the world. According to Curry, the church in Iran is the fastest growing house church movement in the world, followed by the house church movements in Syria and Egypt. “What do they have in common?” he asked. “Suffering.”
“Persecuted Christians have learned to stay true, not to orthodoxy, but to Jesus,” Curry added. “They need to pull together in unity—so what divided them simply isn’t dividing them anymore. We, too, must begin to focus on the essentials of who Jesus is and what he did on the cross—and live his words. Persecution is increasing, and it’s going to wake up a sleeping church in the West.”
Persecuted Christians have learned to stay true, not to orthodoxy, but to Jesus.
Ridgway summed up the difference: “What is the norm for the American Christian? We wake up and think, ‘Today I go to work. Today I go to school. Today I go shopping.’ What is the norm for 75 percent of the Body of Christ? ‘Today, my home is taken. Today, I lose my family. Today, I go to prison.’ That is their norm.”
Persecution as profound gift
Christians in the persecuted church don’t pray for suffering or have martyr complexes, but they do realize the profound gift of coming to a place of radical dependence upon Christ—to fall in love with Jesus and desire nothing and no one else, not even one’s own life. Having placed their very lives at the foot of the Cross, they walk in a level of abandonment and intimacy that few of us in the West understand. And they understand that we don’t understand—and pray for us. In fact, an unspoken code of ethics in the underground church is: “Don’t trust a Christian who hasn’t been to prison.”
They understand that we don’t understand—and they pray for us.
What is it that compelled Bailey to love the gunman, even as she faced execution for their faith?
What is it that compelled the young woman to return to her country, to embrace prison and persecution, for the sake of the lost?
What allowed the house church leader to gather his load of food and travel through the frozen tundra to a pastor’s family that had been left to die—knowing he himself would die in his obedience?
This something is Jesus. The person who, “for the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2), gave His flesh and blood so we may live. This is the divine insanity of Love Himself, love that has abandoned itself for the sake of the beloved.
And this is the love that Jesus gives us so we may give it away: “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 5:5).
This is the divine insanity of Love Himself, love that has abandoned itself for the sake of the beloved.
“The one mark of the persecuted church I see over and over again is a deep joy,” Bailey explained. “It doesn’t make sense—but it does tell me that God is present. In His presence, I am filled with joy—joy unspeakable and filled with glory. We in the West are so busy that we miss that deep, abiding joy of being in His Presence. When you have nothing else but your testimony, what comes through so clearly is the joy of intimacy with Christ.”
Once Bailey traveled for several days in a closed nation, high in the Himalayas. In midday, in the middle of nowhere, she and her traveling companions spread out a blanket in a clearing by the side of the road, seemingly to have a picnic. Within minutes, 50 to 60 people began to pour out from the surrounding trees and bushes. Word had spread. Someone had called a prayer meeting.
“The joy was indescribable,” Bailey said. “We sang praises, prayed, and heard testimonies for hours. This is the joy of living and serving in total obedience. There is no greater joy.”
A version of this story written by Anna Stepanek Cox originally appeared in Point Loma Nazarene University’s Viewpoint magazine.