by Robert Welsh
Christians who risk their lives for the Gospel always challenge me. Encountering heroic expressions of faith provokes me to question my own faith journey. Am I taking up my cross? If I were more courageous, would I take a different path? Should I be doing more “extreme” acts of faith? I had the opportunity to confront some of these questions as I studied Christians who risked their lives for the sake of making peace and bringing justice.
I asked a man named Carlos some of these questions as we drove down a narrow dirt road in a remote part of the Guatemalan mountains. As we approached a sharp bend in the road, he slowly turned the corner and stopped the car at the spot where he nearly lost his life during the Guatemalan civil war. An evangelical missionary called to struggle alongside those caught between two warring factions, Carlos believed his work involved bringing salvation to individuals and transforming the communities in which they lived, a conviction that nearly got him killed by a paramilitary group that considered Carlos a political dissident trying to agitate the poor to rebellion.
Carlos, one of 85 exemplar Christians I studied, risked his life to bring God’s love and justice to communities in high conflict. Working with Dr. Paul Alexander, a professor at Eastern University’s Palmer Theological Seminary and the president of Evangelicals for Social Action, I examined a group of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians who felt called by God to work for social change in high-conflict settings. Our research was part of a series of studies exploring the experiences and expressions of God’s love by Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, sponsored by the Flame of Love Project, a collaborative grant funded by the John Templeton Foundation to the University of Akron. The grant allowed us to study the personal characteristics, theological commitments, and life experiences of Christians who believe the Holy Spirit guides them to work for social change through peacemaking and social action in dangerous environments.
We traveled to Israel and Palestine to engage with men and women striving for peace in the midst of one of the world’s most volatile ethnopolitical conflicts. We visited four US cities to learn about those who work against human and drug trafficking, poverty, and urban violence. And we journeyed to Central and South America to observe Christians laboring alongside those affected by civil war and decades of oppressive dictators.
After completing our interviews and observing these remarkable women and men in action, we found that our participants shared five common themes: sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading, boldness to respond, conversion to social justice, crossing boundaries, and redefining danger.
Sensitivity and bold response to the Spirit’s leading
Most compelling to us was that these individuals had become extraordinary by habitually responding to the Spirit’s leading and developed an incredible sensitivity to the guidance of the Spirit, responding even when it made no earthly sense. Pablo, a man from our study, is a good example of this. He believed that the Spirit prompted him to directly challenge a volatile paramilitary group, and he responded with boldness.
“One night, the Paras [paramilitaries] shot a 23-year-old mother in front of her children because they wrongly believed she had killed her Para friend,” he said. “The community was afraid to claim the body for fear of what the Paras might do. So they called me. I went that very night, recovering the body and giving her a proper funeral in our church as a way of saying that the Church would not be intimidated by such threats.
These individuals developed an incredible sensitivity to the guidance of the Spirit, responding even when it made no earthly sense.
“Then, led by the Spirit, the church members carried the coffin to where the Paras lived and buried the body there. This made them face their awful mistake every time they passed the grave. As a result, many quit; others fought among themselves. This action became the beginning of the end of the Paras’ control of the region. Three years ago, we could not drive this road for fear of the guerrillas or Paras. They are still around, but their control of the people is greatly diminished.”
Most Christians are not confronted with such extreme examples of ministry, but all believers can strive for the kind of sensitivity to the Spirit that Pablo developed over many years of listening to God and responding courageously.
Conversion to social justice
Many participants experienced a conversion to social action or peacemaking. As they learned to discern the voice of the Spirit, they developed an awareness that evangelism was not enough in their pursuit to become more like Christ. Most came from a conservative, mainstream Christian background focused on individual salvation and personal discipleship. However, they each described key transitions in their lives that expanded their view of the Gospel to include the need for acts of justice to accompany love and evangelism. These works go beyond meeting the needs of the poor to directly challenging the forces that perpetuate violence, poverty, oppression, and destitution.
Key transitions in their lives expanded their view of the Gospel to include the need for acts of justice to accompany love and evangelism.
Many of our participants did not start out with a strong social conscience but developed it along their faith journey. While commitment to social justice fades as a core Christian doctrine in the evangelical expression of Christianity, often viewed with significant suspicion and characterized as liberal, socialist, or postmodern, the exemplars we studied were convinced that God cares about just cultural practices and that love and justice must exist together if we are to be Christ-like in how we love.
Crossing social boundaries
Those we studied taught us that many social boundaries exist as a way for the powerful to disenfranchise the powerless, and in order to fully express God’s love we must cross those boundaries. Our participants modeled themselves after Jesus and interpreted the Gospel account as a call to expose hidden power structures, challenge social and economic privilege, and dismantle the notion of identity exclusively based on lineage, race, religion, or social position. As one Palestinian evangelical Christian peace activist reflected: “Jesus commands me to love the enemy. So it’s not about resistance. It’s not even about healing. It’s about completely loving those who do this to me. It is to break all these forms of identity and create a new identity within him and through him. In trying to figure out how to deal with Palestinians and Israelis, I am compelled to be fully united with them.”
Our participants modeled themselves after Jesus and interpreted the Gospel account as a call to expose hidden power structures, challenge social and economic privilege, and dismantle the notion of identity exclusively based on lineage, race, religion, or social position.
Jesus dismantled our notion of identity as solely tied to a group, social status, or role. When he commanded us to love our enemy, he invited us into serious self-reflection about how we perceive our meaning and purpose in this world. The Incarnation represents the ultimate example of crossing and collapsing boundaries. Jesus crossed over into the natural world to form a bridge between Creator and created. He calls us to do the same with those we might consider strangers or enemies, because we were once strangers ourselves. This is not just a call to those who identify themselves as Christian activists—it is a call to all who call themselves Christ followers.
Humans typically turn away from danger, yet the peacemakers we studied relinquish their impulse for self-preservation to the hands of God. For some, death is a realistic consequence of their vocation, and perhaps even a marker of success. One urban pastor who worked for 25 years at the crossroads of two warring gangs said, “Christians are not worried about death. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. There must be a price if you want change. If we are going to be concerned about social change, we cannot be overly concerned about preserving our lives.”
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. There must be a price if you want change.”
While this pastor’s response to death may seem reckless, many in our study believe that ignoring a call to action is riskier than that. If we take seriously the call to be change makers in a world that resists social change and sometimes reacts violently to it, there will likely be personal costs associated with activism. Individuals, groups, and institutions that possess power have a vested interest in retaining and preserving it. Directly challenging power structures is likely to result in some type of loss—loss of status, employment, or comfort. However, not responding has far greater consequences. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., “Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
The Gospel is offensive. Not just because it calls people to a higher moral standard or challenges a secular worldview. The Gospel offends because it confronts fortified structures of power and privilege. It threatens those who receive societal benefit for belonging to a particular group and trims the cultural hedges of a domesticated suburban life. The Gospel contests national, religious, and social identity. It demands that we cross over the dividing wall of hostility to reconcile with those who might threaten our way of life and to call the stranger a “native among us.”
Carlos dared to cross that wall. While lying on the ground with a gun to his head, he prayed for his enemy. Miraculously, his captors spared his life. Not every Christian is confronted with the possibility of death by following Christ. However, all Christians are called to develop sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading, respond with boldness, confront injustice, cross social boundaries, and redefine danger.
Robert Welsh is dean of the School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences at Azusa Pacific University. This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of APU Life magazine. Used with permission. Illustration by Keith Bishop / iStockphoto.com.