180px-Nero_1Civil liberties groups, the Christian church and opposition politicians in Malaysia have accused the mainstream media of stoking religious tensions with a recent spate of reports alleging that some Christians are trying to convert Muslims.

A human rights group, Suaram, said the recent reports on television and in Malay newspapers are playing on Malay fears for political gain, as the general election draws near. (Carolyn Hong, “KL media accused of raising religious tension,” The Straits Times, August 31 2011, p. A12.)

It will take an act of faith to feel good about Malaysia this Independence Day, whether you commemorate 54 years of Malaya on August 31 or 48 years of Malaysia on September 16. After all these years as an integral part of the country, and contributing significantly to nation building, the Christian community is once again used as a convenient bogeyman for political gains. Recently a Malay daily carried a report that Christians resort to immoral activities like prostitution and free sex to entice people to convert to Christianity. The newspaper carried an apology a few days later but it is hard to believe that such a report could have been missed by the editors. It’s open season on Christians again.

As a Malaysian Christian, I find this “Christian bashing for political mileage” discouraging. But then I remember Paul warning us in 2 Timothy 3:12-13:

Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived themselves. (NET)

And I remember what happened to the church during the time of the emperor Nero.

In the year 64, during the reign of Emperor Nero, fire broke out in Rome. For six days and nights the fire burned. The greater part of the city was laid in ashes. The rumor circulated that Nero himself had caused the city to be set on fire. This aroused great hatred among the people of Rome against the emperor.

To turn this hatred away from himself Nero accused the Christians of having set the fire. The accusation certainly was not true, but large numbers of Christians were arrested and a terrible persecution followed. Many Christians were even crucified. (Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd Edition, Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1995, 40-41.)

Christians are convenient fall guys. When wronged we rarely take to the streets. And we do not respond with suicide bombing. Indeed friend and foe alike remind us that we are a community called to forgive those who have wronged us. And they are right although it needs to be said that we are called to forgive on the basis that God Himself will set things right and we are to trust Him for our vindication. But we are to bless those who persecute us. Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:14-21 deserves a fresh look especially in times when followers of Jesus are being maligned:

Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NET)

It’s tough to be a follower of Jesus. Not only are we not to avenge ourselves, we are to bless those who persecute us. Sounds like a policy of weakness. It may be worthwhile to remember what happened to Nero and the Roman Empire, and what happened to the “weak” church, in the end.

As always we are thrown back to this: Do we really believe that God is sovereign and can be trusted to do what is right? If this is what we really believe, we can bless those who persecute us. Often, unfortunately, we fall back on the weapons of the world, weapons of hatred and revenge, and we end up trying to overcome evil with evil. I am not saying that we do not speak up for justice and truth, both for ourselves and for all groups who have suffered injustice. But we are to battle with divine weapons not the weapons of this world (2 Corinthians 10:4). Indeed we must do this if we are truly the vanguard of the coming Kingdom of God. In battling injustice as in many other things, we must be different from a world that does not know God. And because we are different we will not be popular.

Christians were convenient fall guys for Nero because they were already hated by many in the society of his day.

The main cause of the hatred of early Christians in Roman society lies in their distinctive life-style….Men always view with suspicion people who are different. Conformity, not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble-free life. So the more early Christians took their faith seriously the more they were in danger of crowd reaction.

Thus, simply by living according to the teachings of Jesus, the Christian was a constant unspoken condemnation of the pagan way of life. It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self-righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life. (Shelley, Church History In Plain Language, 38-39.)

Non-salty salt is useless. And light shines brightest when times are darkest (Matthew 5:13-16). What a time for the Malaysian church to shine for Christ.