Responding to war and the refugee crisis
Baptist responses to the multiple challenges of war, violent persecution, and the refugee/migrant crisis were shared at the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Durban earlier this year. Nick Megoran was there
In July I attended the Baptist World Alliance’s Congress in Durban, as a member of the new Commission on Peace and Reconciliation. I wanted to know: how are Baptist churches responding to the multiple challenges facing the world of war, violent persecution, and the refugee/migrant crisis?
War is sin, and the church’s basis response to war is to show an alternative by simply being the church and proclaiming ‘the gospel of peace’ (Ephesians 6: 15). This always starts with worship. The BWA was set up in the early 20th century—as Europe hurtled to the disaster of the 1914-18 war – ‘to manifest the essential oneness in the Lord Jesus Christ’ of Baptists worldwide. This spirit persists today. As the Congress opened, the names of the 80+ countries represented were read out. Throughout the week Bible readings, prayers and worship were said or sung in dozens of languages. It was a moving reminder to a divided world of the unity of the human race in Jesus Christ.
A highlight of the Congress was an interview with Edward Dima, President of the newest Baptist Convention in the world’s newest country, South Sudan.
Edward himself fled the war, but while in a refugee camp in Uganda received a call from God to return as a minister. He planted the first Baptist church in 1999, and in spite of the war of independence and the subsequent civil war over 170 churches have been established to this day.
These have played pioneering roles in reconciliation. Edward encouraged us by saying that in spite of all the hardship, ‘take heart, the suffering will cease, but do not leave sharing the gospel, even in a difficult moment.’ Edward's story was subsequently filmed as part of Ethics Daily's reporting of Congress.
Addressing the migrant crisis
Given the refugee and migrant crisis facing European and Middle Eastern communities, the European Baptist Federation ran a session reporting on the experiences of different churches in welcoming strangers. A Ukrainian Baptist leader told us about a church set up by ex-drug addicts who had found new life and hope in Jesus.
However the civil war had proved very disruptive, especially as pro-Russian forces targeted non-Orthodox Christians. This church had been forced to relocate. However the community returned to start a soup kitchen, and planted a church back in their original hometown to serve the people who had been hostile to them.
Closer to home, an English Baptist church reported its work in befriending and supporting Middle Eastern asylum seekers. A drop-in centre was overwhelmed by numbers, so the church began providing English-language classes, legal assistance, even homes for the destitute. Asylum seekers were moved by this friendship – one Iranian refugee commented that he learnt God was loving, in stark contrast to the public punishments in the name of religion in his own country. Dozens of people came to faith in Jesus and were baptized in his name.
But it is Middle Eastern, not European, countries which have received the most refugees. A Lebanese Baptist spoke of how her church had had to ‘move out of their comfort zone’ in response. Located in an area with a high Syrian refugee concentration, large numbers of refugees joined them for Lord’s Day worship. She recounted the example of the whole church praying with the wife of a kidnapped Alawite man, who was eventually released. She said that many Muslims come to the church because they feel accepted, telling the church, ‘you care’ and ‘your Jesus answers prayers.’
Examples like these are in contrast to the distinct lack of welcome which many European politicians are showing migrants. Rather than building fences and demonizing the outsider, we have a wonderful opportunity to love Jesus by loving the stranger (Matthew 25: 35).
Facing death for Jesus
If European Baptists are wrestling with how to creatively respond to showing care to Muslim migrants, many African churches are facing profound questions about how to confront violent Islamism. Boko Haram perpetrates mass killings of Christians (and other Muslims) in West Africa, and Al-Shabaab does likewise in East Africa. As one conference delegate asked: ‘how can Christians love their enemies when those enemies have publicly declared their goal is to eliminate Christianity?’
Israel Akanji, of First Baptist Church, Abuja, and the Christian Association of Nigeria, spoke of his important work with government and moderate Muslim leaders. Relationships with key imams, who oppose the methods and philosophies of Boko Haram, have been crucial in defusing and averting violence.
Yet the Christian response to violence is theological, as well as political. Another Nigerian Baptist, John Enyinnaya, of the Baptist College of Theology, Owerri, was asked how to respond to enemies seeking to kill us: ‘How can Jesus be our security, when Christians are being slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists?’ Dr Enyinnaya replied that ‘It is not that enemies and dangers are not there. The truth of the matter is that salvation in Christ helps us to live out those challenges.’
He identified one response to danger as being fear and flight. In contrast, he explained, the true Christian response is to look danger in the face and say ‘you cannot stop me, I will carry on my ministry, live my life, be the Christian that I am.’ As he concluded, ‘When a Christian is killed that is not a failure of God’s security. When a Christian dies, there is a welcome home for him. Look at these issues from the angle of big picture, kingdom of God. The Devil wants to destroy the church – and that is the one thing he cannot achieve. God’s plans will never be thwarted.’
How should the church respond to war and violence? Simply by being the church, an international body of peacemakers!
Show how faith in Jesus helps us overcome national divisions, care for the needy and the stranger, and even love those who hate us. The Durban Congress shows how Baptist churches around the world are doing that. Are we?
Picture: Brian Kaylor / EthicsDaily.com
Nick Megoran is a member of Heaton Baptist Church, Newcastle. He is a Baptist Union of Great Britain representative to the BWA, and co-chair of the Northumbria and Newcastle Universities Martin Luther King Peace Committee.