The Fellowship of His Sufferings
Encountering the Suffering Church & A Call for Compassion
by Caroline Cox
If you go for a walk on the hills above the English cathedral city of Guildford, you may come across a tombstone in the woods overlooking the valleys of Surrey. If, prompted by curiosity, you wonder who had chosen to be buried there and you stop to read the inscription, you will find the words: “Here lies Major Laballiere who asked to be buried upside down, because he thought the world was topsy turvy and he wanted to be right way up at the end.” I don’t know about being buried upside down, but I suggest that as Christians, we should be prepared to have our lives turned upside down by a Lord who called us to serve him—a Lord who has told and shown us that his ways are not the ways of this world—and that we have to be fools for his sake.
He is a God of love, who calls us to put love into action—for love without action is dead, as faith without deeds is dead. And love in action is what compassion is all about.
A Voice for the Voiceless
St. Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth reminds us: “When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer.” Do we? Do we know, do we want to know about the persecuted church? Do we show solidarity with them in their persecution for their faith—for our faith? Or do we find their persecution “controversial” and prefer not to get involved?
I work with the Christian human rights organization Christian Solidarity International (CSI), which tries to help victims of repression, regardless of their color, creed, or nationality. We especially focus on people who are cut off from other aid organizations. The major organizations, such as the United Nations bodies (UNHCR, UNICEF), or the Red Cross, can only work in places where they have the permission of the sovereign government. If a government is persecuting a religious or racial minority group by ethnic cleansing, genocide, or jihad, it may not give invitations to those aid organizations. Such groups, suffering at the hands of repressive regimes, are thus denied aid and advocacy.
These are thus among the most outcast people in the world, totally bereft and often forgotten, because the world does not know about them. It is our commitment in CSI to try to be a voice for these who have no voice and to try to help them in their hour of need.
This may mean behaving in unorthodox ways—even traveling illegally across the borders of those repressive regimes, to reach people whom others cannot reach, to show them that love in action which is our Christian calling.
Often these people are Christians. There are more Christians suffering persecution in the world today than at any other time in history. When we have the privilege of being with them, we never fail to be moved by their faith. I have seen more joy on the faces of persecuted Christians, in conditions of extreme deprivation in jungle, bush, deserts, and mountains, than I have on the faces of most Christians in comfortable Western churches.
Come with me for a moment to the bombarded, besieged, blockaded enclave of Ngorno Karabagh—a historic piece of ancient Armenia cruelly cut off by Stalin and relocated as an isolated enclave in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has been carrying out an explicit policy of ethnic cleansing of the 150,000 Armenians who inhabit this beautiful, historically Christian land. The Armenians have had to defend their homes, families, homeland, and their—and our—Christian heritage against impossible odds: 50,000 against 7 million Azerbaijanis, massively armed with modern weapons and assisted by Turkey and several thousand mujahadeen mercenaries.
They have paid a high price. At the height of the war, I counted 400 Grad missiles raining down every day on the capital city, Stepanakert. Later in the war, they suffered aerial bombardment, cluster bombs on children, and brutal massacres when their villages were overrun. In one case, 45 villagers had their heads sawn off; in another, old people who could not escape were decapitated, and their headless bodies were left strewn on the altar of the ancient village church.
So far, however, they have defended their land, and there is a fragile cease-fire. And they have kept their faith, despite their suffering and the 40 years of Communism, during which their churches were closed, their bishop and priests were killed or exiled, and religious services were forbidden.
Come with me for a moment to the bomb-damaged shell of the theater in Stepanakert, which is the only building available for worship. There is a baptism: a service of great reverence and great joy. Afterwards, I spoke to the mother of one of the girls baptized and asked her if she had been baptized. She replied, “No—but it is not because I don’t want to. . . when I was growing up, we had no church, no Bible, no priest. Now, I can go to church, I have a Bible and we have a priest to teach us. I really want to prepare for my baptism and really enjoy it.” What a world away from our countries, where so often baptism is not appreciated: many do not bother; for others, it is a social occasion; and it is available without cost for all.
“Why Are We Forgotten?”
Come to southern Sudan, to a refugee camp where hundreds of thousands have had to flee from the government’s policy of genocide and jihad against black Africans of the south and the Nuba Mountains. When we visited the camp, the people had nothing. It was the rainy season; they were living in a quagmire of mud; they were cold, often naked, with no shelter, virtually no food, and no medicines. They did not even have basic utensils—the day before we arrived, nine people had been eaten by crocodiles while trying to get water from the river without buckets.
But when the refugees found out we had come, they assembled with great joy and we suddenly heard the sound of singing. Three huge processions converged on us—Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians. They gathered in their thousands, carrying thin African reed crosses, singing psalms and hymns with such joy that their faces were radiantly transfigured. Afterwards, however, they challenged us: “Why are we forgotten by the rest of Christendom? You are the first people who have come to visit us. Why are we left to die alone? Please pray for us. Please give us Bibles, so we can keep the faith here in the wilderness.”
We never fail to be humbled by our brothers and sisters in Christ who always ask first for our prayers—before asking for food, medicine or clothes. May I ask, when did your church last pray for the suffering, persecuted Church? Will you respond to their plea for prayer? Will you commit yourselves to pray for them?
While people may have understandable reservations about the accountability of aid organizations—whether money, often given at great personal cost, reaches those in need—once they are assured their support is well used, it is our experience that they respond with great generosity, and that they receive many blessings in giving.
At CSI, we try to follow the principles of the ‘triple A’s’: Accountability, Advocacy, and Authenticity.
Accountability: taking the aid right to the people most in need, assessing their priorities and trying to fine-tune limited resources to meet those priorities. Accountability also means coming back and assuring those who have supported us that their money did reach those in need.
Advocacy: to be a voice for those who have no voice—and do so with:
Authenticity: to be able to say, “I have been there; I have seen the situation and this is how it really is.”
God’s Unlimited Resources
There is no room for “compassion fatigue” in Christian commitment. We have found no evidence of such fatigue.
And Christian compassion and involvement should not be limited by our concerns over the inadequacy of our resources: if they are entrusted to God, he may use them in ways beyond our imagination. We must not make his love too narrow by false limits of our own.
We at CSI feel very inadequate; we are inadequate. We may not know how to begin to respond to the needs confronting us. I know only too well what it is like to have a crisis of confidence and to feel so inadequate that I feel like giving up.
I had one such experience at the beginning of a CSI mission to the Karen people of Burma, who are suffering severe persecution at the hands of the SLORC regime. On my way into Burma, I was feeling acutely depressed as I thought, “What on earth can we do with our meager resources to begin to help the Karen people with their massive problems?” Then in my morning Bible reading I found the message in 2 Kings 4:42–44, the Old Testament forerunner of the parable of the loaves and the fishes. A man with 20 loaves of barley bread was told by Elisha to distribute them to feed a crowd of 100 hungry people. In a crisis of confidence, he asked what use they could be among so many; but Elisha replied: “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says, ‘They will eat and have some left over’.” And indeed they did eat and had some left over.
So we hope that God can use our painfully limited resources. In trying to develop the courage to serve, we must accept the realities of our own inadequacies and the painful fact that we can only begin to reach an infinitesimal fraction of those in need. But if we offer what we have to God, we can trust him to use our offerings, perhaps in ways beyond anything we can hope or imagine.
And he does indeed anoint our work with miracles. On one occasion, we had a cargo flight ready with a team of volunteers and a consignment of supplies for Ngorno Karabagh. At the last minute, we learned that there had been a miscalculation by a builder and we needed an extra £20,000. We agonized over whether to cancel the flight. We prayed over the phone; and, with a mixture of faith and fear, we decided to go ahead. Within two hours we received a phone call telling us that an Argentinian Armenian had that morning decided to donate £20,000 to the rehabilitation center in Ngorno Karabagh. God is wonderfully, precisely faithful! It seems that the message on a notepad given me by my daughter could be our motto: “I do not believe in miracles, I rely on them.”
Christian involvement must face spiritual, theological, ethical, legal, and political challenges. It may also require us to walk the Via Dolorosa with those who suffer.
As we respond to present needs and contemplate the complexities of “a world turned upside down” in the next century, we must be prepared to experience greater challenges than any we have so far encountered. We therefore need to affirm a commitment to prayer, and to mutual support, so that we can go forward together, with our Lord, and walk in his way—the way of love in action. This may become the Via Dolorosa, but it is the only way which leads to the joy of his salvation.
I offer some examples of these challenges—first, the challenges of this world: ethical, legal, and political.
I have already hinted at some of those. In order to reach those who are among the most outcast, the most bereft, the most deprived in the world today, we in CSI may cross borders illegally. But if a repressive regime denies legitimate access, do we stand by and leave people bereft of all aid, advocacy, and compassion? Or do we say that this is an unjust ruling, and our place must be alongside the victims?
Many Christians do not like to be controversial. Are we being too “controversial,” crossing borders illegally in order to obtain evidence of human rights violations; in order to take life-saving aid, and to be alongside the victims in their hour of darkness?
I will never forget the look on the faces of people when our little plane touches down on some remote airstrip in the African bush, a forbidden airstrip, according to the government. The people flood around with tears of relief exclaiming, “Thank God you have come. We thought the world had forgotten us.”
I remember puffing and panting up a steep mountain path in the steamy jungles of Burma, thinking, “Caroline Cox, you are a grandmother with six grandchildren. It’s time you grew up.” But I also remember the relief at seeing the smiles of joy on the faces of soldiers on the front line, defending their families from arrest and slavery, torture, rape, and massacre. They exclaim, like the Africans of Sudan, “Thank you for coming . . . You are the first people ever to visit us. Your visit gives us the strength to continue our struggle.”
The Challenge of War
By now, you will have realized that we at CSI are confronting another political and ethical challenge: we are active in war zones, helping victims of military offensives and visiting those who are engaged in the defense of their own people. Many Christians are unhappy about being “controversial”; many others are even more unhappy about association with any kind of war.
But what would you say in response to Commander Cirillo, whom we met on the front line in Kapoeta, in Sudan? We were delayed reaching him, as we had to take refuge for several hours in a foxhole from an Antonov bomber circling overhead, deliberately bombing civilian targets. On the previous day it had killed eight civilians and wounded three others. Commander Cirillo is the SPLA commander who was holding the front line there—a Christian man who does not want to fight a war. He is a practicing Catholic and he views the Khartoum regime’s war against the South as a war to Islamicize the Sudan.
He said, “Before battle the Mujahadeen and other Islamic fundamentalist zealots customarily shout and chant: ‘We will force you to become Muslims whether you want to or not.’ The Muslim fundamentalists cannot defeat us. We are firm as Christians, and we will die for our faith. Our struggle is not against Islam or against Muslims, but is against a fundamentalist regime that wants to destroy our African heritage and faith. It is discouraging to see the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum receive material and moral support from other Islamic countries, while we receive no support from the Christian world. But we will continue our struggle for freedom even if we are forsaken by Christendom. . . .We will die for our faith and we will die Christians. But please help my wounded—we have nothing.”
What would you say to him? We at CSI believe that we must be prepared to reach out to all who are suffering, even if it means turning our own feelings upside down and having to confront tough questions on our presence with those who are fighting for the defense of their people.
We may feel called to show solidarity with them by engaging in the battle with the pen—not, of course, with the sword. And we are grateful when politicians and others in high places appreciate the contribution we can make to discussions on policy, as they acknowledge that our reports are grounded in first-hand evidence and eye-witness accounts. As human rights activists, we have been able to speak in many parliamentary arenas, and to give evidence at Congressional hearings and the UN Human Rights Commission.
The Return to Calvary
Such opportunities for fellowship and solidarity carry risks—not just the physical risks but the risks of heartbreak. They bring spiritual and theological challenges. Often, when you are with women mourning the loss of a loved one, or who are desperate over being unable to give a child the food or medicine needed for life, all you can do is embrace them and weep with them. When you leave, all you can say is, “I will take your grief in my heart.” I do, and it hurts.
This brings us back to an earlier theme: the challenge of feeling—and being—so inadequate in the face of such suffering. But there are consolations—and successes. First, many people say that the fact that someone cares enough to come to be with them is an immense comfort. They affirm again and again that the fact that they have not been forgotten gives them the strength and the courage to continue their struggle for survival. Even if we cannot solve their problems or heal their ills, the evidence of caring and sharing is itself a ministry of immeasurable value.
The other consolation for the grief which we feel at our powerlessness to stop the suffering around us, or even to do anything to ease the pain, comes from the example of the suffering of our Lord and of his mother. At the end of his earthly life, all his mother in her love could do was to stand at the foot of the Cross and be with him as he died. Our Lord still suffers today in the suffering of his people. Can we do less than try to follow the example of his mother, and be present in love at whichever Calvary he may call us to attend?
If we are prepared to try to respond to this call of love, we must be prepared for the sword of grief which pierced her heart to pierce ours also. This is why love is the ultimate risk: it requires us to be prepared to accompany our Lord, through his suffering people, to Gethsemane and Calvary. But only in taking that risk will we know the joy of his people who are called to be his saints, and ourselves attain the joy of his salvation.
This is our challenge and our hope. Dare we take the risk? Yes, I hope so, because in so doing, we may not only have the immense privilege of being alongside those who are enduring their Gethsemane and Calvary, often with immense dignity and faith; but in so doing, we ourselves will also be richly blessed.
The Consolation of Blessing
Christian involvement will be richly blessed: it is more blessed to give than to receive; but it is also our good fortune to be in a position to give. And when we have the privilege of being alongside those in need, we often find that we are humbled and inspired by their courage, faith, graciousness, and dignity in their dark and difficult days.
I would like to finish with a tribute to the faith, courage, dignity, and graciousness of those whom it has been our privilege to meet in some of the places where we have been working.
First, I invite you to come with me to the Sudan. One cannot quantify human suffering: one person wrongly imprisoned is one too many; one baby dying of avoidable starvation or disease is one too many. But in the cruel calculus of man’s inhumanity to man, the Sudan must rank amongst the greatest of the tragedies in the world today, with 1.3 million killed and over 5 million displaced by civil war.
Please come with me in your imagination to southern Sudan, to some of those airstrips designated ‘No go’ areas for major aid organizations by the regime in Khartoum. Come to Marial, in Bahr-El-Ghazal, where the people are dying around us from starvation and disease. Those who are still alive are suffering from hunger, thirst, nakedness, and the constant fear of attack and enslavement. Between the airstrip and the place where we pitch our tents, people die in front of our eyes: a 50-year-old man of starvation; a 20-year old girl from tuberculosis.
As we walk through the bush, we find ghost villages, where the people have perished from starvation or the survivors are spending their last days eating grass to fill the aching void in their stomachs.
Come to the beautiful, tragic Nuba mountains and stand in the bottom of a huge bomb crater—one of many—which testifies to the bombing of innocent civilians.
Then come to Nyamlell, back in Bahr-El-Ghazal, a Dinka town in lush, green terrain bordering a tributary of the White Nile. It has clearly been a flourishing township, with a market and several well-constructed red brick buildings, including a Roman Catholic church, a clinic, and schools. But everything changed on the fateful day of March 25, 1995, when a horde of government-backed soldiers swept into the town and surrounding area and killed 82 men and captured 282 women and children as slaves. They looted all possessions and livestock, burnt buildings, and left a trail of devastation and suffering.
We met some of the people who had survived the attack. I would like to introduce you to a widow, who lost everything, but who now cares for those suffering even more than she is. She has welcomed into her compound victims of that brutal March attack, such as a 50-year-old woman who saw her four sons killed in front of her; her only daughter taken into slavery; and who was beaten so badly that she could only crawl. We saw her being cared for with great tenderness. Another victim taken into care was a young mother who had lost her husband and four children—two were burnt alive when their hut was set on fire; the other two were taken by the raiders as slaves.
But despite their suffering, the people of the Sudan still smile with the famous Sudanese smile. And I have seen no signs of hatred or desire for revenge in their faces.
The Bishop & the Flock
On many of our visits, we invite a Roman Catholic bishop to accompany us, as he has been exiled from the Sudan for speaking against the regime. The only way he can reach his people is to fly in, unofficially, with us. The bishop spoke to his people as they worshipped in what they called their “cathedral” under a tamarind tree:
“This most beautiful cathedral, not built with human hands, but by nature and by God, is filled with the people of God, and especially with children. We must tell our brothers and sisters that the people here are still full of hope and that they still smile in spite of suffering and persecution. Those smiles put us to shame. Your people have suffered slavery, but you are not slaves to the world, but children of God who has told us we can call him ‘Abba’ or ‘Father.’ Christianity gives us liberty; therefore we are no longer slaves but free: children of liberty, freedom and truth. But we live in a bad world. Many of your people have been sold into slavery. But for me that is not to become a slave. . . . The real slave is a person who lives in sin, who does injustice to brothers and sisters, and who kills them. That person is a slave to sin.
“Some people feel naked because they have no clothes and they try to cover themselves because of their embarrassment. But this is not real nakedness. True nakedness is to be without love. Therefore to be clothed in love: this is Christianity. It is not like a shirt that you can take on or take off; but wear the faith and love of the Christian faith as a way of life, and witness to it even to those who do not believe in Christ.
“So as we go away, do not think we leave you or forget you. There are still many good people in the world and you will be remembered as people who are closest to God because you are carrying the cross, every day obeying Christ’s command to take up his cross and to follow him. We will pray for you. But prayer without action is dead, as faith without deeds is dead. Our love will be in action for you. I came, saw, heard, touched, and I am enriched.”
Grief, Gratitude, & Shelter
Now please come back with me to Karabagh. I would like to introduce you to some of the Armenian Christians, whose triumph of the human spirit in days of darkness is typical of all the persecuted Christians it has been our privilege to meet—with their faith and their witness to a love which transcends suffering.
First, I remember a nurse from a village called Maraghar. In April 1992, her village was overrun by Azeri forces, who sawed off the heads of 45 villagers, and then looted and set fire to the houses. The day before I met this nurse, she had seen her son beheaded and had lost 14 relatives. After weeping with her, when she had finished her convulsive sobbing, I asked her if she would like to give a message to the wider world, thinking it might be therapeutic to be able to express her feelings of grief, anguish, maybe rage or even hatred. With great dignity, she rose above her personal anguish and said:
“Yes, I do want to give a message. I want to say ‘Thank you’. As a nurse, I’ve worked in this hospital and seen how the supplies you have brought have eased much suffering and saved many lives. . . . I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all who have not forgotten us in our dark and difficult days.”
Before I leave Karabagh, I wish to tell you a happy Christmas story. Three years ago, we wanted to show solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters in Karabagh by spending Christmas with them. We set out to travel from Armenia to Karabagh on a dilapidated old bus. Climbing over the high mountain passes of southern Armenia, at 7,000 feet we ran into a mega-blizzard. The wind howled, the snow turned into a huge wall and the bus ground to a halt. With the wind-chill factor, outside temperatures were 50° below zero.
Suddenly, our Karabakh host began leaving the bus to go out into that howling blizzard. He had realized that in the bitter weather on that bleak mountain pass, there were families in cars also trying to reach Karabakh to spend Christmas with relatives. So again and again he went out into that ferocious blizzard to bring these families into the bus. Eventually, everyone was safely shepherded on board and we settled down for a cold night, with the wind blowing snow through the gaps in the sides of our old vehicle and the temperature well below freezing.
Then I suddenly realized that this was a very special place to be on Christmas Eve. For on the first Christmas Eve there was another family in the cold, with nowhere to go. And here we were, on that bitter night, on a mountain pass, with families in the cold, with nowhere to go, and we had been able to offer them shelter. In the morning, when the wind had dropped and we were able to survey the scene, we saw their cars covered in snow—and realized that they could not have survived that night if we had not been there, too, in our bus.
This Christmas we received a letter from Karabakh celebrating the fact that there were children alive and able to enjoy Christmas this year who would not have been there if we had not been on that mountain pass that night.
A Call to Sharp Compassion
It is only when we find the courage to try to fulfill the requirements of compassion that we can be truly blessed. The literal meaning of compassion is well known: to suffer alongside, to share. Sharing involves risk, and not always the physical risk of travel. There are many ministries, such as the ministry of prayer, which can be undertaken at home.
However, although one can serve and love from a physical distance, one cannot do so from an emotional or spiritual distance. It was not for nothing that T. S. Eliot used the term “the sharp compassion”:
Note that it is the bleeding hands of the wounded surgeon which help and heal. There is nothing sentimental about compassion. It is active service—love in action.
But only through that love, which took our Lord to the Via Dolorosa, and only by seeking the courage to walk with him, wherever his way may take us, can we know the privilege of fellowship with his suffering people, becoming part of the Body of his Church, and sharing in the joy of his resurrection.
I close with a meditation:
May the Lord help us to have the courage to become involved in a world turned upside down, to take the risks of compassion: to give, and not count the cost; to toil, and not seek for rest; to labor, and not seek for a reward, save that of knowing that we do his will.
This article was adapted from a talk given at World Vision’s Washington Forum, April 19, 1996, in Seattle, Washington.
Lady Caroline Cox, Baroness of Queensbury, by training a nurse and a sociologist, is a member of the British parliament’s House of Lords and works with Christian Solidarity International, an interdenominational human rights organization for persecuted Christians and other victims of oppression, including victimized children and victims of disaster.
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“The Fellowship of His Sufferings” first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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