Last week, gunmen from the Islamic sect Boko Haram attacked the Church of the Brethren in the village of Atagara in northern Nigeria, killing two and torching the church on their way out. Over several days, the terrorist group killed dozens in the same region and forced hundreds to flee. In the northeastern city of Potiskum, thirty-one people were murdered over a three-day period recently, and a church was burned. On October 21, most churches in Potiskum cancelled Sunday services. Boko Haram terrorists have killed more than a thousand this year, nearly three thousand since their surge began in 2009. They’ve left dozens of churches in ruins.Read the rest.
Few readers of First Things are cowering from Boko Haram, but we aren’t on the sidelines. In John’s Apocalypse, martyrdom has a dramatic political impact, and the church as a whole has a critical role in its success. When the Lamb opens the fifth seal early in Revelation, the souls of the martyrs cry out, “How long O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” They are told to wait for the rest of the martyrs to be killed. Near the end of Revelation, those prayers are answered as the blood of martyrs makes the harlot city so drunk that she topples over. When prayers are joined with martyr blood, the Lord knocks over predatory regimes.
There is a subtle hint in Revelation that bold witness joined with prayer is the key political practices that mark the people of God at all times and places. The word “bowl” appears twelve times in the Apocalypse. Once it refers to the bowls of incense by which the heavenly elders offer prayers before the Lamb and the Enthroned Once, and the other eleven times it refers to the bowls of blood poured out on Babylon. From the time that Yahweh played the potter to make Adam from the adamah, human beings are figured in Scripture by pots and bowls. The twelve bowls signify the twelvefold new Israel whose chief weapons are incense and blood. When the people of God pour themselves out as censors and blood-bowls, the Lord overthrows tyrants. Be the bowls: That is how the world is transformed.
Though we ourselves may not be threatened by persecution, the church is one and she is always on the cross. The church is always, somewhere, the martyr church, and prayer is our participation in the politics of martyrdom. In prayer, non-martyrs become the voice of the martyrs.
But we have to learn to pray, and here comfortable Western Christians have a huge dilemma.