“Do or Die for Christ”

By David F. Watson

A few weeks ago I found myself sitting by a campfire at a truckstop. Nearby, a large tent, open on one side, sheltered a few weary truckers who lay on cots. A man sold snacks from a small stand. It was cold outside and the fire warmed my hands and feet while I drank sweet tea seasoned with black pepper.

It’s not exactly a scenario one would see at a Buc-ees, but I was in India, somewhere south of the sprawling megalopolis of Delhi. I had come with my friend and colleague Scott Kisker to meet one of our students. He had invited us to visit and see what life is like in India, particularly for the beleaguered Christians who live there. The church in India experiences various levels of hostility, depending upon where one lives. Before we headed to his home in southeast India, our student, whose name I won’t use in this essay for his protection, wanted to show us the Taj Mahal. It didn’t take much arm-twisting to get us to go. The Taj Mahal is sometimes described as the most beautiful building in the world, and indeed it is hard to imagine a more aesthetically perfect structure. To get there, however, required a four-hour drive. Hence the truck stop.

Before we left for India, one of our colleagues appropriately described this vast country as a “land of extremes.” In India you will find extreme opulence and extreme poverty, incredible beauty and aesthetic chaos. There are smells that will make your mouth water and those that will make your eyes water. The food is exquisite as long as you don’t mind the heat. When Indians tell you that a certain food is not spicy, they honestly believe it, but this is like your weightlifter friend telling you that the box on the counter isn’t that heavy.

For a Westerner like me, one of the more striking features of India was the sheer volume of people. With over 1.4 billion residents, India has recently surpassed China as the most populous nation on earth. The cities boil over with pedestrians and traffic. As far as I can tell, the lanes painted on the streets are irrelevant, and drivers use the horn more than the brakes. Cars and motorbikes and the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (think of a three-wheeled motorcycle with a roof) jostle and weave through the streets with but inches between them, and one wonders how any vehicle survives the day. A haze hangs over every inch of the city.

In Delhi the air quality is the approximate equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. Small, mangy dogs run back and forth. Cows amble lazily down the streets, eating grass or garbage or anything else they want. Drivers skirt around them, hardly noticing their presence. For the 32 million people who live in the Delhi metro area, this is their normal, from cradle to grave.

When I teach students about the ancient Greco-Roman world, I often describe it as “a world full of gods,” a phrase I took from the classicist Keith Hopkins, who wrote a book by that title. India, too, is a world full of gods – gods with the heads of animals, gods with multiple arms, gods riding tigers, gods with blue or green or gray or bright red or purple skin. Among the most popular are Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, and Hanuman, with the head of a monkey.

India is the most intensely and pervasively religious place I have ever been. It is the place of origin for four world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Almost a billion Hindus live there, and this diverse collection of religious traditions dominates public and private life, approximately 80 percent of the population. Along the streets of large cities and small villages sit temple after temple featuring one or several of the more than 60,000 Hindu deities. Some of the temples are only large enough to hold a few people. Some are massive complexes that sit on acres of land. They feature elaborate carvings and paintings of gods and goddesses. Hindu people commonly make offerings to one deity or another, though mainly as individuals, or perhaps families. Corporate worship is not a common practice.

After a few days in Delhi we made our way by air to the southeast of the country. We then drove for hours to a rural village surrounded by rice paddies and jungle. A small congregation of Christians waited for us. They have no church building, only a tiny courtyard covered by a floral pink awning under which they worship each Sunday. They graciously served us a delicious meal, the heat level of which would be somewhere in the “sizzlin’” range at Buffalo Wild Wings. (And yes, they had dialed it back significantly for us.) Theirs is one of three churches in this small village, along with eight Hindu temples. As I said, India is an intensely religious country.

According to official reports, the second largest religious group in India are Muslim, approximately 14 percent of the population. Christians represent a small minority in India. Around 28 million Christians live there, but that only accounts for about 2 percent of the population.

Life as an Indian Christian is hard. Christian worship is legal, but some states have passed anti-conversion laws. Additionally, opponents of the faith find ways of making life difficult. Many avenues in life are simply closed to Christians. For example, it can be hard for Christians to find jobs or take out loans. By design, their options are limited. Converts from Hinduism to Christianity are particularly at risk. They are seen as traitors not only to their religion, but to the Indian way of life.

“My father always told me, ‘Do or die for Christ,’” remarked our student. He was speaking of the resolve it takes to live as a Christian in India. Particularly in the north of the country, Indian Christians pay a high price for their faith. Hindu nationalism is ascendant, and Hindu extremists are known to beat and even kill Christians. Law enforcement agencies offer Christians inadequate protection.

In the state of Manipur, things have gotten particularly bad. The Church Times recently described the persecution of the predominantly Christian Kuki ethnic minority:

“A surge in violence against Christians occurred in Manipur, a state in north-east India, in May. More than 175 people from the minority Kuki ethnic community have been killed, and thousands displaced in fighting with the majority Meitei tribe. Sexual crimes against women have also been prevalent: the case of two Kuki women paraded naked through the streets before being gang-raped sparked international outrage when it was circulated on social media,” reported the independent Anglican weekly newspaper based in London. “Violence is still continuing, and a buffer zone has been set up between the Meitei and Kuki communities. An internet blackout has been reimposed on the region by the government to try to calm tensions.”

Thanks be to God, the Christians we visited have experienced no such violence. Nevertheless, the specter of violence is real for these faithful few. Violence against Christians has been on the rise in India for about the last twenty-five years. The Christians, moreover, have little political voice in most of the 28 states and 8 union territories that make up the Republic of India today. The numbers and social status of Christians are not great enough to form a voting bloc.

Although Christianity first came to India around 52 CE when Thomas the Apostle arrived at Malankara, on a lagoon near present-day Kodungallur on the Malabar Coast, the Thomas Christians or Mar Thoma Christians are primarily located in the state of Kerala.

Today, the Church of South India, the Church of North India, the Methodist Church of India, and the Roman Catholic Church are all significant expressions of the Christian faith. They maintain and support schools, hospitals, and various institutions to care for widows, orphans, and the poor. Although harassed and troubled by the anti-Christian sentiment in the nation, these communities have the social and legal resources to defend themselves and their institutions.

We learned that many were from among the lower castes and Dalits. Members of this latter group are sometimes called “untouchables.” They represent the most oppressed and powerless of Indian society. Those who become Christians are doubly despised.

In the region we visited, denominations seem not to matter, to the extent they exist or function. The number of Christians is so small that they can’t afford to quibble over theological distinctives. Here, Christians describe themselves as Pentecostal, but they have no formal connection to any Pentecostal denomination. As one pastor put it, “If you’re Spirit-filled, you’re Pentecostal. If you aren’t, you’re Baptist.” Protestants, then, tend to respect one another and cooperate when possible. The same animosity between Roman Catholics and Protestants found in much of Latin American and Africa also resides in India.

As foreigners, we were prohibited from evangelistic activity. We did, however, observe worship. It begins with singing, normally by women who sit on the floor at the front of the room near the podium. Don’t look for Bethel, Hillsong, or even traditional Western hymnody here. Worship is indigenized. The music bears raga intonations and rhythm that sound foreign and beautiful and haunting to my Western ears. The worship space eventually fills up with younger women and children sitting in the front and older women behind them in chairs. The men, fewer in number, sit in chairs at the back. The service continues with spontaneous prayer, including praying in tongues, the reading of Scripture, and preaching. I felt I could have stayed for hours in that space. I didn’t understand the lyrics they were singing, but I knew they were offered up in praise to Christ.

As our time in India came to a close and we prepared to leave, my heart hurt for these saints whom I had grown to love. I will go back to a comfortable life, not without its challenges, but comfortable nonetheless. They will remain and tend the fire first brought to India by the Apostle Thomas. Their life will not be comfortable. It will be difficult, but they will persevere as the persecuted faithful have across the centuries. They showed us incredible honor and deference while we were there, surely far more than we deserved.

Having communed with these faithful few, I am overcome with profound gratitude and admiration. In truth, I feel unworthy of the honor they showed me. For generations their faith has been tested and proved true. I’m reminded of God’s words to the church in Philadelphia: “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (Revelation 3:8).

Christians around the world experience persecution today, sometimes quite intense and violent. By contrast, in the U.S. the greatest threat facing the church today may be Sunday morning youth sports. Yet their churches are growing and ours are declining. Had enemies of the church the slightest sense of history, they would not persecute Christians, but coddle them. Irenaeus wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Strike the church and you will foster her growth. Let her settle into a warm bath of comfort and complacency, and she will wither. Allow her to blend seamlessly into the fabric of a fallen world, and she will become wraithlike and powerless. “Do or die for Christ,” said my student, and he meant it. Western Christians should take heed.

David F. Watson is Lead Editor of Firebrand. He serves as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. A version of this article was first published in his Substack, www.davidfwatson3.substack.com. It is republished by permission.


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