Before there was Survivor, there was “The 700 Club.”
In 1997, a small group of American missionaries was pinned down by Sudanese government troops who considered the Christians they’d come to help to be rebels.
The missionaries “threw themselves behind a wall of rocks and prepared to die,” writes Claudia Kolker. “Grimly, they assessed their resources: one video camera, one satellite phone. They decided first to film farewells to loved ones. Then they fired up the phone. The number they dialed belonged to a producer at ‘The 700 Club’ — pastor Pat Robertson‘s TV show, heard by millions of U.S. evangelicals.”
The missionaries continued to broadcast live over “The 700 Club” for the next six days, chronicling their flight from the government troops and imploring listeners to pray for them. Thus, reality TV was born.
Not to mention the Voice of the Martyrs, a then-struggling group of militant missionaries dedicated to ministering to persecuted Christians. Robertson’s listeners not only prayed for the missionaries, they sent record-breaking donations to the group’s headquarters.
In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Kolker tells the story of the group’s rise to prominence in the burgeoning evangelical movement surrounding the “persecuted Church,” a phrase we frame with scare quotes only because there’s some debate about what constitutes its congregation. She also connects the movement to the end of the Cold War, and to the ideological battles of the future. Consider the missions of Voice of the Martyrs as a sort of self-proclaimed culture war by proxy.
We thought Kolker had done a great job of balancing journalistic skepticism with a fair accounting of the group’s beliefs, but Bob Smietana, a first-rate Christian journalist, raises some tough questions on god-of-small-things. Kolker’s implicit critique of VOM’s disinterest in the religious persecution suffered by others misses the point, he writes.
“VOM — unlike Amnesty International for example — isn’t necessarily interested in religious freedom. They aren’t a human rights group, they are a religious group concerned about the fate of their fellow believers. So they are doing what Christians have done from the beginning–praying for their brothers and sisters in need, and offering material (financial and otherwise.)”
But do both Kolker and Bob miss the theological significance of that stance? Helping your own first (and only) is a pretty standard practice, if not particularly in keeping with the universal ambition of Christianity. If, as Kolker suggests, it’s becoming mainstream ideology in Protestant America, that’s very big news. Will the Voice of the Martyrs drown out the last echo of theSocial Gospel? Has the metaphor of “spiritual war” been so transformed that to many Christians it now means “us” against “them”?
There’s another angle to this story worth investigating: the resurgence of the “muscular Christianity” that rose with the U.S.’s imperial ambitions in the 19th century.
One VOM missionary, for instance, tells Kolker that “the Christianity we know is watered-down and user-friendly. The brothers and sisters in hostile nations who are dying and beaten because they’re willing to risk their lives for their faith? That attracts me.”
Bob at god-of-small-things approves: “At it’s core,” he writes, “Christianity is a religion of confrontation.” He goes on to note the “power” shared by radical Islam and persecuted Christians: martyrdom. “What made Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer so influential,” he argues, was that “they were not afraid of death.”
But the history books record that MLK, at least, was very afraid of death. Not because he was a coward, but because, well, death is scary. That’s why we remember him as brave — he marched forward in the face of terror.
Maybe that’s the story religion writers are missing: fear. It’s as real as belief, and it shapes the choices made even by Rambo-style-Survivor missionaries. If Christianity is indeed bulking up again, in synch with the latest round of American muscle-flexing, the role of fear — felt and inflicted — is worth greater exploration.