Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Can Christians Say the Islamic Shahada in Order to Save Their Lives? – A View from the Front Lines

The Islamic Shehada

It is an alarming sign of the times that my title not a hypothetical question, at least to those of us who live in Kenya.  There have been a series of horrific attacks by Islamists over the past several years in my country of residence, attacks on well-known sites designed to inflict maximum carnage and fear.  Just in the past couple of years, a cadre of Al-Shabab gunmen hit one of the largest and nicest of Nairobi’s shopping malls, shooting everyone they could find who couldn’t prove they were a Muslim.  Nearly 70 perished in that attack.  Last December a bus carrying workers from the Dadaab refugee camp back to their homes in central Kenya was stopped by gunmen.  Everyone was ordered off.  The Muslims were told to walk away.  Twenty seven Christians were lined up on the ground and shot.  This past April, a team of gunmen from the same Somali terrorist organization, slipped onto the University of Garissa campus before dawn and attacked a Christian prayer meeting.  Again, those who could not prove they were Muslims were slain on the spot, one by one.  Since no help came for several hours, the terrorists were able to be methodical in their destruction of the lives of these young people.  Nearly 150 Christian college students died.

Aftermath of the Garissa University Attack

Kenya represents a giant soft target.  Sadly, I assume that these attacks will only increase.  I know something about soft targets.  As the former senior pastor of the largest English-language church in post-9/11 Ethiopia, we were constantly aware that our church, with its large contingent of African diplomats, missionaries, NGO personnel and European and Asian and American expats, might seem an attractive option to someone who cared only to make statements and nothing about the value of human life.  As ‘World War III’, as I have heard our current conflagration called in various places, continues to engulf more and more countries, Christian gatherings that take place in unprotected venues open to anybody may increasingly be a thing of the past.

Last Decembers Dadaab bus attack

What is shocking is that I am increasingly hearing discussions amongst Christians here about what to do in case one is caught up in an act of mass terror and is given the choice of confessing Islam as one’s faith and going free or owning one’s Christian faith and being immediately dispatched.  It is being argued by a number of Christian leaders and academics that I respect that it is OK to say the Muslim Shahada (‘There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.’) in order to save one’s life.  Even this past weekend at a forum exploring the issues behind the radicalization of Kenyan youth, sponsored by one of the organizations to which I belong, one of the speakers when asked said, ‘Absolutely, save your life.’  Even today in one of my classes, one woman said that she would say the Shahada if it meant survival so that she could be a mother to her children.

Westgate Mall attacker as seen on 'security' footage

What follows reflects my opinion (and not the position of my Church or the university or seminary where I teach).  I believe that attitudes such as this explain a lot about the state of Christianity in this country.  After years of shallow thinking and shoddy theology, the chickens are coming home to roost.  Kenya has been pestered for decades by an increasingly strident form of the health and prosperity heresy that gives the very strong impression that God is there for YOU, and that armed with sufficient faith you can direct the stream of blessing from God to your life.  This life is about getting the good life out of God here and now, and that if we are unable to achieve this level of prosperity, the fault lies with us and our lack of faith.  But this counterfeit ‘gospel’ is toxic to New Testament Christianity.  There is no room for discipleship here.  There is no capacity to comprehend stewardship.  And the universal suffering that surrounds us is simply denied, or if it does exist, it does so simply to be overcome by our victorious faith.  (I listened in disbelief to an individual who complained to me after hearing Joni Erickson Tada give a moving and powerful message at my church that 'that woman obviously doesn't have enough faith or she would be walking right now.'!)  This heresy – and that is what it is – leads one in a very different direction from the path on which Christ leads us.  Too many Kenyans are, like Americans, enamored with the upward way of prosperity, a prosperity that is apparently sanctioned by Almighty God Himself, as well as blessed by the Lord Jesus and facilitated by the power of the Holy Spirit (and known in my country as the 'American way').  The Jesus of the Gospels on the other hand calls each of us who would follow Him to deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow, not some path to health and prosperity, but follow Me.  It is a statement – a call – the implications of which are all but ignored by many filling our churches here on a given Sunday morning.

Aftermath of the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi.  213 were killed.  4000 were wounded.

Christianity does not exist for Me; rather I exist for the Lord.  The fact that this is hardly heard anywhere today, much less believed, gives one some insight as to why someone might think it’s OK to practice a bit of deception and pretend to be a Muslim in order to live another day.

I think some Christian history could help us here.  This is not the first time that Christians have been given ultimatums by people to deny their faith or suffer horrific consequences.  And this is not the first time that Christians have disagreed over the issue of martyrdom.  Paula Fredricksen discusses whether it was official Roman Empire policy to persecute Christians:

Empires have better things to do than persecute nursing mothers, which is the example of the [famous martyr of Carthage] Perpetua.  Emperors tend not to care much about what people are doing so long as the servants and horses are not disturbed, taxes are collected, and nobody starts a rebellion.  So, empires in general, and I think the Roman Empire, in particular, are religiously tremendously ecumenical.  If you have a huge expansive political territory with huge varieties of religions, within those boundaries, you don’t care what people are doing religiously.  You just want your tax money…  Before the year 250, the persecution of Christians is sporadic.  It’s local.  It’s improvised.  It is at the discretion of a Governor to whom complaints are made and so on.  It’s not a dragnet and it’s not an imperial policy.  
After 250, when the empire is being battered on every frontier by invading armies, when there’s absolute rampant inflation, [there is] incredible governmental instability.  There are an average of two or three Emperors in a year.  They keep getting assassinated.  It’s just an incredibly fraught time.  That’s also the point at which you begin to get the imperial expression of persecution of Christians.  Now then again, also it’s interesting.  It’s not a criminal offense to be a Christian.  What you have to do is get a ticket, a lebevos, a chit saying that you have sacrificed for the well-being of the empire…  There are various responses on the part of different Christian communities.  You can have your servant go and do it for you.  He might also be a Christian, but, you know, that’s his problem.  Pay him.  He’ll get two chits and then you’re covered…. Or you can pay for the ticket but not actually do the sacrifice if you can bribe a friend of yours who’s a magistrate.  Or you can just go ahead and sacrifice, knowing that these gods are nothing, after all.  That’s right in … Paul’s letters, that these gods are nothing.  There are all sorts of different ways that people deal with this.  But some people absolutely refuse to oblige by this rule at all.  And those are the people – again, it’s the heroic minority – who end up being martyred by government force. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/martyrs.html)
Roman Emperor Decius (201-251)

Around 250 a fierce round of persecution broke out across the empire instigated by the Emperor Decius.  This was followed in the opening years of the fourth century by the ferocious persecution of Christians under the imperial policy of Diocletian.  Elizabeth Clark says: 

There was a grave problem for the church because many Christians were not made of the kind of moral fiber of the people who went to their deaths as martyrs.  They had been willing to recant the faith, to offer a pinch of incense to the emperor….[or] to bribe the officials at the pagan temples to give them a certificate saying they had offered the sacrifice when in fact they had not.  All this made a grave problem for the church when the persecutions were over because many of these people wanted to come back into the church.  It was also a problem because there were some bishops who had defected, you might say, during the persecutions, and they had baptized people.  The question then was were you really baptized if you had been baptized by a bishop who fell away from the faith during the persecutions? (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/martyrs.html)
Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-311)

This sort of defection by bishops and lay people alike was viewed by all of the records that survive as a falling away from the faith.  It was a denial of Christ and a preference of one’s life over the truth of the gospel.  In other words, this was a very serious sin.  So serious that there were some who believed that such people could never be allowed back in the church.  Others felt that their defection could be forgiven, but that they had to remain outside the church for several years in repentance before being allowed to resume communion.


The great challenge facing many Christians and churches in Kenya is that there is no undergirding theology of discipleship, much less one of martyrdom, to guide us as we are apparently entering yet another cycle of persecution.  Times like this expose the health and prosperity churches for the lies that they are – one cannot love both God and mammon without incurring serious consequences, someone famous once said.  But the prosperity posture extends much further than the giant worship palaces thrown up by the various apostles/prophets/bishops for the glory of their ‘ministries’ and their legions of not-quite-as-successful wannabees.  Many other Protestant church leaders and members are also infected with the God-exists-for-me contagion.  The resulting churches and ministries are nothing more than castles built of sand and on sand which will simply melt away when the torrent of persecution and hard times rushes upon us.


I can completely understand why someone might want to save his or her life in the face of a murderous assault by someone who hates Christians (and others) and who is killing as many as he can to make some religious and/or political point.  But a Christian need not be afraid of death.  It wasn’t just Christians long ago who were willing to identify themselves with Christ even if it cost them their lives.  In the past 100 years, more Christians have been martyred – under Islam in the Middle East and Turkey, under communism in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Ethiopia, under Fascism in Nazi Germany, and in countless other places on the globe than in the entire rest of church history combined.  We were told by our Lord that it would be this way.

The Coptic Martyrs of Libya

So in light of Christian history and the teaching of the Gospel, it seems to me that for a genuine Christian to take the Shahada on one’s lips in the hope that by doing so one’s life might be spared is in fact choosing to deny Christ for the sake of self-preservation.  We are declaring thereby that we are unwilling to give up our life for the sake of knowing and following Christ.  We are saying rather clearly that there are some things more important than Jesus for us.  Moreover to do so dishonors the memory and example of those men and women and boys and girls who, in contrast to the pretenders, willingly offered themselves up for Christ.  It’s a perspective that seems to assume that my Christian commitment is expendable if it turns out being a Christian is more costly than I anticipated.  It communicates that my faith in Christ is a faith of convenience only, that I am a Christian right now because it suites me to be one, and that as long as it pays the dividends I need, I will identify myself with the Christians; but if it doesn’t for whatever reason, I will align myself with whatever will give me what I want or need.  It reveals rather starkly who is the real lord of my life.

The Coptic Martyrs of Libya, from the perspective that matters.

Islam will not be defeated by self-centered ‘Christians’ who praise the Lord one day and say the Muslim creed the next just to get out of suffering.  The Christian life is not about gaming the different denominations, or even religions, jumping here or there depending on who offers the greatest personal advantage.  Instead the rampant onslaught of militant Islam will be stopped only by Christians who love even their enemies, and who are willing to lay down their lives for the One who gave His life for us.  This is taken as great weakness on our part by Jihadi Muslims.  But then they have never understood real Christianity.  Let them do their worst.  I recall that our Lord endured similar abuse and suffering and a horrific death.  Besides, who are we to forget that some terrorist will not have the last word over us?  Who are we, of all people, to be afraid of anybody?  The risen Lord Jesus Himself will call us by name on the last day and raise us up and transform our broken bodies into one like His.  And when that day comes, at it surely will, justice will be done.  And if justice is going to be done, I don’t want to be found stammering lame excuses; and I’m guessing you don’t, either.


There is an article in the July/August Christianity Today on this issue in which I am quoted several times.  You can find it here: