Jason Bruner reviews Johnnie Moore’s The Martyr’s Oath
Certain strands of Christians – and not just those in America – have been inclined to think that there was a divine deal that was struck with this land. Whether it was sealed by the Founding Fathers or the Pilgrims or the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, at some point God made an offer: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.” What happens, then, when it feels as though their fortunes are changing?
Over the last decade or so, it’s become common for Christian leaders to lament, well, all sorts of things. While lamenting the state of American churches is among the most historically common American Christian pastimes, the recent cries have been voiced in the context of the decline in Americans identifying as “Christian” (and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, those known as “nones,” and the related category of the spiritual but not religious). These cries reached a fever pitch in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage (or, alternatively, “the redefining of marriage”) across the country. Nothing less than the viability of Christianity in America seemed to be at stake.
The court’s decision became a revelatory moment for Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, who wrote in June 2015: “We see that we are strangers and exiles in American culture. […] We should have been all along.” Moore suggests that perhaps the Mayflower Compact was a bad deal after all. But of course, it would be a sizeable contingent—81% by some measures—of Moore’s “strangers and exiles” who would contribute to Donald Trump’s presidential victory the following year. As James Dobson put it in a recent robo-call in support of the GOP’s Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore: “last November I believe God gave America another chance with the election of Donald J. Trump.” Because the revivalist’s altar call is just the flip side of his jeremiad.
In America, one might say that Christianity is everywhere and nowhere, or perhaps almost nowhere. It depends who you ask. The omnipresence of Christianity in America has, ironically, contributed to a sense of absence, loss, or estrangement, at least for some white American evangelicals, among other conservative and Orthodox Christians. This estrangement has left many of them, not simply Russell Moore, feeling “exiled” in America. David Congdon observes that the ubiquitous use of the theme of “exile” among contemporary white American evangelicals “offers an alternative to the ‘culture war’ rhetoric of the religious right. Instead of a church at war with surrounding culture, a church in exile presents a vision of God’s people living peacefully within foreign territory.” And that territory, in a physical, cultural, and spiritual sense, is the United States of America.
The fact that, to these Christians, America was “their nation,” makes this vision all the more alienating. And so some American Christians have set off in search of something real to hold them together amid their exile. Theirs is a quest for authenticity.
But how would one know the presence of “true Christianity” if one were to encounter it?
The Martyr’s Oath by Johnnie Moore takes its title from a dramatic experience Moore had while attending a graduation ceremony at a Bible college in India. Before receiving their diplomas, the graduates had to recite an oath that stated, among other things: “I will follow and love Jesus until the end, whenever and however that end may come.” In recalling the scene, Moore felt transported, “like I was standing in the book of Acts, witnessing a raw, first-century Christianity that I’d been shielded from in the United States. I felt deprived yet suddenly spiritually alive in an entirely new way.” This experience is at the heart of Moore’s book, which seeks to replicate Moore’s encounter with “this authentic expression of faith in Jesus” for an American Christian audience.
A significant portion of this book is comprised of individual stories of Christians from nations like China, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Iraq who have had brutal and harrowing experiences. But even so, The Martyr’s Oath is not primarily a descriptive book about anti-Christian persecution – that is not the case Moore is making. In this sense, it is quite different from John Allen Jr.’s The Global War on Christians or Paul Marshall’s Their Blood Cries Out. Moore’s primary purpose isn’t to convince the reader of the fact of global anti-Christian persecution. He largely presupposes that fact and instead urges the reader to reflect on the difference between these other Christians’ faith and contemporary American Christianity. As Moore asks: “Are we willing to live for the Jesus they’re willing to die for?”
In claiming that the book isn’t primarily descriptive, I’m not saying that it doesn’t perform analytical work. In fact, it does this in a number of important ways. I’ll focus on three areas: Moore’s use of statistical evidence, his diagnosis of the American church, and his construction of a normative Christianity.
The Martyr’s Oath is not a sociological survey of persecution, and I do not here judge it for it not being so; it is predominantly a thematic collection of Christians’ testimonies and experiences in the midst of persecution. Moore does, however, season the stories he highlights with a variety of statistics. For example, on the third page of the introduction, he uses the following claim to pivot between the opening scene at the Indian Bible college and his larger purpose in the book: “Some estimate that every five minutes, a Christian is martyred for their faith.” Such a rate would amount to approximately 100,000 Christian martyrs annually. Five pages later, in the opening paragraphs to Chapter 1, Moore shifts: “Open Doors International […] has noted that, conservatively, more than 7,100 Christians were killed for their faith in 2015.” The vast difference here (approximately 93,000) is never explained or accounted for.
One observes the evocative fuzziness of Moore’s statistical evidence at other points as well. In introducing several stories from central and eastern Nigeria, Moore writes that Boko Haram is “far more lethal to Christianity than ISIS, to whom Boko Haram has pledged allegiance. Human rights advocates note that Boko Haram killed 6,644 people in 2014—more than even ISIS did.” The statistic here is for “people,” though Moore’s phrasing seems to suggest that these are, perhaps, mostly Christians. In a later chapter, Moore claims that Boko Haram has “focused almost exclusively on Christians, whereas ISIS’s bloodlust has been extended to all other religious communities in Iraq and Syria.” The first statistic is simply ambiguous; the second one is refuted by evidence provided by Nigeria Watch, which has been tracking comprehensive deaths in Nigeria since 2006. Not only does Nigeria Watch record that a majority of attacks by Boko Haram were targeted at locations such as bus stops, markets, or government-associated buildings, but also that the majority, and perhaps even a significant majority, of their victims are Muslim rather than Christian. To be fair, Moore later observes that “terrorism and extremism has killed more Muslims than anyone else,” though this is never quantified or compared to the statistics provided on Christian deaths.
Moore’s use of statistics is not coherent or systematic with respect to data or methodology, but that is to miss the purpose of the data in his book. The data here give an impression of sociological support for an underlying theological conviction: There is “a real spiritual war happening” and “Satan is playing for keeps,” which can be seen in the fact that “[Islamic extremists] are growing stronger; we are growing weaker.” The remedy is a kind of globalized evangelical politics, in which Christians are reminded in the face of this persecution that “the only thing that truly stops this hatred is the contagion of changed hearts,” even as “the enemy would like nothing better than for us to keep our focus on our physical circumstances or on our enemies.” The use of “our” here is interesting because it implies that American Christians share in this persecution, or at least share a common “enemy” as those Christians who are being persecuted. In most other places, however, Moore wants to draw lines denoting the clear differences between American Christianity and the “raw Christianity” he’s found outside America.
Moore thinks that American Christianity has a “default trajectory” of “comfort and safety.” The book is stuffed with these sorts of descriptions. I would think that American Christians who adhere to a more particular prosperity gospel might bristle frequently at Moore’s critiques on this front. The primary subjects of Moore’s assessment, however, seem to be the broadly middle-class, white, evangelical churches in the United States to whom the book is certainly directed. Moore’s definition of American Christianity, therefore, is derived primarily from these churches. While there are, no doubt, many American Christians who fit this description, one wonders how it might account for the Spanish-speaking storefront church, or the Chaldean Catholic parish, or the Christian Methodist Episcopal church—all of which are a few miles from where I live in Phoenix. It’s hard to imagine that Moore has these sorts of churches fully in view when he observes that American Christians’ “abundance, safety, and peace” mean that “our faith costs us almost nothing.”
At the same time, however, Moore writes, “even in the United States, it has seemed at times like Christianity and Christians are on the defensive and sometimes in full retreat, or even that we’ve lost the war altogether. Christians are dismissed as bigots, and those who hold certain beliefs openly are chased from the public square.” While Moore never explicates the content of “bigotry” or “certain beliefs,” one imagines the resonance of these statements post-Obergefell v. Hodges. But Moore insists that “our ultimate mission is not to win a cultural war.” American Christians, then, are both too comfortable to be truly Christian and too embattled to be fully American. Moore uses the tension of this paradoxical diagnosis to good effect.
Moore’s purpose in The Martyr’s Oath is not to convince American Christians of the reality of anti-Christian persecution so much as it is to transform “comfortable and safe” American Christians by getting them to encounter “real faith in Jesus”—compared, of course, to what American Christians supposedly have, which would be less than “real.” The stories that Moore presents are an implicit, and often explicit, juxtaposition: the faith of Christians “over there” is of a different, truer sort than Christian faith “here.” Moore, therefore, wants to cultivate a different kind of imagination; he asks American Christians to “imagine what it would be like to be them.” In doing so, he hopes American Christians will “[see] Jesus through the eyes of the persecuted church.” What, then, is the “real” faith of the “persecuted church”?
In one sense, it is easy to define. The persecuted church’s faith is, compared with Americans’, austere and uncomfortable. These Christians also embody an idealized form of poverty (“these people have comparatively nothing, and they simply do not need anything more”). They reaffirm the miraculous and supernatural presence of God as found in dreams, visions, and immediate divine interventions, as well as the reality of evil spirits. They treasure the Bible (they “have given everything in love for God’s Word”). And they have a supernatural love and forgiveness for their persecutors. But most of all, the persecuted church shows American Christians the fact that for Christians, “ours is a suffering faith.” Moore warns, “We will never experience full Christian discipleship if we aren’t persecuted or if we aren’t praying for, praying with, or living alongside those who are persecuted.” The “persecuted church” serves here as a tool for discipleship even as it embodies an authentic Christian faith.
Where is the persecuted church? For Moore, it is a way of talking about Christians “over there”—mostly those Christians living in the “10/40 window”—who have been subjects or targets of physical, social, and/or legal persecution. But the “persecuted church” isn’t a blanket statement that applies to all Christians in these countries. For example, in a few of the stories Moore includes, Christian churches that are recognized by the government are part of the persecution of Pentecostals: “The traditional Christians were very against us,” one man from Eritrea said. One finds similar distinctions with respect to China (“there are good individual members in [Three-Self] churches”) and Syria (“in name only Christians”).
This parsing is most flagrant when Moore discusses Christianity in Nigeria. After highlighting several stories of Christians who had suffered gravely at the hands of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Moore turns to American Christianity: “We do everything in our power to extend our lives, to protect our lives, to improve our lives, and to guard our lives.” Like elsewhere, Moore then juxtaposes this against the “authentic faith” that he had encountered in Nigeria. It is unclear whether we are to include all Christians in Nigeria as part of the “persecuted church,” and the same could be said for other regions. Yet, with respect to locating “authentic faith” in Nigeria, Moore doesn’t apparently have in mind the numerous successful, dynamic, and enormous megachurches of Lagos, whose theology would seemingly be critiqued (and dismissed?) just as readily by Moore’s characterization of American Christianity for pursuing the extension, protection, and improvement of their lives. If one were mapping the “persecuted church” following this method, then one’s map would more likely be filled with islands of authenticity rather than vast blanketed regions of it.
If American Christians are feeling exiled from their faith, then Moore’s recommendation is for them to become imaginative global mendicants in order to encounter an authentic expression of it. In this process, certain Christian faiths, traditions, and communities are defined almost exclusively by persecution and valued as “authentic” or “raw, first-century Christianity” as a result of that persecution. The possibility of Christian authenticity, therefore, is a contingent product of one’s political and social contexts. But, of course, not every Christian in Nigeria, or Eritrea, or Syria, or China gets to count. This parsing matters because it means that the search for an authentic Christianity in the “persecuted church” is one whose object is determined mostly by the American Christians who felt themselves less authentic, or, in other words, confessed: “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
It is that sentiment—an anomie of exile—which feels woven throughout Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, yet his diagnosis and recommendations are dramatically different from Moore’s. In Dreher’s analysis, “liquid modernity”—and the Sexual Revolution in particular—has waged war on Christianity, eroding its moral teaching, traditions, and institutions. Dreher believes that this flood “cannot be turned back.” Instead, he thinks Christians ought to “construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again.” For Dreher, exile focuses attention on the difficult but necessary work of cultivation: of one’s soul, of one’s community, and of God’s earth.
For the sake of this work of preserving and cultivating orthodox Christianity within a secularizing American society, Dreher calls for a strategic withdrawal. And this withdrawal has a geographical component, because Dreher’s vision is a communal and largely rural one. His admiration for the Bruderhof of the Mid-Atlantic or the Catholic communes of the Mid-West, combined with his quick dismissal of urban progressive Christians’ “intentional communities,” leaves one with the impression that, for Dreher, an authentic Christian culture in America is only possible outside of the cities, or at least on their peripheries. It’s a hyper-local vision—geographically myopic.
Dreher and Moore, therefore, imagine authentic Christianity with reference to very different geographies. Moore’s vision appears inherently global, while Dreher’s is intensely local. Despite the contrasts in their geographical imagination, one finds in both Dreher and Moore common attempts at describing ways of being authentically Christian in America rather than an authentically American Christian. One sees this in their respective mediation of the past, either as a source of sixth-century traditions to be recovered, as in Dreher, or of the perceived encounter with “raw, first-century Christianity” (in contemporary India), as in Moore. I think that’s what they hope for, at least. In this sense, both are American attempts at locating something truer, more real, and more transcendent; they yearn for possibilities that have been inhibited by the very society in which they live, with some amount of dissatisfaction, lamenting the loss of the Christianity that they think should be, as opposed to what is.
If there was ever a deal, if God once looked upon this land and softly suggested: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” then whatever vows came of it—“for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”?—seem to be now put to a test. These American searches for authentic Christianity have something of the furtive voyeuristic glances of dispassionate lovers, longing to recover with another that which they had once shared. As exiled white American Christians search, I hope they are able to cast their eyes upon those Christians—in the Spanish-speaking church in a run-down strip mall, or in the Black Pentecostal church they share the space with, or in any number of other communities—who might not have been entirely at home here. Because they are American too, after all.
Jason Bruner is an assistant professor of Global Christianity in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is author of Living Salvation in the East African Revival in Uganda (2017), and was recently awarded a grant from the Louisville Institute for a project titled: “An Ecumenism of Blood: American Christians, Persecution, and the Imagination of a Global Christianity.”