“If you let them give me an Islamic funeral, I’ll come back and haunt all of you!”
The room burst out in laughter as *Frank made his point with characteristic humor. The laughs came easily because of the heaviness of the gathering and the topic.
A core group of the local believers had gathered to take counsel with *Darius. A young relative had just committed suicide after her parents had refused the marriage proposal from the young man that she loved. Sadly, this type of suicide following an engagement denied is not uncommon in this culture. Darius was reeling, racked with sadness and guilt, wondering if he had somehow contributed to the death of his young cousin.
A little bit at a time, the kind questions of the believers drew the information out of Darius, and the group was able to provide comfort and reassurance for him. In spite of the feelings of guilt, nothing in God’s word suggested that Darius bore any responsibility in the situation. He had conducted himself faithfully. Was mourning appropriate? Yes. False guilt? No.
At some point Frank asked if he could present a related question toward us foreigners, specifically the two of us functioning as temporary elders for the church plant.
“If, God forbid, I die tomorrow, what will you do?”
We looked at the floor, knowing the complexity of the question being asked. Religion and ethnicity are baked into all aspects of culture and law here. To be born to a Muslim father means to be born a Muslim, to have a Muslim ID card, to have an Islamic wedding, to eventually have an Islamic funeral, and to be buried in the Islamic fashion, on a plot of land surrounded by other deceased Muslims.
There is no legal mechanism by which a local Muslim can break out of this track and join another. Minorities can officially become Muslims, but not the other way around. The government and the family insist on Islamic rites of passage for all who were born Muslims, even if that person has become an atheist – or a believer in Jesus. While there are rights of passage and cemeteries for other religious minorities, to qualify for them a person must have been born into that community.
We chewed on how to answer, and Frank followed up his question with his quip about coming back to haunt us. As the laughter died down, I ventured a response.
“The only thing we have the power to do right now is to give you a separate Christian funeral service in the church.”
Disappointed looks came from around the room.
“Things can change if we pray and work for other solutions… maybe in ten or twenty years. But today you can’t even get your government ID card changed. Let alone there being a plot of land for the burial of believers who used to be Muslims.”
“Ten or twenty years!” one believer protested. “Why can’t you change things sooner?”
I sighed. If only we could. Local believers often assume that we, as Westerners, have the ability to influence government policy toward them. The fact is we possess no such power, at least not those of us on the ground laboring to learn language and culture and plant healthy local churches. We are not well-connected, we don’t have the ear of the powerful, and we don’t have the kind of lobbying structures necessary to advocate for the passing of more just laws regarding religious liberty. There’s even a case to be made that the freedom we do possess to do our spiritual work comes from staying off the radar of the political elite.
Yet the long-term rites of passage and persecution issues of our local believing friends regularly reappear, calling for long-term structural change that we can’t help but long for. Freedom for local believers to have engagement and marriage ceremonies that are exclusively Christian, and don’t involve an Islamic mullah. Freedom to not have to put religion on the ID card of a newborn. Freedom for believers to be open about their faith without losing their jobs and their housing. Freedom to run when necessary and know that the government will support freedom of conscience against violent relatives. Freedom to not have to swear on the Qur’an in a court case. Freedom to have a funeral and burial according to the contextualized practices of the believing community.
We are deeply invested in a bottom-up model of change for these issues. Plant healthy churches, and thereby seed the society with change agents who will eventually influence reform. But there are times we wrestle with the deep costs borne by the first generations of believers. Should we also be working for top-down change? Is this kind of change a temptation or an opportunity? If we somehow did influence the government, would it end up being positive thing for the Church, like a Wilberforce? Or a negative thing, like a Constantine? Would we end up compromising our witness and access, or strengthening it? These are not simple issues in a region where our church planting work is technically illegal and only partially tolerated.
That evening we turned to prayer together, both for Darius and for the challenges facing all our local believing friends. Sometimes it is very tempting to go all American-problem-solver on these challenges that keep on rearing their heads. It feels as if someone will have to do some hard long-term work in order for the church to have enough societal oxygen to not suffocate and disappear when the missionaries inevitably leave. Yet we don’t know what God’s chosen solutions are to these stubborn obstacles, nor his timeline, nor his chosen change agents. So we turn to prayer, and we continue making disciples.
Yet the clock is ticking. Local believers will need to marry and bury one another before too long. We hope and pray and trust that when the time comes there will be a path – even if difficult – of clarity and faithfulness.