Under Caesar's Sword

How Christians Respond to Persecution

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Daniel Philpott, Timothy Samuel Shah
Law and Christianity
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     534 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At interfaith events at a Dublin synagogue which I attend, an elderly Jewish man always raises the issue of the persecution of Christians and laments over why the world remains silent. The book under discussion does not delve deeply into that specific question, but offers the most informative, enlightening, and (sadly) relevant treatment of the current global persecution of Christians and the diverse ways Christians respond to the violence and injustice unleashed against them. In terms of statistics, five hundred million Christians, roughly 20% of the global total, live in countries where “they are vulnerable to severe persecution” (10). 

Edited by Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah, Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution contains an introduction and fourteen chapters composed by eighteen scholars who are interdisciplinary experts in the related fields of religion, political science, international relations, anthropology, theology, developmental studies, and sociology. Each chapter focuses on the plight of various sorts of Christians in specific countries or regions, listed here in the order they appear in the book: Iraq and Syria (chapter 2); Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan (chapter 3); Egypt, Libya, and Palestine (chapter 4); Iran and Saudi Arabia (chapter 5); Post-Soviet Central Asia (chapter 6); Russia (chapter 7); Pakistan and Afghanistan (chapter 8); India and Sri Lanka (chapter 9); Vietnam and Laos (chapter 10); China (chapter 11); Indonesia (chapter 12); and Latin America (chapter 13). The penultimate chapter examines restrictions on religious freedom for some Christians in North America and Europe, while the final chapter focuses on Christian Transnational Networks and their response to persecution. All the chapters are informative, guided by qualitative field research, first offering brief histories on the origin, status, and roles of Christianity in these various countries, paying careful attention to differences among various denominations. They then highlight the violence and persecution inflicted upon Christians, turning to witness voices and interviews of victims in order to describe how these groups have responded, showing the wide-ranging and sometimes overlapping paths they choose—what Philpott and Shah call “creative pragmatism” (3). Such responses often require the ability to be flexible and to adapt as circumstances change, sometimes overnight. Historical and contemporary context, the extent of the violence, and the response of the outside world are often key factors in the response chosen, whether as strategy or as a desperate, choiceless choice (to borrow Lawrence Langer’s term regarding the Holocaust).

When ISIS fighters are rampaging within miles of your monastery or village, what is the best response? What should take priority? How best to live and witness your Christian faith? Helpfully, the book highlights nine “synthetic findings” from the research undertaken in these twenty-five countries. These include the claims that (1) Christian responses to persecution vary deeply based on context; (2) most Christian communities choose strategies of survival, such as adapting to the dominant culture or emphasizing patriotism; (3) securing religious freedom through partnering with other groups is the second most common response; (4) confrontation strategies are the least common; (5) most responses are non-violent; (6) a community’s theological grounding and ethos of the individual, church, culture, and suffering influence the strategy chosen; (7) the persecution of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are more common and likely than persecution of mainline Christians; (8) how Christians respond to persecution is only partially influenced by its intensity;  and (9) examining these various contexts helps to show which strategies may be most fruitful to emulate (11-27).

Additional findings from the collection emphasize the diversity of Christian responses to persecution.  Such stories include the description of an Armenian Christian in Iran who—unlike the country’s small evangelical population—never felt discrimination (134), and Saudi Arabia’s “openly functioning Christian fellowships housed in dedicated-space buildings among expatriate communities” (147). Likewise, these stories emphasize the often paradoxical ways that history and context play out.  For instance, despite longstanding attempts by the Catholic Church in India to avoid appearing partisan, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in 2009 officially appealed for support of political parties “that would promote secularism” (270). This is fascinating both in terms of India’s specific notion of secularism and considering the context of then Pope Benedict and his general decrees against the increasingly secular West. 

In such a rich, layered work depicting horrific suffering but also inspiring and courageous accounts of response, it is the testimonies rather than the statistics which stand out. Exemplary in this regard are Kent R. Hill’s chapter on Syria and Iraq; Robert A. Dowd’s chapter on Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, and Reginald E. Reimer’s chapter on Laos and Vietnam. Maryann Cusimano Love’s closing chapter on Christian Transnational Networks is an excellent reminder of the struggles and successes of Christian NGOs living among the persecuted and using local, regional, and international partnerships to raise awareness and seek to establish peace. 

In some Christian circles, the story of Christian persecution of the Other is the dominant trope: Christians who burned heretics and committed genocide against Native Americans and other indigenous groups and cultures; Christian persecutions and violence in the long history of Jewish-Christian relations; Christian crusades against Muslims; and so on. These damning and humbling failures must always be taught. However, the requirement to speak out and condemn all violence and injustice remains a priority. In too many places globally, Christians are victims of ghastly violence and retribution, or are systematically restricted from practicing and spreading their faith and beliefs. 

While Under Caesar’s Sword will remain the standard text in this field (likely until an updated version is issued in the future), some painfully deep questions linger. Why are so many Christians in the West silent about the global persecution of Christians? Do they see Christian refugees fleeing violence in Iraq or Syria as fellow Christian brothers and sisters? Do they feel ecumenically linked when Christians of other denominations are jailed or killed? What are the reasons for this selective empathy or solidarity? More pointedly, why do I hear a protesting Jewish voice regarding the persecution of Christians, and not very often my own?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is Lecturer in Theology in the School of Theology, Philosophy, and Music, and the Coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue at Dublin City University

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Timothy Samuel Shah is Director for International Research at the Religious Freedom Research Project of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC. He is also Research Professor of Government at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and a Senior Director with the Religious Freedom Institute.


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