I recently received an email from a former student living in a challenging country in the Middle East. He asked me a question that I would assume most of you have never had to answer. His question was: What do we do if we receive death threats?
He asked this question because he remembered that Trudi and I received such threats over a two-month period while living in the Middle East many years ago. We received many dozens of telephone calls warning us to leave our adopted city — or face violence or death. This post contains more-or-less the substance of what I shared with my friend.
Please note that I have decided to write this post particularly for foreigners who are trying to shine the light of Christ in places where violence against Christians sometimes occurs. The related question of what national Christians should do in the same situation is not the focus of this post, despite its (perhaps even greater) importance.
So what should you do if you start receiving death threats? Should you stay or leave (or even leave for a while)? In short, it depends upon your situation. There is no one-size-fits-all when you are threatened. Biblically, it would appear that there are sometimes situations in which you should stay, or even occasionally move toward danger (e.g., Acts 18:9-11; 20:22-24), whereas in other situations, you should leave (e.g., Matt 10:14; Acts 17:10).
Following are ten diagnostic questions that might help you decide whether to stay or leave:
Do the threats seem real? It is not uncommon in many places of the world for someone who dislikes you to threaten you with empty threats (via letter, text or phone call). You have to determine to the best of your ability whether the threats you are receiving might be real. In our case, we did not know if the threats were real for a few weeks, though the longer they continued the more real they seemed to be. (In our case, the threats were real; but we did not know for sure until two years later when one of the men involved told us about a group who had decided either to drive us out of the city or harm us.)
How exposed are you? In our case, we lived in the middle of a city which afforded us very little security. Some people live in compounds or communities where some physical protection exists.
Do your neighbors know? When we received death threats, we were not alone. The only other foreigners living in the city (two families) also received threats, as did a local believing man. The others who received threats decided not to tell anyone else what was happening. We decided that we would let our non-Christian neighbors know what was happening because we thought that our neighbors might be willing to keep an eye on our apartment.
If your neighbors know, what is their response to you? If your neighbors are opposed to you, everything is far riskier. However, if your neighbors are sympathetic to the difficulties of a Christian foreigner living in their midst, you are in a safer position. In our case, despite the fact that we were surrounded by 100% Muslims (about half nominal and half committed), all of our neighbors were genuinely concerned when they learned we had been threatened simply because we were Christians — and they wanted to protect us. They checked up on us regularly.
What is the condition of the local Christian community? It will be easier to leave if you deem it wise (either permanently, or for a season) in any of the following cases: 1) the local believers are spiritually strong enough for you to leave, and are willing to carry on the ministry themselves, 2) there are other foreign believers (say, from other countries) who are able and willing to carry on the ministry, 3) ministry progress has been slow so far, which might suggest that it is better to reboot the ministry at a later time — either you or someone else. In our case, we lived in a city where a half-dozen people had given their lives to Christ since we had arrived, but they certainly were not yet functioning as a church. In other words, though we had brothers and sisters on the ground, we were convinced that they were so spiritually immature that they could not withstand our departure. That was an important factor in our decision to stay.
What is the overall political and anti-Christian climate in the country? If there is general hostility toward Christians or foreigners at the particular moment you are receiving threats, you should factor the hostile climate into your decision, and perhaps err on the side of caution.
How is your spouse coping? If you are married, and your spouse is struggling with fear, you might need to leave — at least for a while. In our case, both of us were convinced that we needed to stay. The status of your family beyond your spouse also matters. If you have children in a local school, you should consider their safety. During the period we received threats, I had one two-year-old daughter at home and a very pregnant wife who couldn’t easily travel. Actually, the pregnancy (no air flight permitted … a need for a doctor and hospital) was an important factor in our decision to stay.
How long have you been living in the country? I carry the conviction that during the first few years of someone living in a volatile or oppressive country, more experienced co-workers (think team leaders and field leaders), should be the primary decision-makers when facing threatening situations. But when someone has lived longer in a country (three years, minimum), that person should be given greater leeway to make their own decisions of what to do during a dangerous season. Of course, it is foolish for anyone to make a decision against the counsel of leaders, but leaders should be more apt to allow a Christian worker to stay and become a martyr (if I can put it that way) if he or she really understands the threat in its cultural context. Normally, new people do not understand the culture as well as they think they do. Still, just because you have lived somewhere a long time, does not necessarily mean you ought to stay, even if you want to.
What are your leaders and counselors saying? If everyone is telling you to leave, it is not advisable to stay, no matter how long you have lived in the country. But the greatest difficulty for you in trying to make a decision about staying or leaving will come when your counselors are split. You will have to pray a lot, and seek to make the wisest possible decision after prayerfully weighing all the factors you can think of.
Is your heart at peace before the Lord? Are you trusting, or are you fearful? If fear is on the increase, you may need some time away from the situation to re-evaluate and decide what to do next. Whether you decide to stay or leave (or leave temporarily), you will need to spend significant time in prayer, and ask others to pray for you — and alongside of you. In our case, eliciting prayers from other Christians turned out to be a crucial step in changing the spiritual dynamics connected to the threats we were facing, even though we didn’t start asking for prayer until a few weeks into the process. In retrospect, we believe that our ongoing safety came in answer to the prayers of hundreds of people who carried us through the ordeal.
I hope that you never have to face threats to your safety because you are a Christian. But if you do, may God grant you wisdom and grace to live lives that honor him, no matter what the outcome. Jesus, of course, is worthy of it all.