John’s family told him he didn’t deserve to live, and when he died, he wouldn’t be buried.
It’s all because of what he did with his knife one day – and with his heart.
That day, John had walked into the living room where his whole family was sitting. He slipped his finger under the black string tied around his neck and tugged on it gently, for the last time feeling its familiar pressure there.
And then he lifted his knife and cut it off.
“In our country, a black string around the neck is a sign of being Orthodox, so I cut it off in front of my family as a symbol that I don’t follow any religion – I follow Jesus Christ,” he said.
The persecution came immediately.
When I met John in the Horn of Africa, I was confused at first about why. John’s family was Orthodox, a religion full of crosses and paintings and things that seem centered around Jesus. It was weird to me that when their son dusted off the family Bible in the corner and decided to read it and do what it said, they told him he was a sellout, a rebel.
“In our culture, everything is done in community. If you go against the community, they may try to kill you. And my family, they would get kicked out of the funeral club because of what I did,” John said.
The funeral club?
“It’s the club that you belong to so that when you die, someone will bury you. If you are kicked out of the funeral club, your body will just rot in your home,” he said.
In their eyes, it doesn’t get worse than that.
And that’s just one aspect of the community, a community that worships in churches with paintings of the crucifixion, the parables, the sacrifice of Christ.
And also of this:
The story showed up and got mixed in with Orthodoxy way after the religion’s beginnings. Start in the bottom right of the painting. According to Orthodox tradition, that guy was plowing his field when some men showed up much like God showed up to speak with Abraham. Except this time it was Satan.
Satan asked the guy to sacrifice his son and cook him. He did.
And when he offered it to Satan, Satan told him to take the first bite. When he did, Satan revealed himself, that he had tricked the man, and the man went crazy.
He went on a cannibalistic killing spree that took down his whole village. You can see all their heads in the scales at the top of the painting.
Now, as the story goes, when he was on his way to kill another village, a man asked him to give him a cup of water in Jesus’ name. He refused. So the guy asked for a cup of water in Mary’s name, and the guy relented. When it came time for the man to go to hell, Mary tipped the scales in his direction (see the top) and let him go to heaven instead.
It’s bad enough that there are scales involved in their view of what gets you to heaven – because we know redemption is about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, because our works would never weigh out in a way that we’d come out on top. Ever.
But add in the part about it being Mary – she’s the one who brought the man redemption in this story – and as a friend said, this is when the Gospel died in that part of Africa.
But God is still on the move among that people, through people like John. The scales are falling off of blind eyes.
“Every day I feel like I won the lottery,” John said. “That’s the wealth I’ve been given in Jesus Christ. I get to go and teach and see people come to Him and have their whole lives transformed. I get to watch people who have spiritual famine being satisfied with the Word of God.”
John would love your prayers. He pleaded for them when we parted ways. If you’d like to know more of how to pray for John and the Orthodox people of the Horn of Africa, visit prayforthehorn.com.