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Materialism and Modern Martyrs

30 Jan

When we compare common Roman misunderstandings about Christians from the first to the twenty-first century, some details are different but there are also many commonalities.

How many times have we heard criticism in the media about Christians desiring to see a nuclear holocaust, as it would usher in the end times? Or that Christians have no interest in the planet’s health because it will get blown up anyway? I am not denying an element of truth in these charges (in some Christian sectors more than others) but they have to do with misunderstandings of Christian eschatology. These issues are not the only examples.

Sometimes, when things go wrong politically, Christians are blamed. This is more so the case in other countries but in the US, one may hear people accusing Christians of “creating terrorists” or fostering terrorism for various reasons. In the US we do not experience these things as intense as in Europe but the sentiment is still present.

On a similar note, the most common thread from then until now is the persecution of Christians.

Voice of the Martyrs is a global organization which supports persecuted Christians throughout the world. They help make others aware of the needs these believers face and find ways to network Christians who can help, whether it is through medical assistance, legal representation, or smuggling Bibles. Recently, I scanned a few back issues of the Voice of the Martyrs magazine to get a sense of modern day persecution. What follows are mini-profiles I created to help give a quick snap shot of modern day persecution.

*CHINA: Shuying, 77. Tortured and imprisoned for her faith. Her husband died the day after she was released.
*INDIA: Vasant. Ex-radical Hindu, persecuted Christians. Now an evangelist, locked away by his family, poisoned by his mother, but continues to pass out 25-30 tracts a day in remote areas.
*NEPAL: Shyma Kumar. Teenager who was severely burned while attending church and it was bombed by Hindu extremists.
*PAKISTAN: Pastor Joseph. Bound for praying with a beggar. Preached to his attackers as they beat him.
*NORTH VIETNAM: Pastors Phan and Trang. “Running pastors” who flee from tribe to tribe, conducting services, baptisms, and communion for small rural congregations.
*SUDAN: Mary Achai. Kidnapped, sold into sex slavery, burned, leaving her arms “frozen”.
*SOMALIA: Musa. House church leader. His two oldest sons were beheaded after their father gave a prominent Muslim woman a Bible which resulted in her conversion.
*NIGERIA: James Kake. Muslims burnt his church down then “macheted” his hands and wrists after they asked him if he was an infidel and he said “yes”.

This demonstrates a fulfillment of the Lord’s promise that the world would hate and persecute us. It will always be relevant because these things are still happening in our world today and will continue to happen until the Lord returns.

In our own day, we see the same disconnect between Christian values and those of the world in the areas of exclusivity and religious pluralism/relativism. This cultural pressure has influenced some Christians to soft-peddle the gospel, altering the sobering aspects and down playing judgment. It has also led some to embrace the interfaith movement, wherein all religion is portrayed as similar and equal. I detect no such compromise allowable in the New Testament. On a practical level, when the gospel gets watered down into a more culturally attractive message, it does not usually result in growth but decline. A case in point would be the decline of the mainline denominations and the rise of evangelical Christianity in many parts of South America, Asia, and Africa.

Personal Spiritual Formation and Studying Ancient Church History

Modern martyrs have a precedent in the early persecution. In studying the ancient church, one feels greatly impacted by their singular devotion to Jesus Christ and how that led them stand against their culture at almost every turn. This aspect of the early church jumped out at me on almost every page of ancient church history books and challenges me as I reflect on it. It causes me to wonder how influenced by my culture am I and how dedicated am I to Christ? Would I be willing to face that level of ridicule and sacrifice? Would I be willing to be hated so intensely; to be an outlaw for no good reason? The earliest Christians in general gave up so much it is hard for me to fathom; would I do the same? For the most part, I can answer in the negative, as I see how much I enjoy being a blessed American and how much I put above Christ. I see how so many things fight for my affection towards Christ and realize that I have been influenced by my culture in ways incalculable.

Nonetheless, one atheistic friend of mine wrote this about why people “join religion”:

some of the biggest motivating factors for people becoming involved in either a church or a gang.
1. People want answers.
2. People want easier lives.
3. People want somewhere to turn when they have problems.
4. People look for these things where they’ve been taught to look for them.

As far as the 2nd issue (PEOPLE WANT EASIER LIVES) … I guess you could say this may be true only in America as of the past few hundred years or perhaps during the Medieval Era in Europe. Other than that, it’s very difficult to ascertain what he means taken in a broader historical context. In China, if you become a Christian who is not part of a government sanctioned church, you risk long-term imprisonment. It is no secret how the Chinese government views Christians in their country. In a variety of Islamic Republics, if you “switch” from Islam to Christianity, you are either A) killed immediately or B) put on trial and killed, unless you can get off by way of insanity.

You may say, “I don’t mean only Christianity but rather religion in general” … even if this is true, you still have to explain many of the Communist regimes (both past and present) which deemed all Theism as illegal and would persecute any non-atheistic belief … in these environments many individuals still come to faith and suffer for it. Even in America, the whole “easier life” charge only makes sense if one is to embrace the Health and Wealth Prosperity “gospel” portrayed on TV and the like. Biblical Christianity teaches that “If anyone would come after me [Jesus], he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).

Christianity is viewed as subversive by most governments worldwide ever since its inception. So the question is, how does becoming an enemy of the state (converting to Christianity) make one’s life easier? My main point is that in most social settings becoming a Christian makes one’s life more difficult. Honestly, if we look outside of the U.S., this really isn’t a debatable point.



7 May

We all wonder what makes a killer* tick. People want to know what goes on in the mind of a terrorist. I can shed light on one: Elton Simpson; my former co-worker and frequent debate partner.

The Christian must think theologically about such people. The Christian must not think the murderer – or any sinner, for that matter – is so different, so much worse. The Christian must remember that outside of Christ, we too face God’s judgment for our sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Still, not everyone is ready to drive across the southwest United States to commit murder as Elton was. Why? That is the question. The answer: Elton’s theology.


“Are you a Wahabist?”, I asked. Elton waved his hands emphatically: “That is the name Orientalists [British scholars of Islam] gave to those who practice true Islam. I am a Salafi.” Non-Salafi Muslims consider the Salafi understanding of Islam to be strict, rigid, limited, and narrow. Salafis believe Salafi Islam is closest to the Islam of Muhammad and his companions. Estimates indicate Salafi Islam is the fastest-growing form of Islam; the headlines indicate Salafi Islam is also the most violent.

Elton Simpson was a Salafi Muslim – and proud of it.


Zakir Naik, arguably the most prominent Islamic apologist alive, is a Salafi Muslim. Naik, along with Ahmed Deedat (deceased), were Elton’s favorite two Islamic apologists. I learned this when I name dropped the high-minded apologist Shabir Ally. Elton’s response: “We don’t all like Shabir, you know.” I asked who he did like: “Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat”.

Elton’s response illustrates the divide between academic discussions of Islam and Islam in real-life.
Ally: an intellectual; a professor with an elite pedigree.
Naik: only debates opponents whom he knows he can defeat.
Deedat: notoriously shoddy arguments which suffered from a lack of logical rigor.
Why then are the latter two considered the YouTube Islamic champions of debate? Passion. Rhetoric. Intensity. Perceived devoutness. 

Elton preferred apologists like Zakir Naik and Ahmed Deedat over Shabir Ally.


Very early in our relationship, I asked Elton his opinion of Bin Laden. “Hero.” Elton gave his answer almost before I finished saying the name. I paused; he looked at me and waited with sincere eyes. He wasn’t goading me; he wasn’t toying with me; he wasn’t playing. Elton was for real.

In Elton’s mind, Osama Bin Laden was clearly a hero – no qualifications needed.


During one talk, I brought up Islamic republics. Elton quickly told me none of the current countries calling themselves Islamic Republics actually were; he found the idea laughable. I wondered what nation could meet his standard, so I asked. Elton answered: “Pre-2001 Afghanistan.” Elton did not think this was debatable, he viewed it as self-evident.

Elton believed pre-2001 Afghanistan was the only true modern Islamic Republic.


When I expressed frustration with Elton about the nature of shariah law, he seemed exasperated: “We don’t follow shariah to please man; it is the command of Allah. Allah’s law is not there to make you feel nice and cozy. It doesn’t matter if you like it or not.” Elton’s Twitter handle was “Shariah Is Light”. How tragically insightful! He understood shariah to illumine humanity’s path about how we should live. 

Elton believed all people should submit to shariah law for their own good.


Surah 5:51 instructs Muslims not to take Jews or Christians as friends. I asked Elton if he could take a Christian as a friend. He indicated “no”. If I remember correctly, Elton waffled a bit. Perhaps he was considering another interpretation of this aayat (verse), such as “don’t take them as ‘protectors’”? I don’t know.

I do know that later on in our first (rather lengthy) conversation, Elton said he would potentially marry a Christian girl. That struck me as odd.

Me: “How could you marry a Christian? I thought you said you couldn’t take a Christian as your friend?”
Elton: “I said I couldn’t have one as my friend. I didn’t say I couldn’t have one as my wife.”

I figured Elton was simply being arbitrary. Since then, I learned there is Hadith precedence for this ruling. Elton wasn’t out of line with Islamic thought; Islamic thought itself is what’s out of line.

Elton’s theology of marriage: your wife is not your friend.


Before his death, Elton Simpson went to great lengths to stop an act of free expression: drawing pictures of Muhammad. I do not consider events of this nature to be wise or kind. However, I believe events like this should be allowed. So should the Book of Mormon musical. Same goes for Piss Christ.

Islamic thought holds that creating an image of anything with a soul is haram (forbidden). Drawing Muhammad is especially forbidden. I imagine Elton viewed this art contest as too flagrant to allow; too blasphemous to let stand; too disrespectful to let go unfettered. Somebody had to do something to stop this shameful event – but nobody seemed to be doing anything.

garland-shootingElton must have thought he was the one. This was his time, his chance. Elton Simpson was willing to kill others and let himself be killed in order to defend his Prophet’s honor. For Elton, it was worth it to protect Muhammad’s name. 

In one chilling moment, Elton told me jihad was not one of the Five Pillars of Islam, “jihad was the pinnacle of Islam.” He was explicit: he did not mean an “inner struggle”, he meant a physical struggle against the House of War (the non-Islamic portions of the world).

Elton embraced jihad. Elton embraced death.

                                                                                                                                                                Published 05/06/2015

*I don’t feel entirely comfortable calling Elton a killer; he didn’t actually kill anyone. Yet, I know that was his intention. I know Jesus says “out of the heart come evil thoughts” and “murder” (Matthew 5:19).


Vocab Malone has a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is a Doctoral student at Talbot School of Theology. He has many recorded debates. His hobbies include reading, coffee, and geek culture.


6 May

I knew Elton Simpson.

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, Elton and a friend opened fire at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. He was shot and killed shortly after. Elton and his friend drove from Arizona to Texas to attack a gathering celebrating free speech — by displaying artistic depictions of Muhammad. Images of Muhammad are considered highly offensive to Muslims.

No, Elton was not insane. Elton was not mean. Elton was not rude. Elton was not wild-eyed. Elton was not constantly angry. Elton never threatened me. Elton was calm, level-headed, smart, and studious. He was generally kind and well-mannered.  Bright and articulate, he spoke smooth and easy. Elton was not a poor unwanted outcast; a down-and-outer he was not. Neither the simplistic narratives of the right or left work for him.

Elton Simpson


I am convinced the secular world will never properly understand people like Elton because the secular world will never properly understand Elton’s theology.

Secularist presuppositions cause many people to seek in vain for a non-theological answer for “radicalization”: economics, insanity, politics, personal nastiness, family problems, blood lust, revenge. Certainly, some of those factors play into some aspects of some people who commit what we know as terrorist acts. But these are not the core.

The core is theology. The core is taking Muhammad, his words and his actions, seriously. Elton took Islam seriously.

How do I know? Elton and I worked for the same company. We spent time together at our mutual workplace. For example, I once asked Elton if he was going to take a certain job promotion:

“Why not?”
“They would ask me to trim my beard.”
“Why must you keep your beard?”
“To be like the Prophet.”
“Why? You don’t worship him.”
“No, but he was the best example of what it means to live as a Muslim. Do you know what ‘Muslim’ means?”
“Yes – one submitted.”
Yes, submitted to Allah’s will – like Muhammad was.”
“Is that why you wear your pants this way?”
(Elton wore his pants slightly above the ankles)
“Yes, The Prophet never let his garment drag on the ground.”

Elton’s understanding of Islam was such that Muhammad’s example (as found in the accepted Hadith) was paradigmatic for the proper practice of Islam. The way he went about this was very matter of fact. Elton exhibited such a cool confidence in his interpretation of Islam, it is easy to imagine him convincing others to adopt his positions. I once witnessed Elton’s casual yet charismatic sway on display.


First, some context: Elton and I conversed at his local mosque a few times. Yes, I have been to the mosque Elton frequented in north Phoenix. Yet, I am not a Muslim. I was at Elton’s mosque to share the gospel with Muslims as they left Friday prayer. I am a Christian; a pastor and a seminary graduate. I engage in evangelism. This is how I ran into my friend at the mosque.

One Friday afternoon, some fellow Christians and I were at the mosque Elton attended, doing what we often did: quietly and peacefully handing out bilingual (Arabic/English) copies of the Gospel of John to all takers. We stood out of the exit paths, on the public sidewalk. We had an established protocol: when someone said “No”, we responded in clumsy Arabic – “Barak Allahu fik” (a common way of expressing thanks to a person) – and then moved on.

Some days, no one would speak with us or accept our offer of the Holy Injil (what Muslims call the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). This day was not like that – it seemed as if every other person was willingly taking a book – it was fantastic. Elton changed all that. He briefly spoke with me as he came out of prayer and then quickly turned to his fellow Muslims. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but after a brief but friendly-looking conversation, they would hand over the Gospel of John they had just received. Elton went around to as many folks as he could in a very short amount of time, smiling and chatting all the way. Almost every person handed over their book to him. Elton was in the adjacent parking lot by this time. Being that it was private property, we stayed put. Elton then slowly turned towards me and slyly smiled – he held up two hand-sized stacks of gospels and threw them all in the trash. Elton single-handedly stopped 30 people from having a chance to read the Gospel of John.

Mosque Evangelism
our mosque evangelism team after an outreach

As I left that day, I was rather depressed. A bleak feeling settled over me as I sat in my car, waiting at the stop light on 27th Ave. and Glendale. As I looked to my side, I saw Elton. We recognized each other immediately. I quickly rolled down my window and we had a brief conversation till the light changed. I asked him why he was so afraid of his friends reading one book out of the New Testament. I don’t recall his precise reply, but I believe it was something to the effect of, “I’m not afraid, I am just warning them about poison.” 

I believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the Muslims at his mosque. That is why he did what he did that day. I also believe Elton was genuinely concerned for the honor of the one he deems a Prophet – and that is ultimately why he did what he did on May 3rd.

Even though I was surprised by what Elton did – drove from Phoenix to Dallas to kill people who were supporting drawing pictures of Muhammad – I can’t say I was shocked. 

Why? I knew Elton’s theology.

                                                                                PUBLISHED 05/06/2015 ~ PHOENIX, AZ


Vocab Malone has a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is a Doctoral student at Talbot School of Theology. He has many recorded debates. His hobbies include reading, coffee, and geek culture.
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