When does simple restriction become outright persecution?

This week I read some news reports from Iran that set my mind whirling. I forget the actual wording of the headlines, but the story told of people being arrested for conducting Christian worship in an unauthorized location. I learned that this is a serious problem in Iran. Not only can people be arrested if they are discovered while worshiping in someone’s house or some other unregistered location, but people known to be Christians are sometimes simply stopped and questioned about their worship locations. Or about their beliefs. Or about whether they tried to tell a Muslim about Christ. Iran is a nation where the term “restrictive” takes on huge dimensions. Iran is serious about suppressing the expression or even the living evidence of Christianity.

It sounds like something nobody would ever imagine could happen in the USA. However, as I read it, I heard echoes. It hasn’t been that long since I read about a big uproar in California when a Homeowners Association took a couple to court for holding weeknight Bible studies in their home. Then, there was the late February announcement that was publicized in only one place that I ever found. The federal government announced a rule change for student loan forgiveness shortly after losing the Hosanna-Tabor case in the Supreme Court. Whereas previously, someone with a big student loan could earn loan forgiveness by serving in any capacity whatsoever with any 501 ( c ) 3 organization whatsoever, after February 28, 2012, a student could not earn loan forgiveness by serving with any 501 ( c ) 3 organization with a primary purpose of worship or proselytizing. In Christian circles we call “proselytizing” evangelism, but you see what is happening. Any lender can make any rules he likes for qualifying or forgiving the loan, but it is interesting that after the definition of the purpose of a 501 (c ) 3 organization worked against the government in Hosanna-Tabor, the federal government quickly revised the rules on loan forgiveness.

I must say something here. I think Christians should steer clear of money from any government at any level. That money always looks good up front, but there is an old rule that still holds true: he who pays the piper calls the tune. Some people say that the recipient of money becomes a puppet, operated by the strings attached to that money. However you word it, the recipient of government money is likely to be required to do some things in order to qualify for the money. A church that receives government money to operate a homeless shelter could very well discover that the government does not want the homeless to be subjected to suggestions about prayer and Bible study. That is their prerogative, and any faith organization that objects is not on firm ground, I think. My comments about loan forgiveness are about the standard being changed after many years of making no distinction. I actually believe it is a big mistake for a student to count on money from the government or on loan forgiveness of a duly incurred obligation. Nevertheless, the timing and nature of this change to the regulation looks suspicious to me.

I also read this week about Christians in numerous countries being set upon by mobs. The mobs accuse Christians of being spies or of polluting the minds of Muslims or Hindus by talking about Christ or of simply being socially unacceptable. These mobs inflicted actual physical injury to Christians, sometimes quite serious injuries. It made me think about Dan Savage’s diatribe that caused almost 200 young people to walk out of a meeting where Savage was supposed to be helping the group learn anti-bullying tactics. His rant was everything a bully could dream of, and the injury he inflicted was quite serious, even if no literal blood flowed.

My point is to say that in the land of the Constitution and the home of the First Amendment, anti-Christian sentiment is expressed in numerous ways. I don’t know the history of Iran’s restrictions and persecution of Christians, so I don’t know if there was a gradual increase in the intensity of restriction and persecution of Christians. I do know that the kind of things happening in the US today tell me that Christians need to be alert. It is no time to be complacent about our freedom to worship and our freedom to pray in public and our freedom to have Bible study wherever we like.

I don’t suggest we become aggressive, however. Jesus gives us the response to persecution, and it is the same message he gave us for every day. Put all your hope in God. Love God above all, and love the people around you. Love people who insult you and try to hurt you. Pray for them. Give them more than they ask for. Always show Christ to everyone you meet.

We should not have to struggle to remember these things. This is the way we are supposed to live whether or not we are persecuted. If we do this all the time, then some people will actually see Christ and get to know him for themselves. It won’t be our doing. It will be the work of the Holy Spirit using our faithful testimony to do what he does best – build faith in Christ.

We need to be watchful, because as citizens of the USA, we are the only ones who can really preserve, protect and defend our Constitutional freedoms. But while we are doing that, we must always be faithful to our first allegiance: Christ the Lord of all.

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