How do Christians Respond to Restrictions on Religious Expression?

When I was a child, our teachers used to help us survive ugly situations by saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It wasn’t completely true, of course, but saying that little folksy proverb helped us to feel strong when people called us hateful names. It reminded us of the difference between being physically harmed and being scorned. It did not change the fact that some people in the world are simply hateful, but it did teach us a way to respond to hatred without reciprocating hatred.  

In the book The Cellist of Sarajevo Steven Galloway writes about four individuals trapped by the siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996, trying simply to stay alive while enemy snipers sit on the high ground around the city and kill innocent people every day. Each of the characters travels a unique path to a moment when he realizes that hatred is a choice. It is not necessary to hate people. The characters recognize that hatred rooted in the hearts of the men on the hills enables them to kill with impunity people who have done them no wrong. Each character finds some way to rise above the temptation to respond with equal hatred. Each probes himself deeply looking for a way not to participate in the mayhem. These characters were not motivated to be like Christ. They simply used their God-given reason to conclude that responding to hatred with hatred would only make things worse. 

Christians in the USA who feel the culture closing in around them can be tempted to be scornful, even hateful, toward the people who treat them badly. We know our rights. We won’t take this sitting down. We are actually caught in a trap of competing values when we perceive that our freedom to live our faith is in danger. We are followers of Christ, called to live our faith and make disciples, and we are citizens of the USA, free to believe whatever we like and to practice our faith without hindrance according to the Constitution of the United States of America. On the one hand, our agenda is to share Christ’s love with everyone, and on the other hand, we have rights as citizens. Behavior that grows out of the assertion of citizen rights may not always be consistent with behavior that grows out of a call to Christian discipleship. Citizen activism may be confrontational in a way that is inconsistent with living our faith. What to do? 

If people with no acknowledged faith in anything, the characters in The Cellist of Sarajevo, can reach the conclusion that responding to hatred with hatred will only escalate violent confrontations, people with faith in the Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them,” as he was nailed to a cross should surely be able to reach the same conclusion. In fact, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he taught his followers to expect opposition from the established religious leaders, the culture in general, and even from the state. He also taught them how to respond. He didn’t simply tell them not to hate their persecutors. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and pray blessings on those who persecuted them.  

This teaching is not as radical as it sounds if you view it in the context of the whole body of Christ’s teaching. Christ’s message was that the kingdom of God had come near to people. He brought the kingdom near in his person. The Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer brings the kingdom near to every person that believer meets. Jesus wanted his followers to be busy sharing the good news that God loves human beings and wants them to live in relationship with him. It would be pretty hard to say to people, “God loves you and wants you to love him, and by the way, I hate you for not agreeing to do that.” To be sure, there have been people who claimed the name of Christ who behaved exactly that way. That fact points out how much easier it is to claim the name than to live the relationship.  

The problem is that if we truly live our faith, our very behavior is sometimes an affront to the culture. The Catholic Bishops found themselves in that position when the president required Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for health services that are considered sinful according to the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible. For someone to call birth control sinful sounds quite judgmental and barbaric to someone who has just classified that very service as a universal human right. This episode is a reminder to all of us that we cannot assume that people who believe in different religious teachings, or in no religious teaching at all, will respect and admire our commitment to our faith. 

It isn’t easy to love my neighbors on good days. If one of them slaps me, or calls me bigoted or takes me to court for having a Bible study in my home, then I am not naturally inclined to invite them to strike me again. It is not natural to love my enemy. Yet that is what Christ calls me to do. Me. You. Everyone who claims his name. How do we get the guts and gumption to do that? We mature in our ability to live a faithful testimony by engaging faithfully in prayer, Bible study and worship. We can do this in isolation, to be sure, but human beings need connections. We mature more deeply when our private practices are nourished and reshaped by communal prayer, Bible study and worship. We need one another. Jesus said that we must put God above all other loyalties, but after that, we must love one another. 

How do we live in a culture that increasingly prefers all religious behavior to be confined to religious spaces? We do it by doing what Christ taught us to do. When Christians in the first century did that, they were sometimes arrested, and occasionally even killed. So far, nobody in the US has been executed by the state for being a Christian. We can be thankful for that, but we cannot assume that it means that won’t happen. In order to face the future with confidence, we must cling ever more firmly to the promise that Christ will go with us through whatever the future brings. He is the one who holds our future in his hands. We can trust Christ for both time and eternity.

Do you think religious freedom is important? Do you think all the talk about restriction and persecution is silly? Here is someone else’s take on The Preciousness of our First Freedom.