In recent news from Laos, it is reported that in the Phin district of Savannakhet province in Laos, Christians are being persecuted by both government and society. Their refusal to participate in occult rituals that are part of local traditions has angered both their neighbors and local officials. Christians are being threatened with expulsion from their home community if they do not accede to cultural demands enforced by governmental authority.
This threat to the free exercise of Christian faith coupled with a demand that Christians do something in complete contradiction of their faith sounds familiar to Christians in the US. Currently numerous cases are being filed by Christian employers who are threatened with fines for unwillingness to pay for health insurance coverage that provides services that contradict their obedience to Christ. A student who was ejected from a classroom for expressing his Christian conviction that homosexuality is sin is suing to be allowed to return to class. Christians who express their faith by wearing jewelry in the form of a cross are asked to remove it during work and threatened with dismissal from their jobs if they refuse. These kinds of pressure to build a barrier between Christian faith and public life are not so different in concept from the Laotian pressure to conform to the local culture by participating in occult rituals. In Laos, some people have actually been asked to sign a form renouncing their faith in Christ. To date, nobody in the USA has been asked to do that, but the cultural and legal pressures amount to an announcement that Christian faith needs to be kept out of public view. There is even an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation that actually has that objective.
Christians in Laos are not being asked to give up all religion. They are, rather, being asked to change their religion. Instead of faith and submission to Christ, they are asked to submit to local traditional religious practices and to the leaders in those practices. The national government of Laos officially provides religious liberty to all citizens, but the officials of the Savannakhet province, including the police, do not share that view. In the US, the Constitution protects freedom of religious expression of all faiths, yet there are both governmental and cultural pressures that suppress religion in a variety of ways. Christians have been accustomed to expect accommodation of faith along the lines of the accommodation for conscientious objectors to the violence of wars. Even though such objectors may be conscripted for military service, they are assigned to non-violent work such as administrative tasks or medical services.
Many current issues challenging Christian faith expression grow out of cultural changes that have even changed the way government defines religion and faith practices. Very recently, as President Obama was signing the National Defense Authorization Act, he expressed his distaste for a provision in the legislation that protects military chaplains from being required to perform any services or rites that conflict with their religious convictions. This statement is a clear evidence for people of faith that the culture and the government of the United States have a different view of the meaning of religious liberty than was held in the USA prior to 2008.
In the first century CE Roman citizens who became Christian faced a cultural/governmental challenge, too. Roman emperors were considered to be gods, and it was an act of good citizenship to bow before a statue of the emperor and pray to him. Christians like Paul the apostle could be citizens and enjoy the benefits of Roman citizenship, but if challenged to pray to the emperor, they declined. It was the public request and the public rejection that created problems for Christians. Their fellow citizens often did not believe the emperor was very godlike, either, but non-Christians went along to get along, just as politicians do today. Christians did not feel they could do that, and the book of Revelation was written for Christians to encourage them to stand strong against any request to worship anybody or anything other than Christ. Christians in the Roman Empire suffered everything from social shunning to horrific torture and death for their refusal to renounce Christ and worship the emperor. Laotian Christians face that same kind of threat. US Christians may feel that their homes and their safety are not at risk, but if their livelihoods are threatened, then loss of home and safety cannot be far behind.
Loss of livelihood is certainly threatened by both the culture and the government. The government threatens such heavy fines on employers who refuse to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion in their group health insurance for employees that the businesses could not likely continue to operate and pay the fines. The culture expresses its revulsion at Christian testimony by business owners by orchestrating boycotts. These actions may not actually result in arrest and expulsion of Christians from businesses or communities, but they are different only in degree. Furthermore, the degree of these actions is markedly more severe than normal conflict levels between Christians and non-Christians over the two hundred plus years of the existence of the USA. Pressure to suppress the expression of Christian faith in the USA is mounting in both the government and the culture.
What must we do? The Sermon on the Mount and the book of Revelation are powerful guides for persecuted Christians. They teach two strong principles: Love your persecutor, and never give up your faith. Jesus said we should expect the world to hate us and persecute us, because it hated him first. If we doubt that statement, we have only to look at his baptism and its consequences. Jesus went to John the Baptist for baptism. As he came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell into him and threw him into the wilderness where Satan was waiting. Christ faced down Satan for forty days in that wilderness before Satan withdrew to wait for a more opportune time. In other words, as soon as Satan realized that Christ was for real, that he had truly been anointed to save humans from Satan’s clutches, Satan mounted his offensive. The book of Revelation tells us that Satan will continue to assault Christ and his followers till the end of time. Through all those millennia of warfare, we must never let our anger at Satan be expressed in a failure to love those enslaved by him, our persecutors.
Christians in Laos are standing firm in their faith, trusting that Christ will sustain them. Christians in the US pray for strength to stand strong, too, as the culture and the government both act to limit our freedom to live according to our faith. As members of the worldwide body of Christ, when Christians in Laos suffer, Christians in the US suffer with them. Likewise, when Christians in the US suffer, Christians in Laos suffer with them. May we all learn to see our persecutors with the eyes of Christ, loving them and sharing with them what Christ has done for them, and may we all be strong to give faithful testimony through trials and temptations. When we are assaulted by the temptation to renounce our faith, as the Laotian Christians are being tempted, we must remember that Christ promises many blessings to those who conquer that temptation. We must hold in our hearts that beautiful image at the end of the book of Revelation:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth. … And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 21:1-2