Human beings share many common traits. One of those traits is that human beings like to be around other humans who share their own traits. It is the basis of tribalism and clubs and nationalism. It isn’t a bad or a good thing, but it can be expressed in bad or good ways. One of the historically bad ways of expressing this trait is religious persecution. As far back as human history exists, humans who worshiped one god persecuted humans who worshiped other gods.
Religious persecution is a natural outgrowth of both the yearning for a common identity and the conviction that one’s own gods are superior. For much of history, people integrated their religion tightly with their social and political structures. In fact, they believed that religion was a crucial element of political power. This tight integration resulted in terrible persecution of unbelievers, because their lack of faith was perceived as an affront to the community god or gods which might very well cause the gods to take vengeance on the whole community.
At the time of the founding of the USA, the men who brought this country to birth believed that religion ought not to be blended into the political structures of the new country. Many colonists had fled persecution provoked by their own unwillingness to participate in the community/national religion. They believed that every individual had the right to choose his religious beliefs, because they believed that that right was granted by God himself at the creation of each person. They expected that the people elected to the government would act consistent with their own religious principles, but they chose not to embed any particular religion into the structure of the government. Today, there are other countries where the absence of a state religion is coupled with constitutional protection of the individual right to choose and express his faith, but this freedom is by no means universal.
In recent news are three examples of what might be viewed as small scale examples of Christian persecution rooted in very local expressions of the integration of the community and its religion.
In October, 2012, there was a report from Laos that three pastors and some other Christians were jailed by a community for their unwillingness to participate in a traditional village ritual. The ritual involved drinking water sanctified by a shaman and signing a pledge of allegiance to the village gods. This episode was only one of several such incidents reported recently, and in some cases Christians were asked to sign papers renouncing faith in Christ. When the Christians refused, other villagers considered them to be inviting retribution from the traditional village gods. Even though the national government of Laos technically protects religious liberty, local officials felt quite free to imprison the Christians and beat them without fear that the national government would do anything about it.
In January, 2013, 52 Christians were arrested in Mexico and kept in prison for three days without food, water or sanitation. One pastor was tied to a chair. All the Christians were asked to sign statements renouncing their faith. These Christians, and others in similar incidents throughout Mexico, have left local Catholic churches where indigenous native religious practices are blended with Catholicism and have, over time, filled the spot once held by native American rituals and religions. In some cases local Catholic priests have supported or at least turned a blind eye to the abuse. Many Christians have left their homes and abandoned their farms, even with crops in the ground, due to the violence.
In February, 2013, five families in a highland village in Vietnam were assaulted in their homes by villagers irate that they had converted to Christianity. The villagers took issue with the refusal of the new Christians to participate in community sacrifices and other rituals associated with the local religion. The homes of the Christians were severely damaged and many of their possessions were destroyed. Viet Nam’s national government is Communist, but even though the government officially does not sanction persecution of any religion, in practice local Communist officials freely permit and even participate in such actions. In some instances local officials have hired thugs to assist in the destruction.
We are accustomed to hear reports of Christians persecuted because of state religions, but these three reports show that states with no official religious connections nevertheless sanction persecution of Christians. This evidence leads to a conclusion that most persecution is likely a response to the refusal of Christians in any culture to try to fit in locally with practices that conflict with their faith in Christ. Many of the colonists who founded the USA had fled Europe precisely because they could not fit in with the state religious expectations in Europe. This is precisely what is happening with Christians in the US who reject the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
In the Affordable Care Act, the US government has created a spectacularly narrow definition of religion. According to that definition, religions practiced by native Americans, for example, might not even be religions. This narrow definition is consistent with the way secular thinkers in general define religion. The federal government has not established a state religion; it has established a state definition of religion. This definition does not bode well for the freedom of any sort of religious expression. According to the federal definition, only worship and religious education would be expressions of religion, and only if expressed in a non-profit organization recognized by the IRS. This definition has the effect of stating that the most fundamental teaching of Christianity, Christ’s call to a life of discipleship, is not religious expression. If it is not religious expression, then it is not protected by the First Amendment.
This definition of religion means that the federal government can suppress any religious expression that does not fit its definition of religion. Christians can say that they are called to live faithful lives consistent with the teachings of their religion, and they can prove that their religion has taught that contraception, abortion and sterilization are sin for two thousand years, but if the government’s definition of religion stands, then the Christian definition of discipleship is not protected religious expression.
When Roman emperors created an expectation that Roman citizens would worship them, the politically sophisticated Romans smirked and went along with the game, because they did not want to fight lions or gladiators in the Coliseum. They didn’t think the emperors were very god-like, but they wanted to live. A lot of people in the USA are like the ancient Roman citizens. They don’t like the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act, and they may even think it is outrageous, but their sense of outrage does not extend to an agreement that Christians with religious objections to it should be exempt. In fact, at the root of it all is the fact that many Americans are so disconnected from whatever faith they claim in polls and surveys that they are willing to accept the federal government’s definition of religion. Many Americans of all “faiths” really don’t consider their faith to be normative in their lives. They can’t imagine why a few Christians are making such a fuss.
The local villagers in Laos and Vietnam and Mexico feel very much the same way. Like secular thinkers in endless comment threads in the US, they think Christians are being awfully high and mighty when they insist on their right to be different. They wonder, just like the President of the United States and the Secretary of Health and Human Services: Why don’t Christians simply try to fit in?
Read about the culture wars in the US and the persecuted church worldwide. Read Living on Tilt the newspaper.