A Strange Group of People

There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not to the king’s profit to tolerate them. Esther 3:8

This quotation from the book of Esther is a harsh reminder that anyone who considers that an obligation to God takes precedence over obligation to any earthly authority will not be popular with earthly authority. In ancient Persia, the state religion was as much a part of governmental authority as the laws about murder and theft. The colonies of Great Britain who fought for independence and later formed the United States of America were unique among the nations of the world at that time for their decision not to have a state church, and their corollary decision to honor the religious convictions of every person, regardless of his religion, was unique. They chose to shape their government in a manner that specifically avoided the issue Haman used to make a case against the Jews in ancient Persia. While some colonies had been established by order of a British monarch, others owed their very existence to flight from oppressive government who, like Haman, could not tolerate violations of national law rooted in religious convictions. Those colonists knew what it was to be harassed and imprisoned for unwillingness to support the state religion. The colonists valued religion for its influence in the lives of individuals which bloomed in a cultural influence for the moral good, and they wanted citizens of the new nation to be able to bring their religious convictions and values to the table to provide moral perspective in the discussion of public issues.

Haman’s accusations against the Jews sound eerily like the accusations of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well those of other secular speakers. Haman accused the Jews of following different laws in their daily lives, and he likewise accused them of failure to follow the king’s laws. Their “different laws” would have been Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The single commandment to worship God alone put them at odds with Persia’s state religion, while other teachings in the Bible would have made them look odd, if not dangerous, to the other citizens of the Persian Empire.  The empire was huge and encompassed people of many religions as well as people of no religion, but the Jews alone held that their religion required them to refuse to participate in any other. All the rest of the empire’s subjects followed religions that permitted them to comply with any law requiring them to pray to Persian gods or contribute to Persian temples. Only the Jews were restricted from worshiping more than one god.

This situation sounds a lot like the current uproar in the USA over the definition of preventive health services and the employer mandate to provide preventive health services at no charge to their employees in group health insurance plans. Catholics in particular, and other Christians from various denominations, follow teachings in the Bible that require them to respect the life of human beings from conception to the grave, as well as teachings about the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. These teachings lead them to a conscience objection to the mandate for contraception, abortion, and sterilization. In other words, just as Haman said of the Jews in Persia, “Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws.” In ancient Persia, there was no First Amendment protection for conscience; in Persia, the king had the right to put people to death for a difference of opinion, let alone an actual failure to comply with the law. In the USA, however, citizens have been accustomed for more than two hundred years to be protected from the government when their consciences demand behavior different from that expected by the government.

Contemporary accusations against Christians arise in many different contexts, not just the Affordable Care Act. Recently, a chaplain was ordered to remove an essay from his “Chaplain’s Corner” website, because it quoted the statement, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Mikey Weinstein, director of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, called Christians “fundamentalist monsters,” and labelled Christian evangelism “spiritual rape,” in his efforts to classify Christian free speech as “hate speech.” Weinstein says, ““Lt. Col. Reyes must be appropriately punished.”  Secular academics have raised a ruckus over the hiring of a professor of astronomy who believes in intelligent design. Guillermo Gonzalez is accused of teaching “creationism,” despite Gonzalez’ statement that he is still researching cosmological origins, a profoundly scientific attitude. An atheist who found a Gideon Bible in a dresser drawer in a state park cabin complained that its presence constituted an establishment of religion. Secular thinkers, who by definition are atheists, consider the public exercise of Christian faith to be a privilege, not a Constitutional right, and they are becoming ever more aggressive in their attempt to suppress what they call Christian privilege.

In ancient Persia, Haman proposed to King Xerxes that he simply exterminate Jews the way a householder might exterminate vermin, saying, “Let it be decreed that they be destroyed.” (Esther 3:8) At the moment, Christians in the USA are not targeted for extermination, but Christian faith speech in public is certainly under fire. The display of crosses anywhere but on a church steeple has been questioned. Reading the Bible or praying anywhere outside a church building is viewed with skepticism by many. Even people who self-identify as Christians may say that they believe people should keep their religion to themselves and not speak of it in public. What’s more disturbing, some Christians are being lured into the notion of rearing children without teaching them the faith until they are “old enough to decide for themselves.” Cultural pressure is eating away at the Constitutional freedom for citizens to “exercise” their religious convictions in public.

When Haman tried to eradicate the Jews, God worked through Esther to save the people. Esther prayed and fasted for three days, and then she demonstrated great wisdom and creative thinking to achieve the reversal of Haman’s decree. God worked through a person who trusted him and took the time to listen to him before speaking or acting. Esther told Mordecai, Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king.” (Esther 4:16)

Esther is a good model for Christians in the US. The culture wants to suppress Christians and Christian teaching. The government, shaped by the culture, is more and more open to suggestions to restrict Christians and Christian faith speech. The Affordable Care Act specifically classifies religion as something that happens inside a church building, and by implication it denies the application of conscience to activity outside a church building. The First Amendment notwithstanding, the federal government has argued in court that when someone engages in business, he is automatically separated from any right to claim that religious conviction motivates or constrains his actions. Christians fight the same battle Esther fought. For Esther, the culture pressed against the Jews in the person of Haman, who was able to influence the government to exercise its power against Jews. In the US, secular thinkers and Christians influenced by secular thinkers act within the culture to dismiss or restrict Christian voices and Christian influence. These same people influence the government to reshape the whole meaning of the First Amendment protection of religious liberty. Like Esther, Christians need to draw near to God for guidance and strength to act. To defend religious liberty will require assertive action and speech, diligence to fight the same battles over and over, and vigilance to recognize clever deceits in language and law that increasingly restrict religious freedom.

Trust God alone, and trust him completely, just as Esther did. Pray and listen and mature in your faith to be ready to do what he leads you to do, just as Esther did. The battle isn’t looming near; the battle is already in progress. Christian commitment to live according to Christ’s call rather than do the popular thing looks very strange to the culture. It is even seen as a threat by some. If Christians are to re-assert and re-establish religious liberty in the USA, they must be willing to be perceived as strange.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:6-8)