Many people in the US today feel as if their world has been turned upside down. They feel almost adrift in a tumultuous sea. They feel that events swirl around them completely out of control.
What causes this feeling?
Probably one of the big issues is the nagging feeling that somehow the threat voiced long ago in the Soviet Union that “we will bury you” has come true. After all, the Soviet Union was a place where the government owned everything. Everybody worked for the government. Businessmen were reviled as filthy capitalists. All healthcare was free, but it was administered by the government, and many people waited so long for service that they died waiting. Healthcare institutions looked more like prisons than hospitals. Christians and their churches were scorned and even punished. The government confiscated churches, stole anything valuable from the buildings, and turned them into government offices and agencies. Five-year plans for economic recovery never recovered anything and the country ultimately collapsed. Former refugees from the Soviet Union cry out that they came to the US to escape this sort of thing, yet it has now caught up with them. Both the culture and the government in the US are starting to look a lot like the former Soviet Union.
The refugee testimony that verifies the changes taking place makes it clear that Christians are not crazy when they feel battered on the one side by rampant secularism expressed both in the culture and in government and on the other side by Islam, which for reasons unknown, is accommodated by the government in deference not accorded to any other religion.
Secular pressure on Christians arises spontaneously in the culture with rising numbers of secularists who claim no connection to any religion while scorning those who do connect. Government in the US has historically been neutral or even benevolent toward religion in the culture, but in recent years it seems to be developing an aggressive and antagonistic attitude toward Christianity. (It might look equally antagonistic toward other religions if their adherents were as numerous as self-identified Christians.) Rulings forbidding prayer in schools or Christmas displays in parks or monuments to the Ten Commandments portend future policies and legislation that will make it difficult to exercise Christian faith in the public realm. Laws that upend moral codes that Christians believe to be the revealed will of God make it hard to express Christian teachings in public.
Islam presses for change in the culture more than it presses directly on Christians. Yet Christians are caught up in the pressure, because Christians are affected by every trend that develops in the culture. For example, there is no outcry from Muslims in the US to make Christian evangelism illegal, (as is normal in Islamic republics) but there is an outcry to apply sharia law in the courts when a Muslim is involved. The ultimate effect of invoking sharia in the courts, however, would be to risk suppression of Christian evangelism if a Muslim were involved. The Quran teaches that it is a deadly sin for a Muslim to convert to any other religion, and the Christian who may have led the Muslim to conversion would also be regarded as a threat. Couple Muslim rejection of a right for Christians to evangelize Muslims with secular demands that Christians refrain from “proselytizing” and a Christian is caught in a pincer attack from secularism and Islam.
Christians experience such challenges every day in the US. This threat level will not likely be reduced in the foreseeable future. How can Christians remain strong and faithful when under threat?
Christians in the US must look to the persecuted church around the world for inspiration and education in standing strong. Christians must learn from the persecuted church worldwide to be fearless in using the weapons God provides for this sort of warfare – truth, Christ’s righteousness, ready testimony to the gospel, faith, salvation, the Bible, and prayer. Read Ephesians 6:10-20 to get the whole picture of the way God intends for Christians to defend themselves. In many countries, the church thrives under oppression US residents have never seen, because the persecuted church uses these weapons with fervent commitment. US Christians must live the love of Christ in the cultural “no man’s land” between secularism and Islam. Christians must be the love of Christ to everyone who enters the “no man’s land” which is God’s workspace where he transforms darkness to light and death to life in the hearts of humankind for Jesus’ sake. There is a reason Christians feel battered; they are under attack. Nevertheless there is a way to thrive and live fulfilled lives if they use the tools God has provided for their well-being. This blog is devoted to helping people find and use these tools for blessing in their own lives and the lives of others.
The following essay first appeared as a devotional at Open Doors USA* * * * * * *
Ron Boyd MacMillan is a perceptive communicator. He writes for the next two days.
As my plane touched down after a trip to the Middle East, I breathed a big sigh of relief. I was back where I did not have to watch my back, be careful what I said, or where I went. Whew. I was back in a country that had religious freedom. I prayed to God, “Thank you for the men and women who fought to bring me this freedom. Thank God they won.”
Then two incidents happened, one after the other, that made me think again.
I was at an art exhibition and looking at a painting entitled, Man startled on a horse. I sought out the artist and said, “Was that the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road you were depicting?” I thought he would be pleased I had figured it out.
But he looked horrified, and glancing around he hissed, “For goodness sake keep quiet. Do you want me to get labeled as a religious artist? I’d never sell another painting if that happened.”
Then I was talking to a priest in charge of a large church in my city. His church had just received a large sum of money from the State for the refurbishment of a church hall. Then he said, “Well, we had to sign an agreement that the church would be available for everyone of any religion, and that we would not try to convert anyone. But we were happy to do that. We just want to be a community resource.”
Suddenly, I became aware that I had to fight for religious liberty in my own country. I had thought that because certain toleration laws were in place, I was safe.
But no, it was clear from the artist that to admit one’s Christian faith in a public context was professional suicide.
How did my society suddenly get so prejudiced? And look at the priest blithely giving up his right to evangelize, without a thought to the long-term cost. Who was asking him to refrain from evangelizing? And how could he be so unaware of the freedom he just signed away?
RESPONSEToday I will not assume that freedom is automatic. I will stand up for the truth of God’s Word and be truly free. PRAYERLord, may I never take the free expression of my faith for granted. Help me to understand the challenges that representing Your truth will bring.
* * * * * * *
Notice two important issues that have become prominent in our culture:
There is a great deal of pressure to suppress the expression of any public reference to Christ or Christianity, and
Many churches in the US have become willing to sign away their freedom to behave as churches in return for money from the government to pay for buildings and programs.
Have you observed any events similar to the ones mentioned in this essay? Neither of these restrictions on the exercise of religion had to happen. Individuals who presumably claim the name of Christ and claim to follow him chose to deny him by their actions. The artist succumbed to cultural pressure and could also be said to have succumbed to fear that God would not provide for his economic needs if he were known as a Christian artist. The priest succumbed to economic fears, a fear that God would never provide enough money for the repairs to his building. Have you seen anything similar to this in your own community or church?
Are you a Christian? If you are, have you ever been the object of attack – social shunning, or actual persecution? If not, why not? If yes, what exactly happened?
I ask these questions, because I recently listened to a sermon by Francis Chan. He read material from every book in the New Testament, and he convinced me to stop thinking something has gone wrong in the USA when I see evidence of religious persecution. He did it by showing me that from the moment Christ began to preach, he warned us that persecution would be our lot. Maybe as mild as not being invited to the cool parties in school. Maybe as harsh as being sawed limb from limb while still alive. Maybe simply being crucified as Jesus was crucified. Maybe being verbally crucified and rhetorically sawn to bits by an aggressive individual with what he calls a humanist agenda.
Francis Chan convinced me that the Bible says we should expect to be persecuted if we follow Christ. It isn’t anything odd. It isn’t some colossal mistake. It is our own fault for believing that Jesus meant what he said. We follow him, and we might as well paint a big red target on our faces. This is what the Bible says.
There’s more, however.
The Bible says that we should be really glad about it when we are persecuted. If we are being persecuted, then, according to the Bible, we are doing it right. We are actually giving our testimonies, showing everybody that we put Christ ahead of anything and everything else. If we were to stop doing that, then nobody would care.
This is the current agenda of our secular culture. They want us to lock our faith up in elegant buildings and go inside those buildings to visit our faith practices. The culture wants us to shut up about our commitment to God and our conviction that since God is the one who gives life to each human embryo, then only he should take it away. The culture wants us to say that it was just an accident that the first couple happened to be heterosexual and have children. The culture wants us to accept all sorts of deviations on both heterosexual and homosexual themes that are an abomination to the God-given design for a family that starts with one man and one woman. The culture wants us to have all our conversations about what God wants from us inside the houses of worship that are listed in some government database for the exemption from the healthcare mandate, and the culture wants us to leave all our convictions and commitments and concerns about our relationship with God inside those buildings when we exit at the end of a worship service.
Secular culture has great admiration for the idea of religion. Secular students of the arts discover that much of the truly great art was produced by artists inspired by their religious experience. They love our big Gothic cathedrals as high examples of both aesthetics and engineering. They do not want to be annoyed by any suggestion that the cathedrals grow out of relationships that permeated the society of the day. Rather they would like to think that the engineering and artistic challenges shaped the culture. Secular thinkers do not want to hear that Christianity is a way of life. To them, Buddhism is a way of life, and they love the enigmatic nuances of its words and ways. Buddhism is mysterious. Christian teaching is hard-headed, and they don’t want it let loose in the real world.
When we live our faith in the midst of the secular culture, we invite persecution. Most people don’t want to hear that word in this context. Someone sues a church because he doesn’t like the sound of the bells on Sunday morning when he wants to sleep in. Someone complains that a valedictorian thanked God in the text of a graduation speech. Someone takes offense at a bank teller wearing a necklace with a cross-shaped pendant. These acts, according to the secular agenda, are not persecution; they are cultural cleansing. We really must excise all these references to religion in the public forum. People who don’t believe in God ought not to be expected to put up with such intrusions into their daily lives.
You may go along with some of these little jabs. To accept them without resistance, to acknowledge them without calling them what they are, is to pretend that the culture can slice away our testimony without infringing on our practice of our faith. If faith in Christ shapes your life, then you will always be a testimony to him, and that will always inspire resistance and rejection from those who reject Christ himself. If you think it ought to be easier, read your Bible again. Persecution, in large and small bites, is the destiny of every Christian. It is time to stop being surprised about it and start giving thanks for it. It isn’t an accident. It is exactly what every Christian ought to expect.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12NRSV