One day soon, you may see a headline like this one in the New York Times, or in your hometown newspaper, or on the Drudge Report. For now, this headline comes from Uzbekistan, but after you read the story and think about the language of public discourse in the USA, you may discover that it would be no stretch at all for this headline to be about you.
The news from Uzbekistan is this. One article of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan outlaws “keeping and storing extremist materials with the purpose of further distribution.” To Christians in the USA, a Bible would not be called “extremist,” and the possession of it would not mean that its owner was an extremist. However, in Uzbekistan, the Bible is regarded as a severe threat.
In fact, Uzbekistan’s government harshly suppresses all religious activity of any variety—Muslim, Christian, and all other groups. In the current year, Uzbekistan is the 15th most dangerous country in the world for Christians, but this government does not limit its threats to Christians. Uzbek law requires all religious groups to be registered, and the requirements for Christians are at least no more onerous than the requirements for other religions. The requirements for registration filter out very small groups such as independent house churches and other small congregations who cannot meet the standard for numbers of members. The law further requires that all religious material, Bibles, devotional books, Sunday School lessons, and so forth be inspected by the government, and only approved materials may be possessed. Only one version of the Bible is approved, and only people belonging to registered religious groups may possess even that version. Some tiny Christian churches refuse to attempt registration, because the penalty for continuing to meet after a rejected registration is more onerous than the penalty for illegal gatherings of unregistered groups.
The guiding philosophy of Uzbek law surrounding religions is that the government considers the practice of religion to be extremist activity. In the eyes of the deeply secular government, the threat of extremism justifies extreme control. Religious registration requires that the groups give the government a great deal of information, including lists of members, and registered organizations are held accountable for compliance with laws surrounding buildings approved for religious meetings and the use of approved religious documents. In order to be approved, religious documents, including the Bible, must be published by approved publishers, sold in approved bookstores, printed in approved translations, and so forth. Failure to comply on any point is grounds for the accusation of promoting extremism. To offer to pray for someone in a public park is extremism, because the park is not an approved location for religious activity. To invite someone to receive Christ into his heart is extremism, because proselytizing is forbidden. To tell five little children playing in your yard the story of Noah and the Ark is extremism, because no children may be taught religion without written permission of their parents and no religious teaching to anyone of any age may be done outside an approved location for religious education. To read a Bible on the bus is an act of extremism if the Bible is not an approved translation which you acquired at an approved bookstore which verified that the publisher is on the government’s approved list. To have a lot of Bibles of any translation in your house, along with a pile of tracts and a few devotional magazines is to give evidence of personal extremism, and makes you subject to the accusation that you plan to distribute the materials and incite further extremism.
It is in this context that Majid (not the real name) was arrested for possessing unauthorized materials that are considered to be extremist, with the intent to distribute them. It brings to American minds the image of drug dealers and their paraphernalia. The comparison is appropriate. The government of Uzbekistan has its roots in the former Soviet Union, where political leaders learned that “religion is the opiate of the people.” Uzbek government does not want its citizens to be addicted to religion, and they regard religious activism the same way Americans regard street gangs that peddle drugs.
Majid is, unfortunately for him, a repeat offender. He was arrested once before for possessing extremist literature with the intent to distribute it. In the eyes of the Uzbeks, that experience should have taught him to eschew any further infractions, but Majid loves Jesus and wants to share Jesus with everyone. After he was released the first time, he made diligent efforts to acquire more Bibles and more Christian books to share. A second arrest makes him liable to greater fines and longer imprisonment. Prisoners in Uzbekistan should not, by law, be abused, but Christians arrested for extremism historically suffer beatings and even torture.
What does this story have to do with the USA?
In February of this year, Barna Group released a study of the way the culture in the USA views Christians. After 1000 interviews conducted in August 2015, Barna concluded that the culture strongly feels that a Christian, if not already an extremist, is a threat to become one. The responses of those who were interviewed established several points on which the culture’s perceptions of Christians is troubling.
- Nearly half of non-believers consider Christianity to be extremist.
- The behaviors that are considered extreme include many very common behaviors of Christians, even some behaviors that are considered integral to the fabric of the faith.
What sort of behavior qualifies as extremist in the eyes of the American public?
Here are a few examples:
- Refuse to bake a cake to be served at a wedding reception for a same-sex marriage, on the grounds that your religious principles forbid you to participate in a same-sex marriage
- Tell a fellow passenger on a bus about Jesus and invite that person to receive Christ
- Tell your children that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful
- Silently read your Bible while waiting in the boarding area at the airport
- Tell your children that they are born sinful
- Pray aloud in a grocery store for a woman who just told you her husband was terminally ill
- Believe that homosexual behavior is abnormal and sinful (Presumably this attitude motivates you to teach this principle to your children, which makes you extreme on two counts.)
- Protest a government policy that requires employers to pay for medical treatments and devices which the employer considers immoral on the basis of his or her faith in Jesus and commitment to biblical truth
- Protest government subsidies for abortion providers on the grounds that abortion is murder of a human being
- Quit working for IBM and become a missionary to Haiti
- Have no sexual relations with your fiance’.
- Tithe your income
- Go to church and worship with other Christians every week
Most Christians will have trouble seeing any item on this list as extreme behavior. Sadly for Christians, this list is not exhaustive. It is merely a sample of the sorts of things considered to be extreme or to be incitement to extremism.
It is precisely such perceptions that lead a government to devise laws that require religious organizations to register and laws that tightly control the content and publication of religious materials, including Bibles. If the attitudes described above really are extremist, why wouldn’t it be normal to arrest someone who had a houseful of Bibles and other religious materials, with the obvious intention to distribute them to many people, thereby inciting others to his or her own level of extremism.
It is easy for Christians to say that it is Satan’s fault that people have this view of Christians and Christianity. Such accusations are flung out by long-suffering tongues through bitter lips. Christians are not wrong to recognize that Satan works hard to twist the perceptions of non-believers, but Christians must recognize that Jesus did not call us to be angry with the people who think this way. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28).
The popular way to deal with rejection like this is to apologize to the public and promise never to do it again. If that statement is accompanied with a comment that it was never your intent to threaten or scare anyone, that would be nice, and it would be even better if you said that you realize your words were hurtful and your actions were scary, and you plan to change everything so people feel better about you.
The problem is that the behaviors considered “extreme” by non-believers are central to what it means to be Christian. We are called to live our faith every moment of every day, in all places at all times. We are called by Christ to be the same no matter where we are. It is the highest hypocrisy to pray in church that sinners suffering Satanic enslavement to homosexuality will be released from that bondage and then go into the public forum and celebrate gay marriage. If we do things like that, we know we are betraying Christ, and we know that we are betraying our sacred responsibility to be messengers of Christ’s salvation, grace, forgiveness and transformation for sinners everywhere. We cannot pretend publicly to comply with the moral relativism of the culture and only secretly speak and act in harmony with our faith.
Just as Majid in Uzbekistan bravely continues to prepare to share his faith with others, even though proselytizing is against the law of Uzbekistan, we must continue to prepare to share our faith with others, even though the culture rejects our “extremism.” Just as Majid continues to discuss the Bible with other people in places not authorized for religious education, we must continue to share Jesus on buses and in airports and in the grocery store. When challenged, we must remember to love those who challenge us, to pray for them, and to bless them in every way possible. Why?
While the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesara, a visiting king named Agrippa asked to hear this famous prisoner speak. Paul told Agrippa how he met Christ and became a faithful follower of Christ, and then Paul said to Agrippa, “do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27). Agrippa was taken aback and said, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Agrippa clearly recognized the truth in Paul’s words, and Paul yearned deeply for the king to open his heart to that truth. His response to Agrippa’s hesitation is the reaction we should have to all the attacks and misconceptions and even lies that non-believers tell about Christians. Paul said, and we should say, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
Majid demonstrates the right way to deal with the misconceptions of believers. He goes right on being a faithful Christian. It does cost him. In Uzbekistan, arrest and imprisonment for breaking the religion laws is often accompanied by stiff fines, fines that amount to years and years of normal wages. Majid knows that he is subject to this suffering when he obeys Christ and shares the good news with people. Each of us knows that if we live the way Christ calls us to live, we are subject to severe cultural harassment, and in some cases, we may even be subject to legal complications. We may be accused of discrimination,. or we may simply be charged with noncompliance with regulations. If the culture becomes more assertive in its characterization of Christianity as organized extremism, the rhetoric will become more hateful, and the laws may even become more stringent.
We have civil rights as American citizens that citizens of Uzbekistan do not have. We have much more voice in the legislation and administration and the processes of justice than Uzbek citizens have. As Christians, we have the right and the responsibility to advocate and take action and vote. We must be active, vocal citizens, but our rhetoric must always be the rhetoric of truth spoken with love. We may be accused of extremism according to the cultural definition of extremism, but we must live in a deep, integral relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ that assures we put the extreme demands of spiritual warfare in the hands of the all-conquering Christ.
By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com. Watch for the release of Thrive! Live Christian in a Hostile World, planned for release in the summer of 2016