Tag Archives: proselytizing

CHRISTIAN ARRESTED FOR EXTREMISM BECAUSE HE OWNS A BIBLE

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

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Stop and Think About the Bible

torah_500

You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven. Mark 14:62 ESV 

  • Jesus was on trial. The high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ?” Jesus answered, “I am.” Why did that statement enrage the priest?
  • After Jesus said, “I am,” he made the statement quoted above. To what was he referring? 
  • Why is it important to know that Jesus is both 100% human and 100% God? What difference does it make to your life?
  • Many religions believe that they show respect for Jesus by saying that he was a wise prophet but no god. There are even secular thinkers who say that they respect what Jesus taught about love and peace, but they reject any notion that he is God. Why is that concept complete blasphemy? Why don’t Christians riot and shout “death to the infidels?” when someone makes this allegation?
  • Imagine that the US government arrested you and put you on trial for reading your Bible on a public bus, charged with attempting to proselytize fellow passengers by displaying this book. Further imagine that the judge announced that charges would be dropped if you were willing to classify the Bible as a book of fantasy. How would you respond? 
  • Imagine that you join other Christians and parade through a local festival carrying signs that say, “Jesus is alive!” Further imagine that you are arrested for being a public nuisance and you are offered a choice: either declare that Jesus is not alive any longer or spend six months in rehabilitative therapy with a diagnosis of schizophrenia because you believe that a dead person is alive and speaking to you. How would you respond? 
  • Why are these imaginary scenarios credible? What are you doing today to push back against the development of political and social action that denies people the right to have faith in God?

 

By Katherine Harms, author of Oceans of Love available for Kindle at Amazon.com.

Image: Torah Scroll
Source:
http://library.duke.edu/exhibits/hebrewbible/torah.html
License:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0

 

 

 

Stop and Think about the Bible

Torah ScrollIf I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. Jeremiah 20:9

Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 1 Corinthians 9:16

  • The speaker in the first verse is the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. The second verse comes from a letter written by the apostle Paul. Both of these men encountered aggressive, even violent opposition when they did what God wanted them to do. Why did they not shut up and go be safe?
  • Do you know anyone who makes you feel that it would be prudent not to mention your faith? What do you do when people actually suggest that you should avoid that subject?
  • Both Jeremiah and Paul had very vivid experiences when God called them to do his work. Not everyone gets that kind of a vivid call. Sometimes the call is simply the recognition that God has led you to a crossroads where you must choose whom you serve, Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho who is named in Christ’s ancestry in the gospel of Matthew simply did the right thing when God’s spies came to her for help. What is the moment, or the several moments, when you began to understand that God has something for you to say? To write? To do? Could you sum up your sense of God’s call on your life in a paragraph? A page? In a comment at the bottom of this post?
  • Many charities and charitable projects apply for grants from government at all levels. When this process first surfaced, the government was grateful for the value Christian charities brought to people in need. Now the government wants to restrict the charities from mentioning Christ, offering prayer or explaining who Christ is to clients when engaged in any activity funded by the grant. Since it is quite common for government rules to change midstream, is it feasible for any Christian charity to accept government money for any purpose? Do you believe God provides for all his purposes? Do you trust that God will not permit his own work to fail?
  • Secular thinkers believe that religion is an element of social life comparable to membership in a country club. They believe that nothing is lost if people restrict speech about faith to people who concur in the faith principles. Further, many secular thinkers consider that inviting a nonbeliever to church is tantamount to an attempt to force that person to believe. How would you explain yourself if someone challenged you for making an invitation to attend a service or a church activity?

Why Christian Charities Reject Atheist Participation

You may have read some recent articles and commentary about what happens when atheists attempt to volunteer for Christian charities or donate money to them. Christian charities are rejecting both the service and the money atheists are prepared to give.  Atheists find this behavior quite weird, and those who pass for journalists in contemporary culture appear to find it equally dismaying. They cannot imagine that it makes any sense to reject money from any source if the intent is to do good. They cannot imagine why an atheist who counsels a pregnant teen not to abort her baby out of respect for life isn’t doing the same thing a Christian is doing in that setting.

These same people are completely baffled when Christian photographers refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony, or when Christian innkeepers refuse to rent a room in a bed and breakfast to a same-sex couple. 

They are baffled, because they do not understand that for Christians, there is no such thing as some aspect of life and work that is not sacred. There is no such thing as a secular element in the life of a Christian. It is a failure to understand this truth that motivates the federal government to claim in court that when someone enters into commerce, he loses all rights to claim a conscience exemption from a law that conflicts with Christian teaching. 

Atheists who want to give money to a Christian charity almost certainly would protest if they thought their money was being used for “proselytizing.” The atheists who speak up in public all express at least mild distress at Christians who cannot keep their religion to themselves. Those who want to participate in Christian charity seem not to recognize that Christians regard every moment as a moment subject to the call of Christ to share the good news. The reason that neither the atheist nor his money is welcome to participate in what Christians regard as service to Christ is that the atheist is not serving Christ and has no good news to share.

An increasingly secular culture in the US has lured even a significant number of Christians into the belief that it doesn’t matter who hands out soup at a soup kitchen or who folds blankets at a homeless shelter. The secular culture sees serving meals and tidying space as secular endeavors. The culture asks, “Who cares?” about the credentials of service not related to “proselytizing.” The culture simultaneously scorns the very act of “proselytizing” associated with helping people in need. Secular thinking is able to classify some acts as “religious” or “spiritual” and some as “secular.” Christians cannot do that.

Christians learn from the example of Christ that life is like a seamless garment. Everything is integrated. In fact, biblical teaching says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48 ESV) but a deeper translation of the Greek says, “You will be integrated,” or perhaps, “You will be fulfilled.” The usual translation of the statement sounds like a command, but it might better be viewed as a goal, because the verb is in the future tense. This statement of Jesus in his paramount sermon sets a high goal for Christians – don’t even think about separating the sacred from the secular. You are sacred beings, and you cannot live schizophrenic lives with one toe in the church and one in the marketplace. Be like God – one fulfilled and perfectly integrated being.

When we understand what Christ taught, we understand why an atheist cannot do Christian service. A Christian serves soup as part of the good news that God loves the hungry person and provides for him. An atheist serves soup as a good deed that “gives back” to the culture. A Christian folds blankets at the homeless shelter as part of the good news that God loves the homeless and cares for them. An atheist folds blankets as an expression of obligation to the community in order to “give something back.” The two objectives are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, when the recipient of the charity offered by a Christian asks, “Why are you doing this?” a Christian will respond, “Because God loves you and me, and because Christ died for both of us.” An atheist might respond, “I just think everyone should give back.” That is not the good news of Christ. 

As for atheist money, the same standard applies. If an atheist gives money without strings, it might feel good to accept it and use it any way the charity wished. However, there is no guarantee that the atheist or the government or any other non-Christian source of funds will always be silent about the use of the money. The government already asserts guidelines for use of government money in faith-based operations. How can a charity that believes its reason for existence is the good news of Christ operate with integrity and abide by rules that forbid the use of the money in “proselytizing?” To non-Christians, every mention of Christ is “proselytizing” and to tell the truth, to Christians, every mention of Christ is part of telling the good news, so there is no disagreement on that point. Where atheist donors and Christians part company is at the point where atheists or government or anyone else insists that the charity separate secular services from sacred teaching. 

A Christian must be fully integrated, just as God is fully integrated. A Christian is not sometimes sacred and sometimes secular. Christian charities are meant to be full expressions of Christ’s love and grace. They are intended to tell the good news of Christ to everyone at all times. That is why atheists must be rejected whether they try to volunteer or donate money. Christian charities must reject their attempts to participate, but it is to be hoped that the charities find loving ways to share the good news with rejected volunteers and donors as well. A new Christian is as welcome in the service of Christ as one who has served for fifty years.

Speak with Respect

Recently a friend asked me what to do when she felt led to share Christ with someone who does not believe. With all the current emphasis on speaking “correctly” in various settings, she was concerned that her mention of Christ’s name was disrespectful to people who do not believe. She had read Paul’s words to Timothy, a young pastor, to preach the word “in season and out of season.” In other words, preach all the time. It is fundamentally the message Christ gave to his disciples as he prepared to ascend to heaven when he said, “As you are going, make disciples.” Jesus said, and Paul reiterated, that we are to be busy sharing our faith all the time. My friend wanted to know how she could speak of her faith without upsetting people who do not believe.

The answer is that it is not possible to know whether the mention of Christ’s name will upset someone. Christians are called to love people the way Christ does, and if they love people, they will want to share Christ with people who do not know him. In the US today, a mention of Christ, even an invitation to receive Christ, is not against the law. It is free speech protected by the First Amendment, but that protection does not have any effect on the personal reaction of someone who thinks religion is a bunch of “ghost stories.”

This problem really is a problem in some countries around the world. Not too long ago, a new convert to Christianity in Morocco was arrested because he “shook the faith” of a Muslim. This new Christian is so happy in his faith that he can’t shut up about it. His Muslim neighbors complained that he was always inviting them to church and talking about Jesus. In prison he was tortured by guards and abused by fellow prisoners, but he said, “Before I became a Christian I had no peace, but now I have peace all the time.” In prison, subject to torture and beatings, he had peace. He is currently out of prison on condition of being silent about Jesus, but he is not silent, despite the risks. He reminds us all of the statement by Peter to the high priest in Jerusalem: “We must obey God rather than men.”

In Iran, a Christian and a Muslim had a quiet conversation in a park. They were in the capital city, where Evin prison holds many Christians imprisoned for being vocal about their faith. These prisoners are all convicted of being threats to national security. During the conversation, the Muslim spoke of the religious police who circulate all over the city and of the many rules and regulations that control daily life in Iran. He said, “This place feels like a prison.”  The Christian in this case had to be discrete in his response to this statement. He had friends in Evin prison who had carelessly agreed with such statements, only to discover that the statement was made as bait to entice them to criticize the government. He did not hesitate out of “respect” for the Muslim’s unbelief but rather as an act of serpentine wisdom. He truly must beware. If a Christian in Iran speaks of Christ to a Muslim, he does so knowing the risk he is taking.

In the US, Christians are not yet at risk of arrest for sharing the faith. I greet people in the name of Christ without knowing their beliefs, because I love to share Christ. Even people who look a bit puzzled and turn away do not seem to feel that this greeting is illegal speech. In the US we speak freely because free speech is protected. However, this state of affairs can change and may change. Without even repealing the First Amendment, it is possible for the Supreme Court to frame the wording of a decision about speech that categorizes faith sharing as outside the protection of the First Amendment. It is hard to imagine how that could be, but with daily assaults on the free exercise of religion, some assault on free speech about religion seems almost inevitable. Already, the word “proselytizing” has begun to surface as a scornful description of faith speech.

When Christians speak to anyone about Christ, the motivation is love. Love is both respectful and powerful. Real love is willing to do the hard thing in order to bring blessing to the loved one. There certainly are people who are adamantly and angrily opposed to the sharing of faith speech in public. They do not want to hear anything about Christ. They might be very angry if someone said, “Jesus loves you.” Christians need to be wise about when they  speak and what they say.

Fortunately, before Christ was crucified, he promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would always be with them to guide and inspire their words. He also promised them that they would be hated and reviled, even persecuted. Christians who obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit need to speak when they receive that guidance, but when they do, they must also be ready to accept whatever response they receive. Those to whom they speak may think the Christian is kindly sharing something good, but it is possible that those people will erupt angrily, lashing out and accusing the Christians of hate speech or even unconstitutional acts.

There may be reasons to be silent on some occasions. Jesus taught that Christians are not called to barge in like roaming cattle. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is the only reliable guide for speaking or being silent. A Christian must certainly respect the human value of each person, but a Christian must expect and be willing to ask for the respect of those who do not believe. Every person is entitled to respect for being human, without regard to what he believes or does not believe. When a non-believer rails against a Christian for speaking of what he believes, the Christian has the same right as the non-believer to speak up for respect. Not aggressively demanding respect, but quietly asserting a right to be respected. A non-believer has the permission of God Almighty to refuse to believe, but the non-believer does not have God’s permission to speak abusively or to engage in outright assault. In the US, believers should be able to speak with courtesy and respect in conversation with unbelievers, but there is no guarantee that the response will always be in the same vein.

Christians must respect everyone, but they must always follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If a Christian speaks of God’s love to someone who reacts violently, Christians must continue to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in love and grace. To speak of God’s love to someone who rejects him is not a lack of respect; it is an act of profound love.

What is your experience when you speak of Christ to people who reject him?