Tag Archives: Religious freedom

Religious Persecution Takes a Variety of Forms

In the USA, we are accustomed to the freedom to choose and practice any religion. Or no religion. There is a certain amount of friction over the boundaries between some religion and no religion. There is friction. In February, 2012, the friction boiled over into a hot dispute about the boundaries between religious practices and government. Americans believe that our right to exercise our religion is inherent in our constitution, but sometimes disputes with government hinge on dark semantics.

In the USSR, a country founded on Marxist principles, religion was severely repressed. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” and the government of the USSR viewed religion with scorn. When the USSR collapsed and its government was dissolved, many people thought that religions would automatically flower in the nations which formerly comprised that vast union. It hasn’t happened everywhere. It hasn’t happened in Belarus.

Article 16 of the constitution of Belarus says that the country has no state religion. However, the country does require that religions be registered. A law passed in 2002 makes unregistered religious activity a criminal offense. The secret police of Belarus monitor all religious activity. The law prohibits meetings of unregistered religious groups, and restricts any religious activity directed toward children. If the federal government of the USA suddenly announced that private citizens who wanted to hold prayer meetings or Bible studies in their living rooms were required to fill out a long form and receive a registration number from Washington in order to be legal, Americans would be outraged. Americans would be equally outraged if police raided a group of people meeting in a storefront or someone’s basement on Sunday because they could not afford to buy a church building. In Belarus, pastors are fined more than they earn in a month if the police find them conducting services in unregistered locations or if a policemen discovers that they are reading the Bible and praying with people on sidewalks in their home towns.

If the USA were like Belarus, this scene would be credible:

Sandra, at the cash register at Safeway, pays her bill and receives her receipt. She glances at the cashier’s name tag and says, “The peace of Christ be with you Darlene.”
Darlene:  “Thank you so much. I need to ask you something.”
Sandra: “What is it?”
Darlene: “Would you pray for my granddaughter Jenny? She is only eight years old and she has pneumonia. Her mother is worried.”
Sandra: “Of course. I pray God will bless Jenny with healing. May he comfort Jenny’s mother and give the doctor wisdom to care for Jenny.”
In the line behind Sandra, a man shoves two people aside and strides up to Sandra. He shows a police badge.
Policeman: “Step out of the line and come with me.”
Sandra: “Why?”
Policeman: “You know it is against the law to pray outside of a registered church building. I have to take you in and book you for unregistered religious activity.”
The policeman cuffs Sandra and leads her away.

Would you want this sort of law in the USA? 

In countries where religions must be registered, their activities and influence are severely constrained. In the USA people can choose a religion, change their religion or decide to have no religion, and to date, people think it is no business of the government. Recent developments have some people asking if something changed.

Various religions in this country provide a range of social services whose quality far exceeds that of any programs operated by any level of government. They have provided those services following policies guided by their freely-chosen religious principles. However, recent news stories report that the federal government has intruded on the religious principles of numerous Christian agencies and institutions, demanding that social services be provided under policies consistent with federal social policies, regardless of Christian teachings to the contrary. Christian adoption agencies have been ordered to place children with same-sex couples in direct conflict with Christian teaching that homosexuality is sin. Christian pharmacists have been ordered to provide counseling for morning-after abortifacients and to fill prescriptions for morning-after abortifacients even if the phatmacists hold the view that it is a sin to provide and use such medications, even if they are willing to graciously refer patients to providers for whom there is no religious conflict with the service. Christian hospitals and universities have been ordered to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization as covered services in healthcare benefits for their employees, even though the institutions are founded and operated by people who belong to a religion that teaches that such “services” are sin. How is arresting people for conducting unregistered religious activity different from fining people for refusing to conduct activities in direct opposition to their religious principles?

Around the world, Christians are praying for their fellow Christians in Belarus to be free to choose and exercise their faith. Maybe we should also be praying for some power in the USA to resurrect the First Amendment and protect the free exercise of Christian faith in the USA, too.

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How Important is Religious Freedom?

 

In the USA we are accustomed to say that we have religious freedom, because the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us. That amendment forbids the Congress to set up a state church and fund it by taxation. It also forbids the Congress from enacting laws interfering with free expression of religion. Our country has a legal foundation of religious freedom.

 

The country of Djibouti likewise has legal protection of religious freedom. In fact, the government has a history of enforcing the protections of religious freedom. The constitution allows citizens the freedom to belong to any religion, but the culture is another matter.

 

The state religion is Islam, and more than 99% of the population of about 700,000 is Muslim. Christians number approximately 15,000, and many of them are expatriates. Few citizens are Christians. The major challenge for Christians living in Djibouti is the cultural response to proselytizing. In keeping with Islamic teaching that conversion from Islam to any other religion is a terrible sin, family and friends exert powerful pressure against any attempt to lead a Muslim to convert to Christianity. In 2009, it was reported that a few small Christian missionary groups were active, but the public view is that Christian evangelism is an affront to Islam.

 

The word “proselytize” is a civil term used to talk about the work Christians call “evangelism.” Christians consider Christ’s command to make disciples and baptize new believers to be the most important work of the church. Non-Christians call this work “proselytizing.” Christian testimony to the good news that Christ died to forgive sinners and reconcile them with God is the central feature of Christian living. Christians in any culture feel compelled as a normal part of living their faith to tell non-Christians about Christ in the fervent hope that they will believe. In Djibouti, the culture forcibly resists all efforts to lead Muslims to Christian faith. The pressure is so severe that Open Doors USA reports that new believers whose former religion was Islam are fearful even to tell close family members about their conversion.

 

The culture of the USA is not immune to the same sort of pressure. For more than two hundred years, Christianity was the dominant religion in the country and the dominant force in the culture. Christian holidays felt natural to everyone, and Christian ideas dominated the language and the moral turf. Today, however, immigration of Muslims and growing Muslim communities around the nation make Islam a more powerful force in the culture than it was as recently as 1992. Even as Islam enjoys the First Amendment protections that have permitted it to thrive despite minority status in the culture, today Muslims are publicly advocating for increased accommodation of Islamic practices such as women wearing headscarves and the provision of footbaths and prayer rooms for students and workers. There is even pressure to prohibit behavior and speech construed as criticism of Islam or satire directed at Mohammed. These trends keep the friction between Islamic culture and Christian culture at a high level.

 

Christians in the US are already under secular pressure to keep their religion behind closed doors. Many secularists maintain a “live and let live” attitude toward religion. For them, Christianity and Islam are equally primitive manifestations, but they don’t see religion as a threat. However, some secularists aggressively advocate not freedom of religion but rather, freedom from religion. This element of our culture would like to remove all public evidence of religious faith and practice.

 

The presence of a growing number of faithful Muslims in the US population puts pressure on Christians in a different way. The cultural resistance to proselytizing in Djibouti is an expression of an important teaching of Islam . Because the US and Djibouti both have a civil law code that allows people to choose and change their religions at will, nobody in either country can be convicted in court and executed for converting from Islam to Christianity. Nevertheless, in either country, family and friends can bring severe pressure to bear on any Muslim who might convert. Muslims in the US do not generally express revulsion toward Christianity, but neither do they welcome effort to win converts from within their communities. The more Muslims in the population, the more pressure for Christians to stop trying to make disciples in obedience to the command of Christ.

 

Religious freedom is important. Every human being has the right, granted by God at creation, to choose whom he will serve. The culture of the USA has always been a blend of many faiths and many ethnicities, and our nation has benefited from all the different contributions. Under the stress of international tensions created by terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslim adherents, both Muslims and Christians have heightened sensitivity rooted in their very different world views. Christians teach that we are to love all people, but it is easy to forget that teaching and get caught up in pejorative rhetoric. We cannot in good conscience advocate full freedom of religions expression for all citizens if we are simultaneously engaged in vulgar name-calling instead of reasoned public discourse.

 

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in ancient Rome, a real crucible of cultural blending, and said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18) It was people who were shaped by that sort of teaching who wrote the First Amendment. They did not write it in an attempt to impose Christianity on unwilling converts. They wrote it to assure that people of all faiths could live in peace together. The First Amendment pushes back against secular pressure to shut down all faith expressions or against the pressure by one religion to shut down the faith expressions of other religions or against pressure by any religion to shut down rejection of all religion by any individual. For more than two hundred years this constitutional protection has prevented the kind of oppression and even violence that plague many nations. Nigeria, for example, is beset with ferocious, deadly violence as an expression of a desire by Boko Haram to eliminate Christians from the population. Bhutan is beset with similar violence by Buddhists.

 

The USA has hitherto been a model for religious freedom while keeping the public dialogue about the details of that freedom open and active. Our religious freedom is an integral element of the climate of freedom in this country. The freedom to live and speak and teach our most fervent convictions has been a magnet to people all over the world who yearn for that freedom. In countries where a single religion or ideology suppresses all other ideas, the yearning for freedom drives people to extreme measures to escape suppression and flee to freedom. How important is religious freedom? It is profoundly important. The men who wrote the US Constitution believed that if a power had not been ceded to the federal government, then it remained with the states and with the people. However, in recent years the federal government has made numerous creative inroads on that constitutional principle. By means of creative rhetoric, aggressive federalists have eroded even rights specifically granted to states. The history of our Supreme Court, documented in numerous cases, makes it clear how important the First Amendment is to the climate of religious freedom in which American citizens thrive. How important is religious freedom? Ask the citizens of Nigeria and Djibouti.

Living Christian in a Secular World

Category:Monuments_and_memorials Category:Monu...
Category:Monuments_and_memorials Category:Monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. (Original text : This bronze figure, entitled “Justice,” is one of the three parts of the Oscar Straus Memorial. Between this and its companion figure, “Reason” is a fountain. Inscription reads: “Our liberty of worship is not a concession nor a privilege, but an inherent right.”) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9 

Secular thinkers hearing the words of Isaiah scoff at the idea of anything higher than themselves. They examine the wonder of humankind, and they believe there is nothing higher than that. They emphatically assert that this world we can see and touch is all there is. However, if we simply exchanged the word higher for the word different, secular thinkers would absolutely agree with this text. The thought of God is vastly different from secular thought. Secular thinking dominates twenty-first century culture in the USA, and Christians need to be alert to all the ways that secular thinking differs from Christian thinking. To understand secular thinking will help Christians to have appropriate expectations of conversation with secular thinkers, and it will help prevent Christians from failing to understand the secular interpretation of words Christians use quite differently.

 

For most of the history of the USA, Christianity was the dominant religion in the culture. More than that, the culture was so richly permeated by Christian thought that even non-believers thought they ought to believe. There was a time when someone with no intention of attending worship on any Sunday would apologize to a Christian for not attending. No more. In today’s world, there is little expectation that even Christians will attend worship on Sunday. Those who do, find themselves in conflict with a variety of demands on their time. For America’s first two hundred years of history, Sunday was a quiet day in most communities, and little was happening that would conflict with any person’s desire to attend worship. Today, Christians with children in athletic programs, for example, will be compelled to juggle worship and ball practice and may not be able to find any way to fit worship into the schedule.

 

Many people who would not classify themselves as secular thinkers adopt secular thinking for their public life. Even Christians will say that they consider religion to be a private matter, something they won’t intrude into their social lives, their work or their politics.   Christians use the terms sacred and secular as if they, too, can separate the two concepts in their lives. There is a real groundswell of momentum toward religious neutrality in the public square. Secular philosophy almost universally regards religion as an antiquated, perhaps quaint, idea, although some secular humanists make room for religion, as long as it is isolated from public view. Secular thinkers do not think that God’s ways are higher than their ways, but they would agree that God-think is dramatically different from secular-think.

 

Secular thinking does not necessarily have to be dismissive of God, because there was an era in the US when secular simply meant not church. Over time, however, church people have cooperated in allowing a barrier to be created between sacred and secular behavior, sacred and secular spaces. Contemporary secular thinking is quite dismissive of God all the time and actively aggressive against God some of the time. Secular thinking is adamant that religion has no place in public life.

 

The dominance of secular thinking is changing the definitions of words. We are accustomed to think of the First Amendment as our protection to express our faith at any and all times. We call that right ‘freedom of religion.’ Secular thinkers more often express it as ‘freedom of worship’ and that tiny semantic difference expresses a vastly different mindset. The federal government has put into words what many secular thinkers would not be able to say so succinctly: religious activity takes place in a house of worship and consists of faith formation, worship and evangelism. This is the perspective applied as the government is gradually revising regulations and the interpretation of laws. When secular thinkers see us wearing cross pendants or see us reading the Bible at a bus stop or hear us offer to pray for someone at work, they think we have intruded our religion into the public realm where it does not belong. The vague suspicions of the general population are validated when the federal government says in a court of law that nothing happens in a for-profit business that has anything to do with religion, and that a petition for accommodation for a for-profit employer to express his religion in his business activities is, therefore, completely groundless.

 

It is a mistake for people whose call from Christ expects us to live as his followers in all places at all times to pretend that there is any difference in the way we live inside a church building or outside of it. Jesus taught us to live our faith in every word and deed. The Sermon on the Mount was not preached inside a house of worship, and it was not about liturgy. This sermon talks about the way we live our faith every day, out on the street. Of course, Jesus also told us that we could expect to be scorned and abused for doing so. When that happens, he taught us to love our opponents and pray blessing on them. The book of Revelation, however, gives us an image of a completely secular world in which people would rather have boulders fall on them than respond to God’s love. I meet people like that online now and then.

 

Psalm 23 is widely regarded as a comforting psalm, a place for retreat in times of trouble, a prayer for strength when the world feels threatening. It includes, however, a powerful metaphor for the daily life of a Christian in all situations. In the final statement of the psalm, David says, I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23:6) He says there, what Christians believe to be true – that our relationship with God permeates our daily lives. No matter where we go, no matter what our situation, we are always participating in that relationship. The presence of God is real to us not only inside a building during worship, but also outside that building as we work for our employers or visit with friends.

 

The power of this relationship is the indwelling Holy Spirit. In fact, when we live by the Spirit in places other people call secular, we live as if we were in houses of worship all the time. The apostle Paul once asked his Corinthian church, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (1 Corinthians 6:19) Paul’s words about the indwelling Holy Spirit suggest that God’s dwelling place, in the temple of our bodies, is in, with and under all our realities. To a secular thinker, there are sacred spaces and secular spaces, but to Christ’s people, every space is sacred, because God is there. It may be a concept that secular courts would ponder with skepticism, but it is the standard we live by. For us, there is no such thing as separating the sacred and the secular.

 

As Christians living in a secular world, we believe Christ calls us to live by the Spirit all the time. We don’t think we are expected to shut out the guidance of the Spirit when we go shopping at Wal-Mart. A Christian nurse expects to pray for her patients and for her fellow-workers as a natural expression of her faith in her daily life. A Christian teacher expects to be able to express her faith that the universe was created as a natural expression of her own faith in her life, even as she teaches the known science and the cosmological speculation about the processes God used in creation. A Christian social worker expects to be able to select families for adoptive children based on a Christian standard for families as a natural expression of his own faith. Secular thinkers believe and will say with real outrage that these people are pushing their religion on other people in forums where religion does not belong. This is not an academic hypothesis. All these things are being discussed right now in conversations all over the country.

 

It is interesting to note that the meaning of religious freedom as expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights sounds more like a Christian understanding of the place of religion in human life than like a secular view. Article 18 of the declaration says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The phrase “either alone or in community with others and in public or private” makes it clear that the UN upholds an individual’s freedom to express and share his religion in all places, whether the secular definition is either sacred or secular. The UN declaration says with greater clarity in contemporary language what the Constitution’s writers intended in the language of the First Amendment in 1791. Everything written about religious freedom in those days was understood at the time to mean the freedom for a citizen to be public in exercising his faith. The colonists who shaped the nation never intended the words “free exercise [of religion]” to mean free only in houses of worship.

This is the reason that Christians must be alert to the language used in political discourse in our country. When we hear the words, freedom of worship we must not equate them with the First Amendment protection, because freedom of worship is only part of the freedom that amendment guarantees. When we hear the words freedom of religion we must not equate them with the full freedom to live our faith in all places at all times, because many people who use the term freedom of religion only mean the right to choose any religion you wish. The amendment uses the words free exercise purposely to protect the right of all citizens to live according to their faith principles in all places at all times. It protects citizens from acts of government which either prevent them from doing things in keeping with their religious principles or require them to do things contradictory to their religious principles. The government is not authorized by this amendment to declare that any human activity or any location is exempted from the protection granted to citizens by the amendment.

The rising momentum of the secular definitions puts us in conflict with our culture. We cannot set our Christian behavioral standards aside just because we are not in church. We are not able to adopt secular standards or enable secular standards because of personal principles shaped by our faith. We find ourselves in the same conflict as Christians in many countries around the world where the culture and/or the government reject Christian teaching with scorn and restriction. Our situation increasingly corresponds to that of early Christians who were asked to worship the emperor as an act of political citizenship. Their unwillingness to bow as expected was interpreted as treason. Our unwillingness to comply with legislation or regulations that limit our freedom to exercise our faith is being seen in much the same light.

It is not too late for Christians to assert the First Amendment privilege to live our faith, not simply worship in buildings, but the cultural shift to secular definitions is moving at a startling pace. We have thought for two centuries that the First Amendment was our protection, and we did not need to engage in political discussions about it. Today, the definition of the free expression of religion is being reinterpreted to shut religion out of public sight. We cannot stop living our faith, but if we do not succeed in asserting that free expression means all places at all times, in both public and private, we can expect that our lives will change dramatically.  

God Answers the Prayers of the Persecuted

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...
Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9

 

Christ’s call to each of us to deny self and take up our own cross and follow him clearly teaches us that the ability to follow him does not come from personal will. If I deny self, then I can’t get my power to go forward from self; it must come from somewhere else. After I deny self, I am called to follow Christ, and that is where I get the ability to pick up my cross and go forward. If that were not enough to teach me that faithfulness in the Christian life is not about me, then Paul’s experience makes that teaching very clear.

Paul had a problem, and he asked Jesus to solve it. He prayed and prayed and prayed. But Jesus didn’t solve it, and Jesus didn’t tell Paul how to solve it. What Jesus did was to tell Paul he would be with him and enable him to endure it. He even said that Paul’s inability to solve his own problem was a blessed means for Christ’s power to work in Paul as Paul endured and thrived despite his persistent problem.

I have a problem like that. I have prayed and prayed about my problem. I have asked God to take it away. I have asked God to intervene and fix what is broken. I have asked God to act in human lives to transform them. But God’s answer is, “My grace is sufficient for you.” By God’s grace, I am able to recognize that Jesus keeps his ascension promise and goes with me through everything. It reminds me where my own power comes from. I have learned that face to face with challenges to my faith, I have very little power. It is good for me to know that my weakness becomes a vessel for the power of God to work through me.

We like to believe that when we pray in faith, God will give us exactly what we want. In fact, we read the words, “Ask, and you will receive,” and we think that is how it works. We want those words to stand all by themselves on top of a great mountain of personal gratification. We want what we want, and we want to claim that these words promise us what we want. The Bible, however, is a complete revelation, and we cannot build a life or a theology on a single word or phrase. The words all form a whole that we dissect to our great harm. These words, “Ask, and you will receive,” must be recalled and claimed in close connection with the words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Our “power” to ask God for what we need grows out of our weakness and inability to do it all for ourselves, and his answer may not be like a Christmas present off the top of our letter to Santa. God is not Santa Claus. The answer we “receive” when we “ask” may be the grace to live through something we would rather escape.

Christians in countries like Ethiopia and China pray faithfully to God every day. For them, the simple act of going to church for worship on Sunday may be viewed as a criminal act by their governments. It is likely that these Christians pray that their governments will relent and stop arresting, imprisoning and even torturing Christians. Yet so far, God has not granted them their wish the way a genie out of a bottle does. Instead God has answered their prayers with grace – the grace to live a faithful testimony to Christ. They feel weak and battered, but God’s power gives them the strength to testify with their very lives to the Christ who is more precious to them than life itself.

Here in the USA we complain that some people don’t respect Christians. We get angry when a school forbids the valedictorian to thank God publicly for the ability to learn and excel. We take offense when an employer refuses to allow office parties in December to be called “Christmas” parties. We are right to note that our culture is offended by Christianity, but as we take note of that fact, we must remember that Jesus said it would be this way. He warned us from the very beginning that the world would hate us, because it already hated him. We must respond to these reminders of Jesus’ teaching the way he taught us to respond – with love. Just like Christians in Ethiopia and China, we must pray for those who reject and insult us. We must learn, as the early disciples learned, to thank God for the opportunity to suffer for the name of Christ. Our testimony of love in the face of insult will be evidence of the working of God’s grace through our weakness. His grace is sufficient for us and for Christians around the world who are imprisoned and abused in the name of Christ. We must learn to be grateful for the opportunity to make that testimony.

How do Christians Respond to Restrictions on Religious Expression?

When I was a child, our teachers used to help us survive ugly situations by saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It wasn’t completely true, of course, but saying that little folksy proverb helped us to feel strong when people called us hateful names. It reminded us of the difference between being physically harmed and being scorned. It did not change the fact that some people in the world are simply hateful, but it did teach us a way to respond to hatred without reciprocating hatred.  

In the book The Cellist of Sarajevo Steven Galloway writes about four individuals trapped by the siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996, trying simply to stay alive while enemy snipers sit on the high ground around the city and kill innocent people every day. Each of the characters travels a unique path to a moment when he realizes that hatred is a choice. It is not necessary to hate people. The characters recognize that hatred rooted in the hearts of the men on the hills enables them to kill with impunity people who have done them no wrong. Each character finds some way to rise above the temptation to respond with equal hatred. Each probes himself deeply looking for a way not to participate in the mayhem. These characters were not motivated to be like Christ. They simply used their God-given reason to conclude that responding to hatred with hatred would only make things worse. 

Christians in the USA who feel the culture closing in around them can be tempted to be scornful, even hateful, toward the people who treat them badly. We know our rights. We won’t take this sitting down. We are actually caught in a trap of competing values when we perceive that our freedom to live our faith is in danger. We are followers of Christ, called to live our faith and make disciples, and we are citizens of the USA, free to believe whatever we like and to practice our faith without hindrance according to the Constitution of the United States of America. On the one hand, our agenda is to share Christ’s love with everyone, and on the other hand, we have rights as citizens. Behavior that grows out of the assertion of citizen rights may not always be consistent with behavior that grows out of a call to Christian discipleship. Citizen activism may be confrontational in a way that is inconsistent with living our faith. What to do? 

If people with no acknowledged faith in anything, the characters in The Cellist of Sarajevo, can reach the conclusion that responding to hatred with hatred will only escalate violent confrontations, people with faith in the Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them,” as he was nailed to a cross should surely be able to reach the same conclusion. In fact, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he taught his followers to expect opposition from the established religious leaders, the culture in general, and even from the state. He also taught them how to respond. He didn’t simply tell them not to hate their persecutors. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and pray blessings on those who persecuted them.  

This teaching is not as radical as it sounds if you view it in the context of the whole body of Christ’s teaching. Christ’s message was that the kingdom of God had come near to people. He brought the kingdom near in his person. The Holy Spirit dwelling within every believer brings the kingdom near to every person that believer meets. Jesus wanted his followers to be busy sharing the good news that God loves human beings and wants them to live in relationship with him. It would be pretty hard to say to people, “God loves you and wants you to love him, and by the way, I hate you for not agreeing to do that.” To be sure, there have been people who claimed the name of Christ who behaved exactly that way. That fact points out how much easier it is to claim the name than to live the relationship.  

The problem is that if we truly live our faith, our very behavior is sometimes an affront to the culture. The Catholic Bishops found themselves in that position when the president required Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for health services that are considered sinful according to the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible. For someone to call birth control sinful sounds quite judgmental and barbaric to someone who has just classified that very service as a universal human right. This episode is a reminder to all of us that we cannot assume that people who believe in different religious teachings, or in no religious teaching at all, will respect and admire our commitment to our faith. 

It isn’t easy to love my neighbors on good days. If one of them slaps me, or calls me bigoted or takes me to court for having a Bible study in my home, then I am not naturally inclined to invite them to strike me again. It is not natural to love my enemy. Yet that is what Christ calls me to do. Me. You. Everyone who claims his name. How do we get the guts and gumption to do that? We mature in our ability to live a faithful testimony by engaging faithfully in prayer, Bible study and worship. We can do this in isolation, to be sure, but human beings need connections. We mature more deeply when our private practices are nourished and reshaped by communal prayer, Bible study and worship. We need one another. Jesus said that we must put God above all other loyalties, but after that, we must love one another. 

How do we live in a culture that increasingly prefers all religious behavior to be confined to religious spaces? We do it by doing what Christ taught us to do. When Christians in the first century did that, they were sometimes arrested, and occasionally even killed. So far, nobody in the US has been executed by the state for being a Christian. We can be thankful for that, but we cannot assume that it means that won’t happen. In order to face the future with confidence, we must cling ever more firmly to the promise that Christ will go with us through whatever the future brings. He is the one who holds our future in his hands. We can trust Christ for both time and eternity.

Do you think religious freedom is important? Do you think all the talk about restriction and persecution is silly? Here is someone else’s take on The Preciousness of our First Freedom.