One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”Matthew 22:35-40When Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, he set his followers on a path that has intersected violently with cultures and governments over the past two thousand years. These two commandments define a life of self-denial in complete submission to God and a life of complete love of people that is as limitless and demanding as legitimate self-esteem. These laws are not about when and where to worship, what hymns to sing, what prayers to pray. These “laws” are about life itself. Christians clash with surrounding cultures and governments, because they do not put allegiance to country or to self first.
Open Doors USA annually documents the consequences of following Christ and his commandments around the world in the World Watch List, a list of the 50 most dangerous countries for Christians. It truly is dangerous to be a Christian, even though it may not seem so to a Christian in the USA. Some of the dangers Christians face are quite subtle. It is easy for Christians to be deluded. The dangers Christians face today are not really different from the dangers Christ faced in the wilderness when Satan came to tempt him. The temptation to do magic instead of miracles, the temptation to be impressive rather than truthful, and most of all, the temptation to be a marketer rather than a missionary. Open Doors divides the challenges to Christians into two categories: the squeeze and the smash.
The squeeze is cultural pressure. Scorn. Family expectations. Denial of job opportunities. The Christian who lives by faith every day, putting God first and loving people selflessly, can be subjected to almost unbearable social pressures. In countries where Islam is dominant, a Christian faces immense pressure to renounce Christ, because family and friends express their very real fear that the new Christian will be eternally punished for apostasy. If the government is Islamic as well, the government may consider a new Christian to be a threat to the nation, which exponentially increases the pressure and may lead to the smash.
The smash is real violence. Arrest, imprisonment, torture, even execution. Sometimes the government stands by and does nothing while private groups burn church buildings and private homes belonging to Christians. At other times, government officials may participate in the violence.
American citizens have not seen real violence perpetrated against Christians. The colonial forebears of the colonists who founded the country were mostly Christian, the actual founders were mostly Christian, and the culture had a Christian flavor because of the dominance of Christians in the population. Many of the original colonists had fled religious persecution in one form or another, and the founding documents embody an unwillingness to perpetuate that sort of persecution in the new country. The US government has never included a state religion, although its common language and practices gave evidence of the Christian connections of the founders. In fact, the First Amendment made it clear that while the USA would renounce the establishment of any religion, it would protect the freedom of every individual to express his faith, whether he served in the Senate or plowed a field. In theory, the First Amendment should prevent the smash from developing, but no legal framework can prevent the squeeze.
Today, the culture of the USA is less and less dominated by people who self-identify as Christians. Furthermore, among people who self-identify as Christians, fewer and fewer consider Christian faith to be important enough for their expression of it to include regular worship or an exclusive commitment to its teachings. The culture in general is becoming increasingly secular, and churches increasingly include secular concepts in their teachings. The squeeze of contemporary culture is working to suppress the free expression of Christian faith or any other religious expression. Increasingly the culture promotes the idea that being “spiritual” but not “religious” is a more mature way to live than making a commitment to the hierarchy and rules of a “religion.” Christians would not describe their commitment that way, but that is the way the culture describes it.
Cultural squeeze is harder to document than the smash. Smirking scorn at the mention of the Bible in a conversation about ethics can hardly be equated with an exploding bomb in a church building. The sometimes not too subtle cultural squeeze in the US is pervasive enough that some Christians feel uncomfortable to tell anyone the root of their views about right and wrong. Any person who confesses publicly to faith in God is subject to the same withering derision that was directed at Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum during the 2012 presidential primaries. Anyone who comments or who reads comments on the internet will quickly discover that the expression of Christian teachings will evoke mockery and disdain from other commenters. They can’t draw blood, but they could make someone cry.
It is very important that Christians in the USA be aware of the squeeze and the smash wherever it is occurring. It is equally important that Christians in the USA learn from observing what happens in other countries. There are daily assaults on the US Constitution, and the entire document is often dismissed as out-of-date and irrelevant to the contemporary world. The protections embodied in that document are meaningless if the document is meaningless. In Nigeria, after twenty years of ignoring cultural changes, “Christians suddenly realized they were second class citizens in a culture that was once hospitable to them, and is now hostile to them.” The same thing could happen to Christians in the USA.
Be aware. Be attentive. What have you noticed so far?