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Freedom of Religion

February 2018
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“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” ~President Ronald Reagan

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (and the Bill of Rights which contains the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution) states the following:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Quote source here.)

In the United States of America, religious freedom and the expression of such beliefs is a Constitutional right of all citizens, but what about beyond the law? What about everyday life in America for the everyday citizen who has religious beliefs that others around them might not agree with, believe in, or share? 

Here in America we often look in horror at the persecution experienced by others that is taking place around the world for their religious (and often Christian) beliefs. However, we tend to think of persecution as taking place “over there” in some distant country without the benefit of religious freedom. However, what if, especially in recent decades, a type of persecution has invaded our own shores that often goes unnoticed by the public-at-large because it doesn’t “look” the same as the persecution that is going on in other countries around the world, and it is often disguised in other types of more “normal” type events like chronic and prolonged unemployment or even homelessness? What about our skyrocketing health crises and opioid and drug addiction epidemic, and rapidly rising obesity rates? Other factors include economics as mentioned in articles like What’s Killing the American Middle Class? by Richard Eskow, writer, former Wall Street executive, and radio journalist, on BillMoyers.com. Perhaps we just don’t see any connection at all because we don’t want to see it. Subterfuge is never obvious, and that’s the whole point.

And maybe Ronald Reagan was right after all. . . .

I came across a 2015 article on Patheos.com, titled, Yes, There is Christian Persecution in America, and Here’s What It Looks Like,” by Benjamin Corey, a cultural anthropologist and public theologian; a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and recipient of a Doctor of Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He admits to having been one of the “naysayers” regarding Christian persecution in America until he started to encounter it (see his article published in July 2017 on his personal experience with Christian Ghosting at this link). Here’s what he had to say in that 2015 article:

I’ve often written about the American persecution complex that tends to see anti-Christian persecution under every rock, and have long been a proponent that such claims of persecution are often simply a loss of privilege or the ability to persecute others. Each time I say something along these lines, I usually get a flood of comments and messages/e-mails telling me how wrong I am and that Christianity in America is under attack. One commenter even said recently that “Jesus” is the only name you’re not allowed to speak at work without getting fired.

Secretly I’ve had some misgivings about my position and these doubts have now given way to a change in position. So, this post is a capitulation to my critics and a public admission about how wrong I’ve been. Yes, Christians are bullied for their faith in America– and it happens on a daily basis. Yes, Christians can lose their jobs simply because they believe in the teachings of Jesus. Yes, some Christians in America are hated on account of their association with Jesus. Real persecution just happens to look differently than what is often claimed as persecution. Case in point:

A few weeks ago, MidAmerica Nazarene University chaplain and Vice President of Community Formation Dr. Randy Beckum spoke at the student chapel services. Dr. Beckum gave a short sermon during the chapel service that is being billed as “controversial” and something that really upset the student and faculty population at MidAmerica Nazarene (see/read full text here). What was so controversial and offensive you ask? Well, let’s take a look.

At first, Dr. Beckum starts off by saying,

“In my life, I have struggled with some things that Jesus said, (pretty plainly), that go against the grain of what is accepted as normal, or OK or even a sign of a being a good Christian in this part of the world.”

Seems like something I’ve heard a thousand times in my life–we’re repeatedly told that just because something is widely accepted as being okay or normal, such acceptance doesn’t mean it’s okay for a Christian. And, I totally agree.

Except, and here’s where Dr. Beckum got himself into some serious problems: he wasn’t speaking about listening to rock and roll or wearing skirts that weren’t knee high– he was talking about the golden calf of American Christianity. He went on to say,

“Anyone who has made a decision to follow Jesus realizes that the goal of a being a Christian is to become Christ-like.”

Sounds good so far, but starting to get edgy with this Jesus-likeness stuff. But here’s where he went completely off the rails:

“I am extremely troubled.  I have been for a long time and I have hesitated to address this subject publicly, but I cannot keep silent about it any longer… I don’t think it is an under-statement to say that our culture is addicted to violence, guns, war, revenge and retaliation. Unfortunately, so are a lot of Christians… So, what does Jesus have to say about it.  Again, if you are not a follower of Jesus you can relax.  This doesn’t concern you. But Christians have to do something with this.  I have to do something with the words of Jesus and his actions… We have to be very careful about equating patriotism with Christianity. We never say God and…anything.  God is above all, everything else is underneath… We have put “our way of life”/freedom on the top rung. If you mess with it I’ll blow your head off. For a Christian what is on the top rung? Love for all.”

Dr. Beckum ended his sermon by reminding the students that not only did Jesus teach radical enemy love, but that we should serve them, and forgive them as well.

In many Christian circles you can talk about the Bible all you want, and you can speak as much Christianese as possible, but as Dr. Beckum has now learned, you cannot talk about what Jesus taught regarding enemy love. That is off-limits and heresy.

The sermon on enemy love sparked an outcry at the University, with some furious that he’d have the audacity to call into question the issue of Christians using violence against enemies. The MNU president was quickly forced to issue a statement distancing himself from the teachings of Jesus, saying:

“At MidAmerica Nazarene University we encourage the exchange of ideas and individuals are free to express their individual perspective and opinions, even when those opinions may not reflect the official policy or practices of our university, our core values or our affiliations.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough– speaking out against bloodshed in American Christianity often requires bloodshed of some sort, and such was the case with Dr. Beckum. On February 3rd the President relieved him of his duties as Vice President of Community Formation, citing that Beckum had previously requested to be removed from that position, something his own daughter has publicly called a falsehood.

In my opinion it’s easy to see what happened here: a Christian leader saw our lust for violence and military conquests, and decided to speak out on it. Since quoting what Jesus said on enemy love is so offensive within American Christian culture, he had to pay a price–and lost his position.

And so here is where my critics have been right all along: there is anti-Christian persecution in America. The chief difference however, is that it’s not the secularists or atheists who are persecuting us–it’s “Christians” who are doing the persecuting.

The best way to understand the cultural scenario is to realize (as someone astutely mentioned on twitter recently) that there are “two different types of Christianity.” One is a movement of people who want to live and be like Jesus. The other (and far more common, far more powerful) is a civil and political religion that is simply named Christianity. The civil political religion named Christianity is addicted to both political power and violence, and thus finds the message of Jesus offensive. When they encounter the other kind of Christian–the kind that actually believes in following Jesus–they have an immediate need to persecute them in some form or another, as we see in the case of Dr. Beckum, who actually did lose his job because of speaking the name of Jesus.

So, yes, there is Christian persecution in America- and for saying there is not, I do apologize to my critics for such an error. People do get bullied for speaking about Jesus. People do lose their jobs for it. Dr. Beckum is one of them.

But as it turns out, it’s actually the critics attempting to defend the violence-loving political religion named Christianity who are persecuting the people of Jesus

Don’t believe me? Just try teaching “love your enemies,” and see which group of people will be the first to mock and bully you. (Quote source here.)

Corey’s article mentions a type of persecution coming from within the ranks of Christianity itself (Jesus referred to it as tares and wheat,and he often experienced it at the hands of the Pharisees and other religious folks), but the persecution we’ve heard about on a worldwide scale does not often come from within genuinely Christian circles, but from others who stand against it. However, here in America it’s also coming from a growing secular intolerance (e.g., atheists, agnostics, “Nones,” etc.). They can also be disguised in the church since many of them have grown up in a Christian culture and they have learned how to pass “under the radar” as Christian. A blog post I wrote in July 2017 on the subject of Christian ghosting titled, These Are The Times,” contains one technique they use. This type of behavior gets blamed on supposedly “Christian” folks who are doing it (as with the mobbing and bullying mentioned in Corey’s 2015 article above). However, genuine Christians don’t “ghost,” mob or bully anybody. It’s not in their DNA.

In a 2016 article published on Christianity Today titled, Are American Christians Being Persecuted (subtitled “If our overseas brothers and sisters say we are, then we probably are”), by K. A. Ellis, doctoral candidate at Oxford Center for Mission Studies, and a speaker and writer on the theology of human rights, African-American culture, understanding Islam, and the persecuted church, Ellis states the following:

Anti-Christian hostility is on the minds of many American Christians these days. Each new legal challenge to religious liberty at the state and federal levels raises the issue afresh. It seems that today, Christians must think through their cultural position more carefully than at any other point in US history.

Still, given the terrible persecution of Christians overseas, I wonder whether it’s accurate to say that American Christians are “under persecution.” When I discuss the rise in anti-Christian hostility in the States, I avoid the “p word,” and I don’t make comparisons to other parts of the world.

But listen to a Middle Eastern underground house church leader: “Persecution is easier to understand when it’s physical: torture, death, imprisonment…. American persecution is like an advanced stage of cancer; it eats away at you, yet you cannot feel it. This is the worst kind of persecution.”

A Syrian remaining in the region to assist Christians and Muslims cautions, “It wasn’t only ISIS who laid waste to the church; our cultural compromises with the government and our divisions against each other brewed for a long time. We are Damascus, the seat of Christianity; what happened to us can happen to you. Be careful.”

When persecuted Christian leaders overseas warn about how seriously US Christians are marginalized, it’s time to listen.

Of course, persecution in countries like India and China looks different than it does in Vietnam or Nigeria; the methods of oppressors and survivors vary dramatically. Often, other religious minorities suffer as well. In some regions, the disdain is cultural; elsewhere, hostility manifests itself in legislation. In places like Pakistan and North Korea, believers experience both.

In America, we see two groups: hostility deniers and hostility seekers. “Hostility deniers” believe the church has been the greatest agent of oppression in history, making no distinction between faithful Christians and those who exploit the Bible for selfish gain. To them, Christians are not being persecuted but rather getting what they deserve. “Hostility seekers” see persecution as a mark of “true Christianity,” as if it holds salvific value—usually expressed as, “If you’re not persecuted, you’re not being a faithful Christian.” They exaggerate threats in order to keep the “persecution industry” alive. They forget that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, not by suffering. Christ rebukes these believers by modelling how to resist suffering, from his prayer in Gethsemane to submitting to his Father’s will at Golgotha. In “Tortured for Christ,” Richard Wurmbrand reminds us that “the true martyr seeks nothing for himself—not even the glory of martyrdom.”

Today, a third group is emerging. Hostility realists understand that anything is possible. Rarely does a nation move from freedom to oppression overnight. Realists understand that while the US Constitution promises inalienable rights to all citizens, those rights are not always guaranteed for the church. As an African American, I understand this well. In the early 1600s, Africans arrived in the New World on equal footing with other settlers. By the century’s end, though, freedoms had been steadily chipped away, race-based slavery established, and the worship, speech, and activities of black churches and gatherings were repressed. Still, the persecuted black church remained active underground, meeting in secret “hush harbours” of slaves and among free, believing abolitionists. Today, cultural disdain toward Christianity is increasingly palpable. Whether we are talking about a group of nuns providing services for the marginalized, an educational institution that wishes to maintain faith-based standards for faculty and students, or a medical provider exercising conscience in right-to-life decisions, I believe we will continue to see more constrictions for people of faith. This is not a cause for despair. We may never experience what the global church faces, but it teaches us that the culture cannot despise us more than we can love its people. While religious liberty is worth protecting, it is not our ultimate goal. Our true goal is perseverance and faithfulness in showing forth the kingdom of God. (Quote source here.)

The comment above by a Syrian who remained in the region to assist Christians and Muslims sends us in America a warning: “It wasn’t only ISIS who laid waste to the church; our cultural compromises with the government and our divisions against each other brewed for a long time. We are Damascus, the seat of Christianity; what happened to us can happen to you. Be careful.”

In ending this post on a topic nobody really wants to read or talk about, there is a strong reminder for those of us who are Christians (and not in name only). It is found in her last two sentences: While religious liberty is worth protecting, it is not our ultimate goal. . .

Our true goal is perseverance . . .

And faithfulness in showing forth . . .

The kingdom of God . . . .

YouTube Video: “Testify to Love” by Avalon:

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