Friday, May 15, 2015

The End of Christian Identity?

Is the faulty reasoning in the CLS v. Martinez decision actually a reflection of our relativistic society?  A recent study is giving me pause. 

A recent article in Christianity Today reports on a survey that says that many Evangelicals do not think that student groups should dictate what their leaders believe.  The story and title are somewhat misleading, as less than half hold to these beliefs.  Regardless, however, more than 40% of Evangelicals believe that it would be wrong in some way to require that leaders of Christian student groups adhere to Christian beliefs.

Why do evangelicals on public school campuses hold these beliefs?  Is it because it seems discriminatory to hold to a belief that is exclusive in nature or that possibly offends someone who does not believe it?  C.S. Lewis once said that if you believe in everything, you don't believe in anything.

This line of thinking became apparent a decade ago, when we were involved in the Martinez case involving the Hastings College of Law, which eventually became CLS v. Martinez.  The school argued that it was discriminatory for a religious group to require that their leaders believe a certain thing, thus discriminating against those who didn't believe - precluding them from leading the group.

In the end, the Christian Legal Society group was forced to disband.  And in the wake of Martinez, other universities have attempted to pass "all-comers" policies, like Hastings, denying the ability of a group to define its own character and beliefs.

The survey also shows that most Americans do not think that such groups should be punished for sticking with their beliefs.  But recent history is showing us we cannot have it both ways. If we are opposed to some particular act or belief, we eventually punish or malign those who are performing that act or holding to that belief. 

It may not be tolerant to require those who desire to lead a group to share its beliefs, but it seems to be common sense that if you are going to lead a Bible study, you should have knowledge of and believe in the Bible.  And it seems equally intolerant to force people to align with popular beliefs or be driven from the public square. 

To respect a person's ability to choose to believe one thing instead of another things is not discriminatory, it is the basis of freedom.  Freedom, however, must still be freedom when it is difficult.  For example, believing in freedom of speech is easy in the abstract - but respecting that freedom of speech when someone is spewing hatred is much more difficult.  But it in fact tests whether we really believe in freedom.  

So we have to decide as Evangelicals - do we believe in religious freedom?  Or will we be cowed into abandoning the First Amendment, just to get along.  Because there is no getting it back once we give it up. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Christian Lawyers and Race Relations - Update

I am editing a post from over two years ago, with changes in brackets, in light of recent events in Charlottesville and other places. I think the principles shared by that panel are just as true today as they were two years ago:

Race and race relations are not easy topics.

The recent [events in Charlottesville show that we have not come far from two years ago when it comes to the issue of race in America. The issue in 2015 were prompted by] high-profile deaths in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere. [They all] highlight a struggle we are having as a country. It may simmer just under the surface most of the time, but the bubbling over of recent protests are an indication that race relations is not an issue we can ignore. 

Moreover, the statistics regarding race in this country are not encouraging. Today, 27% of African Americans live in poverty compared to only ten percent of whites. More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison on any given day. Blacks make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population, but account for almost 40 percent of prison inmates

[In 2015], the Christian Legal Society Washington, D.C. Attorney Chapter sponsored an excellent panel discussion in response to these issues, titled: "What about Ferguson: A Christian's perspective on race relations in America's criminal justice system." The panel featured attorneys Lorenzo Bellamy and Heather Pinckney and Pastors Thabiti Anyabwile and Tom Tarrants. The room was packed.

Although I cannot do justice to the amazingly insightful comments made by the panel, I think it is worth sharing some of their thoughts:
  • Racism is result of the Fall.  It is sin and we need to admit that the only true solution to healing racism and race relations is Jesus Christ. He died for all of us. He leveled the playing field. And as Christians, we should be able to model the love of Christ to each other, leading by example for the rest of society.
  • There is no one group that is guilty of racism. We must all own our sin, confess it to the Lord and each other, and reach beyond it.
  • As lawyers, we need to know that the criminal justice system treats African Americans different than other races. We should be looking for solutions and not ignoring or denying the problem.
  • Christians must demonstrate a gospel that is able to overcome ethnic, cultural, and racial barriers, otherwise, what do we have to offer the society at large? Our "religion" must not be meaningless.
  • Finally, the most racist group of people in the country are Evangelicals, according to recent polls. (As my African-American colleague at CLS mentioned, Sunday is the most segregated day in America.)

I commend the CLS DC Chapter, who had a packed house, for continuing this important national discussion.

The road to repairing race relations in this country is a long one and will not be travelled overnight. And one of the final comments from the panel was that it is great to discuss it, but nothing will change unless we "discuss and" -- do something after talking about it.

So, what can we do? I wish I had the easy answer. But for now, I will look to make changes in my own life -- answering this question: "Where is there an opportunity in your life to make a change in the right direction?"

Monday, November 17, 2014

Christians Who Support Christian Persecution

I realized in the past two weeks that yes - I am a Christian that inadvertently supports the persecution of my brothers and sisters in Christ, at least in China.

Although Christians face growing persecution for their religious beliefs in this culture, we are a far distance from those facing persecution in places like the Middle East, China, or some parts of Africa or Asia.  We are very blessed to live in a country with religious liberty protections.

However, as part of this consumer driven society, I came to the realization last Sunday that I blindly and ignorantly support the persecution of Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. (I am tempted to draw a parallel of the USA and the Capital in the Hunger Games series, but I will resist.)

As part of the Sunday service recently at McLean Bible Church - my home church - we heard testimony from a Christian woman from China who was persecuted for her faith.  In her longest prison sentence, she spent six years in jail.  During that time, she made Christmas lights, which were sent and sold in the U.S.A.  You can see more of her story and video here (produced by The Voice of the Martyrs).

As I sat in the sanctuary, watching the video, reading the words at the end of her video that said, "Sarah was imprisoned a total of six years . . . making Christmas lights to send to America . . . " - I was ashamed.  I am sure that the lights on my tree or my house are made in China - and I didn't think twice about buying something "Made in China" last Christmas season.

Thankfully, Sarah is safe here in America.  But there are untold numbers of others in China that were imprisoned for their Christian faith being forced to make Christmas "items" headed to this country.

Although I am not one to either support the boycott of products (in agreement with Russ Moore - you can see his thoughtful comments about boycotts here) or even believe that Christians can effectively boycott in this culture anymore - I am not sure I can personally continue to buy Christmas items from China.

The knowledge that a brother or sister in Christ, suffering for their faith in prison, is being forced to make Christmas ornaments or lights (of all horrible irony) - is enough to stay my wallet.  I can't imagine what Sarah or the countless others making Christmas ornaments and other things for American Christians thought about me - while suffering in chains for Jesus. 

I am probably not going to do a purge of all things "China" in my house - but I will think twice before spending my dollars this and future Christmas seasons.  And I encourage you to possibly do the same.  We should do more than just pray for the persecuted church, and not supporting the persecutors is step one.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Light and Momentary Affliction in Idaho

The news coming from a small Idaho town brings to mind the phrase "light and momentary affliction," as quoted from the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.

The city council of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is threatening two Christian pastors who own a wedding chapel that they have to either perform same-sex weddings or face jail time and up to $1,000 in fines.  The city claims that the chapel is a for-profit corporation and must abide by public accommodation rules - allowing anyone from the public to use their services.

Essentially, government authorities are attempting to force two ministers to perform a religious ceremony against their will, violating both their consciences and religious liberty rights.  And more than just "monetary" fines, the city is threatening jail time. 

An invisible barrier seems to have been breached in this story - the threat of jail for those refusing to perform something against their religious beliefs.  Not only will Christians no longer tolerated, but they must be removed from society.  Can you imagine the pictures if the city arrested and hauled away these pastors?  It would have spoken volumes as to how the societal elite views our religious liberties.  

In the Scripture referenced, the Apostle Paul faced persecution that we cannot even imagine in the United States - but he called it all light and momentary affliction compared to eternity with Jesus and being faithful to his calling from the Lord.  Today, Christians throughout the Middle East, China, and various parts of the world face persecution and death for their faith in Jesus Christ, leagues more dangerous than these two pastors in Idaho.

But Christians in America must realize that they can no longer stay silent - neither on the plight of their fellow Christians nor with regard to speaking the Truth . . . "for what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake." (2 Cor 4: 3-5 ESV)

Christians point to examples like the Idaho town to claim that the days of co-existence and tolerance for those of an orthodox Christian faith and those opposed to religious liberty seem to be coming to a rapid end.  Is it inevitable that Christians will lose this battle?  I do not believe so.

But I do not know what will happen.  However, I will heed Paul's admonishment no matter what happens, that "we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Cor 4:16-18 ESV)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Religious Liberty and Iraq

My father grew up in a Christian community in northern Iraq (Chaldean).  My family - aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins have called Iraq home.

So as I read the wires from the Middle East, I am particularly disheartened about the news of the insurgency spreading through my father's former homeland. The stories emerging from the area report of death, persecution and flight of the Christian community in the wake of the Sunni army (ISIS) moving south.  Some are even using the word "genocide."

ISIS terrorists continue to target Christians and destroy churches. There are stories of forced taxes, rape, kidnapping, murder, and much worse. One of the goals of ISIS, according to some experts, is to destroy the existence of Middle Eastern Christians.

Recently, a Christian city in Syria (as a result of ISIS) was forced to either to convert to Islam, pledge submission to Islam, or face the sword. Christians were told they could no longer practice their religion in public. In the Middle East, religious liberty is a principle that is foreign to most.

We are blessed to live in a country with religious liberty protections. Last month, Kim Colby, the director of CLS' Center for Law & Religious Freedom, testified before a congressional subcommittee about the importance of religious liberty. She aptly stated that religious liberty is one of the most important things that America has given to the world.

However, some voices, especially in the light of the Hobby Lobby decision last month, are questioning the validity of religious liberty.  But the idea isn't new.  Just a few years ago, religious liberty scholar Professor Douglas Laycock stated, “For the first time in nearly 300 years, important forces in American society are questioning the free exercise of religion in principle – suggesting that free exercise of religion may be a bad idea, or at least, a right to be minimized.”  (Sex, Atheism, and the Free Exercise of Religion, 88 U. Det. Mercy L. Rev. 407 (2011)) 

Religious liberty is a First Amendment right - as is free speech. They are rights to practice, say or do something that might be offensive to others - but are protected just the same. It is the basis of a pluralistic and tolerant society.  Religious liberty would change the landscape in the Middle East - for the better.  But conversely, removing or chipping away at religious liberty would change the landscape in America - for the worse.

As the intolerance for religious liberty grows in America, we head in a direction where we lose one of the pillars that makes this country great. It is why CLS began the fight for religious liberty in the 70s and continues to fight for it today.

I pray for the protection of my relatives, Christians, and others in the Middle East, who are persecuted for their faith.  Thankfully, many of my family members came to these shores to flee such ignorance and hatred.  As well, I pray for the continued and robust religious liberty protections here. So people can continue to seek the freedom that makes this country great.

Time will tell where the winds of religious liberty will blow in America.  We should be leading the world in our example of religious freedom. But if the public and policymakers continue to push against it, and all we have is one justice ensuring somewhat robust religious liberties, our future is indeed bleak. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Christian Courage in the Face of Death

The Christian Legal Society fights to protect and defend religious freedom.  Since the mid-1970s, we have been engaged in the struggle in courtrooms and state or federal legislative bodies.  And although the fight continues daily, a recent story again reminded me of its importance. 

Last week, a Sudanese woman was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian man:
"Dr Meriam Yahya Ibrahim [Ishag] was condemned to hang for allegedly leaving Islam and marrying a Christian man.

The court said that by doing so, she had abandoned her religious faith and was guilty of apostasy, which carries the ultimate penalty under Islamic law in the country."      
- BBC News, May 15, 2014
The court gave her three days to recant her faith.  She refused.  She bravely affirmed her Christian faith.  What makes the choice in my mind even more difficult is that she is eight months pregnant. The judge reportedly will allow her to give birth to the child before hanging her.
"We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam. I sentence you to be hanged to death," the judge told the woman, AFP reports. . . .The judge also sentenced the woman to 100 lashes after convicting her of adultery - because her marriage to a Christian man was not valid under Islamic law.
This will reportedly be carried out when she has recovered from giving birth."
- BBC News, May 15, 2014

Dr. Ishag's courage is incredible. The fact that she will not live to raise her own child will not deter her from declaring her belief in Jesus Christ. Her bravery should cause all Christians to reflect. Thankfully, Christians in America are not losing our lives for our faith, but we are facing increased persecution from society, the media, and even our friends and family. Some have even lost their businesses because of their faith in Jesus Christ. But we must decide, will we continue to have courage, even the courage of Dr. Ishag, when any level of persecution is leveled against us?

I recently heard a quote, floating around Internet attributed to both John F. Kennedy and/or Mack Stiles, "Most of the world fears the raised fist while we in America fear the raised eyebrow." Although most American Christians face neither death or the loss of income, many are afraid to be "disliked" or thought of in a negative manner for our faith.  Would we have her courage if we faced the same noose?  

As I pray for Dr. Ishag (and her appeal), her family, and her child, I also pray for myself and my children.  I pray that if (and some say it is really a matter of "when" in America) the time comes, we will have the same courage and say "I am a Christian," no matter what the cost.

Monday, May 5, 2014

To Pray Or Not To Pray?

The Supreme Court in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case held on Monday that municipal prayers do not violate the Establishment Clause. It was a win in a culture where the efforts to remove all aspects of "religion" from the public square seem to be gaining the upper hand. The recognition that faith and religion matter to people outside of the place where they worship is a step in the right direction.

However, many reading the decision or hearing the news may not realize that there are thoughtful Christians and religious liberty advocates on both sides of this debate. So although many of our friends and allies are celebrating the decision, others think this decision is harmful.

In recap, the Town of Greece allowed community members representing various faith groups to offer prayer before its town council meetings, but two citizens challenged the practice. The Second Circuit held the practice unconstitutional, but was overruled by the High Court.

In writing for a conservative majority, Justice Kennedy said, "The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers."

Our friends on the other side of this argument, including Professor Carl Esbeck, believe that governmental prayer is harmful. He asks, in this Christianity Today article, whether we have "rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers?" He also goes on to warn us that "what shouldn't be done is to harness the government to do the job of the church."

It is good to have a difference in opinion, but Kennedy is right in my humble opinion. The right to believe and act on the belief in a higher power should be protected. It is just as harmful to force someone to pray, who doesn't believe in God, as it is to deny a believer the opportunity to pray to their God.

Thankfully, not only do we have the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment, we also have a Free Speech provision. Our founders understood that the right to speak is more important than the right to only hear what we want to hear, which is the principle underlying the dissent.