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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Good Friday and Justice

Good Friday is about justice.

The price Jesus paid on the cross for all mankind is the result of pure justice.  Justice demands that a price be paid for sin, in order to be in relationship with a Holy God.  But perfect love and grace causes that same Holy God to pay the price for sin. (Rom. 3: 23-26)  Justice matters to God, but so does His grace and love.

However, the trial and execution of Jesus Christ is also about a travesty of justice.  He was improperly accused, improperly adjudicated, unrepresented, and improperly punished.  Christians believe that the crucifixion was preordained before the foundations of the earth were laid, and such a spectacle could only happen through injustice and fear.  But the trial of Christ is not an example of people acting justly toward each other.

Two-thousand years later, does justice matter to you?  The Lord requires us to be just.  Micah 6:8 states, "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (NRSV)

In this Easter season, may we remember the importance of justice, the cost of injustice, and mostly, to appreciate Jesus for sacrificing Himself to fulfill perfect justice and perfect love at the same time. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Sacredness of Work

"The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is - what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used."  - C.S. Lewis, A Preface to 'Paradise Lost'

Christians too often view our work and the work around us as a secular act, having nothing to do with our faith, unless we are working directly for or on behalf of some "ministry" or "church."  But nothing could be further from the truth.

God sees our work as sacred, as long as we understand that we are doing it glory of the Lord (Martin Luther once said, “A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”).  And I am pleased to give a hat tip to the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics for the video they released this week on this topic:

So to get back to the C.S. Lewis quote, what and how do you think you and your work is meant to be used?  Have you submitted your work to the Lord, or have you just assumed Christianity is only for Sundays?  Do you realize your work is sacred?  If not, it is time.

Christians need to stop drudging through the days of work and labor, waiting for an opportunity to engage in God's work.  While God, meanwhile, is waiting for you to allow Him to be engaged in the work He has given you.

So in conclusion, I will offer a quote from John Piper's book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals (which I found while reading Redeeming Law by Michael Schutt): "God is not looking for people to work for Him but people who let Him work mightily in and through them..."

Are you ready?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Judges and Delusions of Grandeur

Attorneys will often whisper their suspicions about any given judge, before whom they appear, as having delusions of grandeur.  They are wise enough not to express their opinions aloud, as judges often have long memories.

It is a disappointing spectacle, however, when a judge truly begins to have delusions of grandeur and begins to act as if they have powers beyond that of a public servant who should be dispensing justice.  Over the past week, I have become aware of two cases where it is apparent that the robes are starting to affect the thinking of the judges.

The first case, which is now on appeal in the 7th Circuit, is Eagle Cove Camp & Conference Center v. the Town of Woodboro (in Wisconsin).  It is a case where a family is trying to build a Bible camp on their land.  It includes a long and convoluted exchange with the county and the zoning board.  However, it is the finding in the U.S. District court for the Western District of Wisconsin, where Judge William Conley went beyond his capacity.

The judge speculates “whether plaintiffs’ utter lack of success to date is God’s way of telling them—through admittedly-imperfect, secular institutions—to look elsewhere for a more acceptable location."  He did , however, admit that "[U]ltimately, only God knows if they should continue to knock at this particular door or look for an open window somewhere else.”  The judge writes as if he is able to ascertain the will of God, which must of course always fall on the side of victory in his thinking.  It is truly a shocking passage in the opinion.  Thankfully, the martyrs of the church did not see the will of God as only being on the side of the victors.

The second example has received a fair amount of press.  The esteemed Justice Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit got into a hollering match with an attorney representing Notre Dame.  The college objects to having to pay for contraception under the H.H.S. Mandate for religious reasons.  Judge Posner berated the lawyer during the argument, and he ultimately ruled against the college.

It hasn't been noticed or reported, but the arrogance of that opinion is summed up in one line, "[T]he accommodation in this case consists in the organization's (that is, Notre Dame's) washing its hands of any involvement in contraceptive coverage."

Not only did the judge rule against the college, but requires them to be Pontius Pilate as before Christ and just wash their hands of the whole thing.  As in Pilate's situation 2000 years ago, the washing of hands does not dismiss the utter lack of justice either then or here.  Someone might want to remind Posner of that fact.  And for him to require the college to be Pilate is adding insult to injury, showing a level of Biblical mockery that is again shocking. 
The prophet Micah tells us what the Lord requires of us: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  In the case of these two judges, they must have been reading an abridged version:  do justice....God. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hobby Lobby Prognosticating

The noise of the gavel still echoes from yesterday’s arguments in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  People have been reporting and speculating on where the court may land when it comes to the application of RFRA on for-profit corporations, which is always a dicey proposition.  And although my Final Four bracket should be an indicator of my inability to prognosticate about what we will see in June, I believe the court tipped its hand just enough to give a glimpse into what could be a majority opinion. 

During the questioning, the obvious block of the three liberal female justices became apparent.  They dominated the questioning during the first half of the argument, repeatedly pressing the challengers to the HHS Mandate.  They struggled more with how RFRA could be applied uniformly, given the various objections that could be raised under a religious test, as well as whether it was advisable to give corporations the ability to discriminate on a variety of things, including wages, gender, family leave and child labor. 

The conservative judges  seemed less concerned about giving an exemption to religious employers, as they recognized that the Obama Administration did something similar for non-profit religious groups.  However, one of the most encouraging exchanges happened near the end of the argument when both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy seemed to understand that without an exemption, this type of law could easily force religious employers to pay for abortions down the road.

And it was Chief Justice Roberts who suggested a narrow ruling allowing closely held companies like Hobby Lobby to claim a religious exemption, while leaving aside more-complicated corporations.  Even Justice Breyer suggested later he might be open to that type of resolution. 

So from my observations, the court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs in this case, but I also expect that their ruling will be limited enough that the cheering will be dampened.  (The High Court rarely gives one side everything they desire, and complicates their decisions with lofty thoughts and confusing tests.)  The ruling will likely include a test by which some companies will be able to qualify for the religious exemption.  However, if history is any example, the ability of the lower courts to interpret or apply the test will be varied and confused, ultimately needing another pass at some later date. 

But who knows, really?  My March Madness bracket has Michigan State going all the way.  And whether basketball or court prognosticating, I might be “mad” to try and guess either one with any certainty.