I was born and raised in Malaysia, an officially Muslim country that has religious freedom enshrined in its constitution. Christians can freely gather for worship, and openly celebrate Christmas, a statutory holiday. But it’s illegal to proselytize to Muslims there, and most Christian literature has the standard disclaimer “For non-Muslims only” to protect the publishers. Christians can face prison if found guilty of trying to convert Muslims. I know a bit of what it means to live in a culture where Christianity is marginalized.
The annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is the first Sunday of November. The Christian Reformed Church’s 2016 synodical Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty encouraged each congregation to appoint a prayer coordinator or team to keep religious persecution and liberty issues on the church’s mind and foster prayer for those suffering persecution. Four years later, I wonder how many congregations have done so.
My own local church has added to its weekly bulletin a prayer prompt for various persecuted Christians. But we, myself included, could do better at thinking and praying more seriously about global persecution.
The 2016 study committee report defines religious persecution as “the unwarranted violation of religious liberty.” Religious liberty is defined as people’s freedom to express their religion, publicly or privately, without interference from the state or anyone else. I want to highlight two helpful observations from the report.
First, religious freedom protects people from unreasonable restrictions of their faith, but not from offense and ridicule. People can mock or disapprove of our Christian faith, but that is not necessarily an attack on our religious freedom even if we Christians are deeply offended by it. Hence, the report cautions, “Christians in North America must be especially careful to disentangle feelings of offense from real threats to religious liberty.”
Anti-Christian sentiment in North America is real. We can find veiled or even overtly anti-Christian bias expressed in media and in society. But just because we are offended by such expressions does not mean we are being persecuted. Neither does it mean that real persecution never happens in North America.
Secondly, the report says, “religious freedom is not absolute.” Religious persecution as an unwarranted violation of religious liberty means that sometimes it might be reasonable to violate religious freedom for the sake of others’ rights and duties. For example, if a person’s religious practice endangers or harms others, then it is reasonable for the government to interfere and restrict that practice. An extreme example would be the historical Hindu practice of burning widows at their husbands’ funerals. Banning such a practice would be warranted.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have such clear-cut cases. We increasingly need much wisdom to determine what counts as a reasonable restriction. To cite an obvious example is the current tension between the rights of Christians to uphold a traditional view of marriage versus the rights of people who are LGBTQ+. North American Christians, who have access to due legal process, must be careful not to be too quick to shout “persecution” when our beliefs or practices are challenged. The state might be trying to balance competing rights to discern what’s warranted.
If we shout “persecution” too quickly and too often, we might, first of all, insult fellow Christians who truly are persecuted in other parts of the world. Secondly, like the proverbial boy who cried “wolf,” we might lose our credibility for when we truly do need it. May God grant us wisdom and prudence in this matter.