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Archive for Persecution

2010 has had some interesting religious story lines thus far. Heated debate has lit up the phone lines over controversial topics such as whether it’s appropriate and sensitive to build a mosque at “Ground Zero” in New York City or whether Florida pastor Terry Jones exercised proper judgment by promoting that he would burn copies of the Koran on September 11. Add to this the report by Mark Hanson last week in the Des Moines Register that the American Atheists organization has selected Des Moines as the site of their 2011 national convention, and you have the kindling to start a fiery conversation regarding the nature of religious liberty in America today. You can find the article by clicking here.

Last weekend in worship I shared a lengthy passage from Acts 5:12-42, and shared some thoughts regarding the ancient text vis a vis our contemporary cultural landscape. Here are six things I think that have helped me wrap my mind around some of the current issues:

1. The Christian community has got to do more than pay lip service to religious liberty in America. My pedestrian understanding of religious liberty is that Americans are afforded freedom of worship, freedom for worship, and freedom from worship. In other words, I can worship as I see fit, you can worship as you see fit, and if it’s your preference, you are free not to worship at all. When Westboro Baptist Church (Fred Phelps) picketed our church and four others in 2006, they were exercising their freedom of speech and worship. Were their methods tactful, tasteful, or sensitive? No. Did they have the right to do so? Yes. Let’s make sure that our conversation about the mosque at ground zero doesn’t confuse religious liberty in America with what is sensitive toward the victims and their families of 9/11. I believe its two conversations.

2. The Christian movement in history flourished most during times of persecution and religious plurality. Through my preparation of my present series from Acts, I have cited on two occasions the work of Rodney Stark, who, before taking his present post at Baylor University served as professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington for 32 years. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Stark writes that by the middle of the fourth century, Christians comprised some 56% of the entire population of the Roman Empire. Such impressive growth of the movement happened, in part, through at least five emperors who ruthlessly tortured and killed Christians. Had the first generation of believers following the resurrection of Christ been afforded the protections that we possess in postmodern America, where we spend more annually on pet food than missions, would we know the gospel today?

3. Fear is bad form for the Christian. I think the most disturbing aspect of the present conversation is that it is heavily peppered with fear. “If they let this happen, then what’s next?” seems to be the seasoning applied to every proposition. As I read the Bible, I am reminded that Christians serve a God who enables 80 year old men to conquer the army of Pharaoh with a stick and who empowers 17 year old boys to defeat giants with rocks and a slingshot. Paul told Timothy that “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). So if your heart is gripped with fear, it’s not from God.

4. Political triumphalism is not the answer. Christians must always remember that the cross flies higher than the flag. Our government will not “save us.” Why would we even expect it to? Our allegiance is first and foremost to the Kingdom of God, and our salvation lies therein.

5. Christians should seek ways to elevate the conversation. I recently did a streaming web talk show here in Des Moines. The host, J. Michael McKoy, is a committed Christian man. When he asked during the interview for my thoughts on tolerance, I responded by saying that Christianity has no word for tolerance in the Scripture. Tolerance is the attitude of the reductionist who seeks to meet minimal requirements. After all, Jesus didn’t teach “tolerate your enemies…and tolerate those who insult you or abuse you.” Rather than broker behavior in terms of tolerance, the Christian is called to love. Love trumps tolerance in that it is active in its behavior, not passive. Christians are called to love, and where there is love there is room for conversation and understanding, not judgment and ignorance.

6. Christians should interpret all that we see going on as an unprecedented opportunity to live the gospel and to share the gospel. It takes both. The gospel message is just another message unless it is complimented by behaving in ways that are consistent with the gospel message. The 30 gospel sermons found in Acts are inspiring and challenging. But the response to those sermons was based on more than listening to the mighty words of God’s anointed apostles. The listeners simultaneously observed the culture of the committed and discerned that life in Christ was more than words. In these unconventional days, my prayer is that we will see every challenge as a fresh opportunity for the gospel and that we will share boldly and live consistently.

So far this week we’ve looked at three marks of a world changer. World changers are people of unwavering conviction; committed to practicing spiritual disciplines; and consistently put compassion into action. The fourth mark is that world changers are confident in the face of persecution. Reading on in the fourth chapter of Acts, the Bible says, “So they called the apostles back in and commanded them never to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.’ The council then threatened them further, but they finally let them go because they didn’t know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God for this miraculous sign—the healing of a man who had been lame for more than 40 years” (Acts 4:18-22, NLT).

When the gospel advances someone is going to become upset. Notice this conflict was not over something insignificant like the color of the carpet or anyone’s musical preference. It was over the core conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The apostle’s affirmed it, but the religious leaders denied it. When they were commanded to “shut up,” the apostles confidently stood their ground and recited their preference to live under the pleasure of God’s affirmation than to comply and conform to the pressure of public opinion.
I think this begs a very provocative question: What would it take to shut you up? What would it take to silence your witness or to stifle your conviction? Those who aspire to change the world in Jesus name cannot be silenced.

The obvious response to this line of thought could be something to the effect of, “This is America…who do I know that suffers persecution?” Good question. Let me encourage you to become acquainted with www.voiceofthemartyrs.com. This website is devoted to telling the story of the persecution of Christians around the world. We presently live in a world with some 171 nations. Of the 171 nations, 54 of them have made it illegal to adhere to Jesus Christ as Lord. The persecution and martyrdom of Christians in the 21st century is at an all time high. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.