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Archive for Religious Liberty

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.