Religious Freedom: A Clash of Categories

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its annual report,  detailing the 16 countries which are of particular concern because of their stringent opposition to freedom in matters of religion.  The countries of particular concern this year are Burma, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan (North), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the director of the Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, has a helpful critique of the latest report, particularly noting the absence of Afghanistan from the countries of particular concern (CPC) list.

The work done by the USCIRF is good and surely is to be applauded. With a bloated federal government overflowing with agencies, secretaries, and czars of various sorts, it is good to know that there is at least one commission paying attention to the most basic human liberties.  The work done by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom is even better than the USCIRF work because it is able to explain religious liberty from a single, coherent perspective.  But beyond these two entities, Christians have a steeper challenge when it comes to religious liberty.

Religious liberty, as a category, is not a biblical category; it is a political category.  This is not a criticism of religious liberty; it is a basic fact of clarification.  Talk of religious liberty is political talk.  Though Christians certainly should be on the forefront of engaging in the battle for religious liberty, Christians cannot stop there.  As a Baptist, for instance, I can boast that we Baptists have been champions of religious liberty in America. The reason, of course, is that our denomination was birthed from the pangs of religious intolerance.  Baptists were persecuted in 17th Century England and in 18th Century America (hence, Roger Miller in Rhode Island).  Danbury Baptists, of course, carried on the conversation with Thomas Jefferson which has infamously (and erroneously) led to the notion of a separation of church and state. I could go on, but the point is plain that Baptists support staunchly the concept of religious liberty.

Still, religious liberty is, technically, a political category, and Christians must keep paring down political ideals until they arrive at biblical ones.  Pushing the political square peg into its biblical round hole leads the Christian to the biblical category of persecution. Persecution is the category biblical writers use when speaking of ill treatment on account of following Jesus. Jesus speaks much about persecution.  The gospels, Paul’s letters, Peter’s writings, John’s Revelation—the New Testament is filled with instructions about and explanations of persecution, thus enabling Christians to understand it and respond to it in a manner worthy of the gospel.

To her credit, Nina Shea, in her critique of the USCIRF report, instinctively jumps to the category of persecution. In so doing, she makes this important observation:

“Christians are far from the only religious group persecuted in these countries. But, Christians are the only group persecuted in each and every one of them. This pattern has been found by sources as diverse as the Vatican, Open Doors, Pew Research Center, Newsweek, and The Economist, all of which recently reported that an overwhelming majority of the religiously persecuted around the world are Christians. Globally, this persecution is experienced by all Christian faith traditions from Pentecostal and evangelical to Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox.”

Her comments lead us to an undeniable fact concerning Christian persecution: It happens everywhere. Granted, the report only lists 16 countries on its CPC list and another 9 countries on its watch list; nevertheless, Christians are persecuted in every country which appears on any list. The reason is explained by the biblical instructions on Christian persecution.

Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12 what Jesus had already explained in John 15:18-25.  Anyone who is a follower of Christ will be persecuted because Christ is present with him. Even as the world hated (and thus executed) Christ when he walked among us, so, too, does the world still hate (and persecute) Christ.  There is still animus against God’s messiah. And so, there is still Christian persecution everywhere.

The USCIRF report is helpful in pointing out for us where the persecution is presently most intense, but it cannot specifically say that Christians are persecuted in all countries and in all places on account of Christ. We need the Bible to remind us of that fact.  All Christians will be persecuted on account of Christ. The USCIRF report reminds us that the persecution will sometimes be particularly intense in some places. Persecution differs from country to country in degrees of intensity but not in type of suffering. Christians suffer persecution everywhere they exist.


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