Christian Rights?

In the midst of the debates around social issues of the day, hearing some Christians speak about their right to their viewpoint is quite common.  In listening to and reading various points of view, some Christians seem to think that they have certain rights because they are Christian.  They seem to think that being Christian gives them the right to express their opinion, hold their beliefs or stand up for what they think is right.

Ironically, the notion of individual rights or entitlements seems to be missing from the vocabulary of the New Testament.  In fact, something very different is expected of those who would be followers of and believers in Jesus Christ.  When Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he was offering a choice, but no rights or privileges.  Denying self and letting go of claims to what one might be due is a starting point for being in relationship with Jesus.  He taught that holding onto life was a sure way to lose it, but not being afraid to lose it was a sure way to gain it.

Jesus offers a number of moral and ethical imperatives, the greatest of which is love — love of God and love of neighbor.  So central is this ethic of love to the life to which Jesus calls his followers, that some might conclude that following Jesus means giving up the right to retaliation and revenge, giving up the right to deny food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless, or giving up the right to bear animosity toward those who are different and treating others in a way one would not want to be treated oneself.  Jesus has a clear expectation of his followers to be salt and light.  Jesus expects his followers to act and to speak in ways that bring to life the values of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus does not expect that such words and actions will be well received by those in authority.  In fact, he expects just the opposite as he preemptively declares those followers blessed who are reviled, persecuted, and lied about on his account.  He admonishes his disciples to not be surprised if the world hates them, since the world has already hated him.  Jesus does not call people to follow him because they have a right to do so, without fearing consequences, he calls them to follow him because doing so is right regardless of the consequences.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus introduces the idea that being in relationship with Jesus is a new birth resulting in a new life.  The Apostle Paul goes further in that the old self is crucified with Christ, and the new self is brought to life in Christ.  The result is a follower whose will is yielded to God.  Paul says he is a slave of Christ.  Christians allude to this transformed status when they pray Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “…not my will but yours be done,” as their own. Following Christ is more about surrendering status than claiming it.

Conversely, the height of rebellion for a follower of Christ would be to choose one’s own will over God’s will, and to assume that one’s life is one’s own rather than God’s.

The rights granted to followers of Christ in the New Testament are few and far between, namely to be obedient to the will of God.  Fortunately, for all the Bible does not say about rights, it says much about relationship and God’s continual desire to be in relationship with those whom God has created, and about God’s abundant grace that makes such relationships possible. While following Christ may not come with special rights, it does come as grace freely given.

The discussion of human rights has been, through the centuries, a much more human endeavor. Naturally, humans have a tendency to claim divine origins for matters of great importance.  Our own Declaration of Independence is a case in point.  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Scholars and politicians can debate the source of these unalienable rights and what it means that human beings are created with them.  However, what we know to be true is that before there was a United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, before there was our present form of government, Baptists and others in this country who refused to adhere to the established religion were jailed, flogged and unfairly burdened with taxes that were collected for the benefit of state-sponsored churches.  The Creator has endowed men and women with the right to “. . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but without the resolve of a people and a government to secure those rights, what meaningful difference would it make?

People do follow Jesus even under governments that do not allow freedom of religion.  Today, some of the most passionate and devoted followers of Christ had their faith forged in what was the Soviet Union. They endured great suffering because of their commitment to Christ.  There are others who live in countries where it is illegal for them to convert from the religion of their birth to Christianity.  Yet, there are people in those countries who believe in Jesus even though they risk their lives to do so.  We are created by the same God with the same inalienable rights, but we worship in freedom and they worship in fear.  Whatever else, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” may mean, it surely means that person ought to be able to worship and believe according to the dictates of his or her own conscience without fear of reprisal from government or neighbor.

For Baptists, religious liberty is both our best contribution to America and a treasured freedom that America has given to us.  We treasure it best by remembering that we were once a minority sect on the fringes of society, and maintaining the resolve of our nation’s first president, “. . . to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

For many faith communities across America, religious liberty has been challenged with deadly and terrifying force in recent days:

A gunman opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara, killing six.

A mosque in Joplin, Mo. burned to the ground.

An Arab-Catholic church was vandalized in Dearborn, Michigan.

An Islamic school was hit with an acid bomb in the Chicago suburb of Lombard.

A Texas man was charged with threatening to bomb a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN.

Now is a good time for those in this country who profess to follow Christ to take hold of the rights they cherish, together with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and strive to be the presence of Christ to those who long for the same freedom we cherish.  If everyone is not free to worship without fear of attack or persecution, then none of us are free to worship.  An attack on the religious freedom of my neighbor is an attack on the freedom of us all.    “And who is my neighbor?” said the lawyer to Jesus.

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Does the Golden Rule apply to mosque building?

Religious Freedom in the town where I grew up meant that the Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Independent Baptists, Nazarenes, the Church of Christ, Free Methodists, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) could worship pretty much as they pleased.  I feel like I am forgetting a church or two, but don’t think I am forgetting the Episcopalians, Catholics or Lutherans.  They were absent from the religious landscape of my youth.  There was an Episcopal church in the next town, but I never went there. What I heard about the Catholics from the radio preachers was not good.  My first encounter with a Lutheran did not occur until I was in college.  His lack of inhibition when it came to alcoholic beverages made me think that the Lutherans had something in common with the Disciples of Christ, because one time when I was a senior in high school and working at the Rocky Top Market, their minister came in at a real busy time and bought a six-pack of beer.  I was dumbfounded.  No self-respecting Baptist would have ever purchased beer in such a crowded store.

What would have happened in Rockwood, Tennessee in the early 1980’s if a group of Muslims had tried to build a mosque?   Maybe nothing would have happened.  Curiosity would have been piqued to be certain.  It is really hard to say.  The Soviets still occupied the arch enemy position in most everyone’s mind, and Pearl Harbor was the worst attack we had ever suffered from an enemy.  We had gone through the Arab Oil Embargo, and 9/11 had not happened yet, so maybe Muslims building a mosque would not have been that big of a deal — or maybe it would have.

But now, 9/11 has happened and there is nothing anyone can do to change that fact. Even though the Battle of Antietam remains the bloodiest day in our nation’s history, the events of 9/11 are much closer to us than a long ago battle fought between Americans. Most of us remember where we were that morning, if we do not actually recall watching it happen right before our eyes on the television.

Now there are issues with Muslims and mosque building.  Some people say that building a mosque near “Ground Zero”(the proposed site is two blocks from the where the World Trade Center once stood) would dishonor the memory of those who were killed there, and worsen the grief of those who lost loved ones there. There are those people who say that allowing a mosque to be built so close to “Ground Zero” would in some way signify that the Muslims had won.  I am sure that there are other people with other reasons for being opposed to the building of mosques, not just near “Ground Zero,” but at other locations around our country as well.  I am also certain that their reasons are heartfelt.

There are at least two reasons that those of us who are Christians and Baptists might have for not being opposed to the construction of a mosque in our state or in our nation.  The first is the familiar teaching of Jesus commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  There are followers of Christ who live in countries where they are not free to express their love, devotion and commitment to Christ.  A variety of pressure is brought to bear on them to keep them from living openly as followers of Christ.  They face disapproval from neighbors and family, difficulty finding housing and jobs, and in some cases arrest, torture and even death, all because they believe in Jesus.  What I hope and pray for these persecuted believers is that they would have the freedom to live their faith without fear of personal harm or reprisal.  I suspect that most Christians in our country wish the same for believers who are living under such difficult conditions.  Doing unto others means that we treat people of other faiths in our country the way that we would like for Christians to be treated in all countries.

The second reason is found in our beginnings as Baptists. There were no shouts of joy from civil or religious authorities when the first Baptists emerged on the scene.  In fact, the Baptists’ appreciation for the idea of religious liberty was forged in the prisons of England, and in the jails and on the whipping posts of Colonial America.  Coerced by king and colony to conform to the practices of the established religion, Baptists chose the prison cell rather than go against the dictates of conscience.  Baptists who know where they come from cherish not just their religious liberty to practice their faith as they feel led to do, but they understand that religion is not religion at all unless the man or woman who engages in it does so freely and without fear, coercion or manipulation.  In various ways through the centuries, Baptists have said that having no connection at all with God is better than one resulting from force.  The choices we make about God have to be made freely or they are not really choices.  Having been deprived of the freedom to make such choices in their early years, Baptists in America dearly cherish that freedom today, so much so that they extend it freely to those of other faiths or to those with no faith at all.

Following Christ is not always an easy thing to do.  There are times when doing so brings us into direct conflict with the voices of this world who are clamoring for their own way. However, Christ calls us to treat others not as they have treated us, or as they might treat us, or even as we think they ought to be treated, but to treat them as we would like to be treated.  The voices from our Baptist past help us to understand the wisdom of such hospitality.  Glenn Hinson writes, “God never asks those who witness for Him to use any means of persuasion stronger than the force of love.  Love is patient.  It will wait for God to decide.”

Celebrating Religious Freedom!

I would not hazard a guess as to how many preachers in these United States will make some reference this Sunday morning to our nation’s founding fathers, and their reliance on the Ten Commandments in forging the laws for our new nation. My suspicion is that such references will be numerous, if unfounded.  That is not to say that those who founded our nation were persons without religious conviction. They no doubt were persons with unique and personal understanding of what it meant to be religious. However, in founding a new nation, they took every precaution to make certain that religion would be free from unnecessary government entanglement, and that government would not be controlled by religion. Their goal was novel. No nation had ever existed that sought to so intentionally and purposefully protect the religious freedom of its citizens.

That we worship this Sunday in the place of our choosing, with the group of our choosing, in the manner of our choosing, and that we direct our worship toward the deity of our choosing, is a testimony to the ongoing success of their efforts to provide religious liberty for all. That a fair number of our fellow citizens will choose to not worship at all this Sunday, or will have already worshipped on Saturday or Friday, only serves to further illustrate the extent to which religious liberty and freedom of conscience prevail in our country.

Those who would suggest that our nation’s founding was the work of men who wanted to create a decidedly religious nation in general, or a Christian one in particular, would seem not to have read the relevant material.  Reading the Ten Commandments and the Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, readily demonstrates that there are fundamental differences in the intent and purpose of those documents.  A brief review of the Ten Commandments will quickly show that they did not serve as a basis for the founding of our nation.

You shall have no other gods before me. In a nation relying on the Ten Commandments to form the foundation of its government, the first amendment would never have even been conceived much less ratified. It in no way dictates that citizens must worship only the God that gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. What the first amendment protects is everyone’s right to worship any god they choose, or no god at all.

You shall not make for yourself an idol. From the soaring Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, the monuments and memorials that mark the American experience serve as vivid and poignant reminders of the lives and events that have formed and shaped our nation. Some would say that a monument is not an idol. Someone else would insist that it is. That debate can take place in a peaceful way in a nation were no law either for or against idols has been passed.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God. The framers of the U.S. Constitution took no chance on violating this commandment since they did not mention God even once in the document, wrongfully or otherwise.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. One might suggest that the observance of the fourth commandment was one of the rights reserved to the states or the people by the 10th amendment.  I have childhood memories of stores being closed on Sundays. Some cities had “blue laws” that enforced religious standards such as forbidding the sale of certain items on a certain day.  The framers were wise to leave this one alone, as even Southern Baptists no longer prohibit secular employment on the Lord’s day so long as it is “. . .commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

Honor your father and mother. There is no mention of mom or dad in the constitution.

You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. This section of the Ten Commandment most closely resembles long-standing laws in our nation. The problem with trying to say that our founders used the Ten Commandments as the source for those laws is that most every country on earth, regardless of religious heritage, has similar laws.  Refraining from murder, adultery, theft or perjury is not a distinctively Christian practice. 

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.  This final commandment would seem to completely banish the notion that the Ten Commandments were a source for founding fathers. They did, after all, birth a nation on land that belonged to another. It was land that their fathers and grandfathers had coveted, and that there sons would continue to covet until, in some cases, whole tribes of people who once inhabited the land were extinguished.

This is not to say that those who sacrificed so much in order to found our nation were not men of good moral character. They were.  Yet, their morality was subject to the times in which they lived. Some of them owned slaves. They denied women the right to vote.

While most of the founders were connected to a Christian denomination, they were also doing their work as the age of enlightenment drew to a close. No doubt their work was influenced by John Locke and other enlightenment thinkers as much, if not more, than it was by their religious experience.

The Treaty of Tripoli was not ratified until John Adams held the office of President of the United States. Article 11 of that treaty reads as follow: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. . . no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” The treaty, only two pages long, was ratified in June of 1797 by a unanimous vote of the United States Senate.  A fair number of founders would have still been around the government at this time, if not actually in the government, not the least of which was Adams himself.  While it is doubtful that a treaty with such an article could be ratified in today’s hyper-charged environment of religious revisionism, it is ironic that some of the men who actually helped found our country did pass a treaty containing such sentiments.

Five years later, Thomas Jefferson penned his now famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In it, he said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’  thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Few words sum up any better the tremendous gift that our founding fathers gave to people of faith in our nation. Baptist founder Thomas Helwys said much the same thing in 17th century England, “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”

For expressing such an idea Helwys was imprisoned by King James I. Yes, the same King James whose bible so many Baptist still read. Helwys died in prison because he would not violate his conscience. Today we celebrate the freedom we have to worship and relate to God as we feel led by the Holy Spirit, and not according to the dictates of state-enforced religion. It is a wonderful freedom that we ought to cherish with gratitude and humility. Let us be mindful of the many believers around the world who have no such freedom, and still they worship the risen Lord, putting at risk their well-being and in some cases even their lives.

Gratitude for Religious Liberty

Reports from North Korea are a startling reminder of the true gift that religious liberty is for those who enjoy it. In North Korean, citizens are expected to worship the emperor. If they don’t persecution, arrest, imprisonment or execution may follow. The Apostle Paul, who experienced his share of persecution and imprisonment, tells the church at Ephesus to “. . . give thanks to God at all times for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The challenge of these words is to give thanks not just when life is good, but when it is difficult. I can only imagine what they mean when they are read by Christians in North Korea. What is like to give thanks when a fellow believer is arrested for being a believer? How does it feel to hear Paul’s words when a family member is imprisoned for the faith or worse?

Paul’s admonition to give thanks all the time for everything presents its own challenge for Christians in the United States. Is it possible to give thanks when we have lost a loved one? Does Paul really mean for us to give thanks when we are experiencing the loss of a job or the break-up of a family? What we do not have to ask ourselves when we hear these words is whether or not they apply to us when we are being persecuted because of our religious beliefs. This is true because in the United States, we are not persecuted, arrested, imprisoned or executed for practicing religion according to the dictates of our conscience.

What gets called religious persecution in this country does not even appear on the radar screen in countries that do not enjoy the freedom of religion that we do. When the government will not teach our children to pray, we call it persecution. When we are not allowed to pray at a government sponsored event, we call it persecution. When the government will not fund our religious activities, we call it persecution. Oddly many who claim to want government out of everything cry foul when government will not establish and enhance the exercise of their particular religion.

Such stretching of the definition of persecution would seem to indicate a lack of gratitude for the protection that we each have to practice our religion as we feel led of God to do or to practice no religion at all. Any characterization of the American experience as one of religious persecution approaches absurdity. Each day, we experience more religious liberty than many people will experience in a whole lifetime. We have much for which to be thankful.

In this year when Baptists are celebrating our 400th anniversary, one would think that gratitude and thanksgiving would be abounding. Early Baptists experienced real persecution. They were jailed, whipped and forced to pay taxes that supported state sponsored churches. But since the Bill of Rights, religious freedom has flourished to the point that it is taken for granted by many Americans, religious or otherwise. Let us give thanks to God our Father all the time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ especially the obvious, the easily overlooked and the all too often taken for granted.