Following Jesus to Engage Our World: Responding to Discouraging Trends

Have you ever been in the middle of a task that got unexpectedly hard? Maybe it was hitting a rock while digging, or encountering a surprisingly steep slope while hiking. For many Christians seeking to bear witness to their faith in a public way, the past several years have been unexpectedly difficult, as we’ve encountered some steep slopes in our journey with Jesus.

I normally try to avoid the doom and gloom attitude of many conservative Christians, who often speak in apocalyptic language about the terrible condition of our country and the world, but this week I read a couple of things that struck me as incredibly challenging as we seek to bear faithful witness to the gospel in our context.

First, there are several international stories of Christians undergoing serious persecution. There is the high profile case of the Sudanese woman imprisoned for refusing to renounce her Christian faith (Update: She has just been released). Canon Andrew White has written of the perilous situation of Christians in Iraq. There was recent attack on a group in Kenya watching the World Cup, with Christians being singled out for execution. And China seems to be cracking down on churches—even churches recognized by the government—with an intensity that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

[caption id="attachment_1412" align="alignright" width="300"]Jesus loves you photo by Rupert Ganzer on Flickr and licensed by Jesus loves you
photo by Rupert Ganzer on Flickr and licensed by[/caption]

Here in the US, the situation of Christians isn’t nearly as dire, but there have been several recent developments that make it increasingly difficult to live out explicitly Christian convictions in public. The contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act has caused many Christian business owners to wrestle with the ethical and moral implications of providing certain kinds of contraception to its employees. Christian business owners have also been forced to make difficult decisions regarding providing services that facilitate actions that many Christians consider immoral. (This is largely connected to weddings or commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, but I have a friend who sold a convenience store because the corporate office required him to sell cigarettes and alcohol).

Also, a recent New York Times article outlined various cases of Christian organizations being stripped of official status on college campuses because the groups in question restrict leadership positions to students who affirm their statement of faith. Finally, a recent study concluded that mentioning membership in an explicitly religious organization on a résumé may make a potential employer less likely to follow up.

It is difficult to know how to respond to these discouraging trends. As we think and pray through how to do so, we observe a clear connection between the hostility and marginalization Christians experience with the experiences of both Islam and the LGBT community, albeit in very different ways. On one hand, in the Middle East and North Africa, the violent, and often deadly, persecution of Christians is most often perpetrated by individuals and groups acting in the name of Islam.

In the US, however, Muslims are often marginalized to an even greater extent than are conservative Christians. The above-mentioned study connecting employment discrimination and religious identification observed that Muslims are the religious group most likely to be discriminated against. This hostility against Muslims was recently on display at a gathering of political conservatives in Washington DC. Further, in his book Zeitoun, which I’ve been reading the past couple of weeks, Dave Eggers tells the story of a Muslim family enduring persecution in the (literal) wake of post-Katrina New Orleans. This included young people following women and pulling their hijabs off of their heads.

If American Christians want to advocate for freedom of religion, we must advocate for Muslims in our country who are routinely discriminated against because of their religion—even while rightly advocating for our brothers and sisters being persecuted in the name of Islam (or, in the case of China, the Communist Party).

Meanwhile, as the LGBT community continues to gain status as a legally protected group in the US, it seems that we should sit down with local gay advocates—especially gay Christians—and listen to their stories, while sharing ours as well. As Andrew Marin has documented in his important book Love is an Orientation, many in the LGBT community have experienced rejection, ridicule, and even violence, often perpetuated by people claiming to be Christians. Interestingly, as discussions like these have happened, several gay-rights advocates have defended the rights of businesses and non-profits to abstain from offering services that violate their consciences, just as many Christians have stopped opposing granting legal recognition, and thus protection, for gay couples.

The temptation for many Christians is to dig in and become confrontational toward the government, universities, the LGBT community, and Muslims. It could be that public confrontation is necessary in the situations overseas, but, locally, it seems to me that constructive engagement with the government, universities, and leaders in both the LGBT and Muslim communities—looking for common ground and even common cause—is the better course to follow. It certainly seems to reflect the heart of Jesus more than identifying, and then attacking—whether verbally or physically—our enemies. If we have identified enemies, the proper response for disciples of Jesus is, of course, to love them (Matthew 5:44).

It could be that the cultural tide is turning to the point that Christians in the US will be marginalized further and further as they seek to live publicly as Christians. Even then, though, we might see God’s hand at work. In his commentary on Matthew 10, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Faithfulness, not numbers or status, should be the characteristic that shapes the witness of the church.” Faithfulness to Jesus requires bearing witness to Jesus, and our witness is compromised when it has not been, to use Hauerwas’ words, “faithfully embodied.”

Our challenge, I believe, is to speak out on behalf of religious freedom in a way that embodies the character of Jesus. In so doing, the goal isn’t social status, numbers, or safety, but rather the proclamation of the One who was silent in the face of unjust accusation in order to offer himself for the sins of the ones unjustly accusing him.

If asked to write out a script of my ideal Christian life, this wouldn’t be it, but, at the end of the day, when I answered Jesus’ call to follow him I let go of my right to write the script. It could be that God is calling us to be, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “lovers in a dangerous time.” We didn’t choose the danger, but we can choose how to live within it. What I’d like to propose is that we begin to ask how we might love like Jesus in the midst of the very real danger.