Sunday, May 24, 2009

In Memoriam

Tomorrow America will remember those who died in its wars. It is well that our country does so, recognizing those who “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Since the war in Iraq began 4,300 soldiers have died, over 3,400 of them in combat.

But when does the church remember those who gave their lives for the cause of Christ? Who recognizes them? In the 21st Century Christianity has averaged 160,000 Christian martyrs each year. We are just shy of the halfway mark of 2009 and already there have been over 176,000 Christians murdered just for being Christians.

We don’t see these deaths. In the United States we enjoy not only freedom of speech, but also religious freedom in the form of the separation of church and state. The religious persecution that occurs in our world occurs in those countries that do not recognize these rights.

For instance, North Korea is one of the most repressive and isolated regimes in the world. The country denies every kind of human right to its citizens. The country’s previous leader, Kim Il Sung, founded an ideology called "Juche," which centers on the worship of the country’s leaders. Government-organized religious activities exist solely to provide the illusion of religious freedom. North Korean Christians must practice their faith in deep secrecy and are in constant danger. The government considers Christians to be a stability threat, and they are hunted all over the country. Many North Koreans, including Christians, have fled to China. You know it’s bad when China is seen as a place of escape. Unfortunately, China doesn’t want them and has a bounty worth a year’s salary for each refugee caught. When they are returned to N. Korea, they are often tortured and placed in prison camps from which they never return.

N. Korea is a communist country that is hostile to all religions, not just Christianity, but most of the persecution of Christians takes place in religious countries in which one dominant religion is sanctioned by the government, ostracizing those citizens who do not follow that dominant religion, whether it be Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. At best these religious minorities are tolerated; at worst they are openly persecuted. Sometimes this persecution is government sanctioned, but often it is the result of the cultural stigma that is natural when there is a government-sanctioned religion that the majority of the population follows. And anyone who thinks that such persecution is inherent in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other non-Christian religions has to ignore the tragic history of Christianity as a persecutor of religious minorities. It is a sad irony that the same Christian groups that fled religious persecution by state religions to come to the New World became persecutors themselves when different forms of Christianity entered their midst. Roger Williams fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony for Rhode Island because he was not welcome there as a Baptist.

Religion, any religion, allied with the coercive power of government, is a dangerous thing, including the government-sanctioned atheism of most communist countries. Government neutrality toward religion, neither promoting it nor interfering with it, is the only way to make sure that not only are there few Christian martyrs, but few Hindu, Buddhist, or Islamic martyrs. (And by the way, a terrorist is not a martyr. A martyr is a victim of violence, not a perpetrator of it.) There is certainly a price to be paid for government neutrality. A person of faith employed by the government has to assume a neutral stance toward religion while functioning as an employee. If that means that they cannot proselytize while on the job, that is a small price to pay for the freedom to worship freely in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and in their homes.

I have nothing but admiration for those Christians who worship Christ in the face of persecution, knowing that to do so might cost them their jobs, their freedom, even their lives. As we remember those who gave their lives for our country, let us also remember those who, for the cause of Christ, also gave “the last full measure of devotion.”

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