It seems especially appropriate to write about religious freedom on July 4, which marks Independence Day in America. But it is perhaps a bit unusual to mark the day by warning Christians about the dangers of religious freedom. Nevertheless, bear with me. Important issues are afoot, ones that are rarely discussed.
I have the opportunity to speak around the world about North Korean Christians and about Christian martyrs in general. I can tell you that the most common prayer that is prayed by my gracious hosts right before I preach or teach often goes something like this: “Lord, thank you for the religious freedoms we have in our country. Thank you that here we can worship and pray freely without fear.”
It is a very understandable prayer and no doubt a heartfelt one when Christians thank the Lord that they don’t live in (or like) North Korea. But there’s something potentially unhelpful to Christians back of a prayer like that, and quite telling.
One of my favorite writings from Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of Voice of the Martyrs, is a little-known piece entitled Preparing for the Underground Church. (For English language readers, the easiest place to find this is in a book entitled Triumphant Church, in which it appears as one of three essays. If you buy the book, go for the spiral bound version, since it will remind you that Rev. Wurmbrand’s essay is intended as a practical how-to guide, covering things like how to practice suffering and resist torture, how to pray when you have been so tortured that you can no longer remember the Lord’s Prayer, and how to cultivate solitude and silence, which Rev. Wurmbrand bemoans is in short supply among non-persecuted Christians, to the detriment of the church and the world.)
In the essay, Rev. Wurmbrand emphasizes the importance of spiritual exercises for Protestant Christians preparing for persecution. (“I am very sorry that spiritual exercises are almost unknown in Protestantism,” he writes. “We have to revive them in the Underground Church.”) He offers the following spiritual exercise for Christians in wealthy nations:
I live in the United States of America. Can you imagine what an American Supermarket looks like? You find there many beauties and dainties. I look at everything there and say to myself, “l can go without this thing, and that thing: this thing is very nice, but I can go without: the third thing I can go without, too.” I visited the whole Supermarket and did not spend one dollar. I had the joy of seeing many beautiful things, and the second joy to know that I can go without.
For the Christian, religious freedom is a beauty and a dainty–a very pleasant thing to have whenever it is around, and a good for which we can and ought to give thanks to God. But it ought to brings us joy to know we can go on quite splendidly without it, and we should regularly envision and plan for the practice of our faith in its absence–and not only with teeth gritted and fear in the pits of our stomachs. Many Christians in religiously free countries admit that they are uncertain whether they would be able to practice their faith were it not free to do so. That ought to concern us (and them). We would do well to remember that religious freedom is not a prerequisite for any part of the bountiful and blessed Christian life. Romans 8:28 does not depend on human enforcement or just laws. It is as true in a North Korean concentration camp as it is on Main Street, USA (or Main Street, Brazil, since Brazil is now purported to have more religious freedom than the US.)
But religious freedom is not only dispensable for Christians. It can also be potentially dangerous if mishandled. “Mishandled” here means factoring religious freedom into one’s faith practice in any way, shape, or form, either consciously or unconsciously. If religious freedom (or its lack) influences for us what is safe and unsafe, suitable and unsuitable for us to practice, then the contours of our Christianity will be subtly reshaped by what religious freedoms governments grant and withhold.
And indeed, as I travel around the world, I see signs that contemporary Christianity owes more than a little of its present form to the space governments are willing to allow it to occupy–and that is true in religiously free countries, not only religiously restrictive ones. It is no coincidence that Christianity is increasingly understood today by Christians and non-Christians alike, in “open” countries and “closed”, as primarily an interior faith: Christians are those who pray, study the Bible, sing songs, and believe certain things. (One of those things, ostensibly, is that believing certain things is necessary and sufficient to constitute both identity as a Christian and faithful adherence to the fullness of the faith, which is both a recent revision to the faith and simultaneously its oldest heresy.)
Governments tend to like to round off what appear to them to be the pointy edges of religions–the things that poke and prod and cause pain to the society at large. Pointy edges tend to be those things that stick outside the interior of a person or a religious building and which are incompatible with governments’ own social religions. Often those are the very same pointy edges of Christianity that Christians themselves don’t like so much either. Laws and social sanctions discouraging such practices end up working frighteningly well for both sides.
Evangelism is an obvious example of this phenomenon. Most Christians don’t like to do it. Some are even philosophically troubled by the idea. So it does not trouble most Christians that evangelism is increasingly restricted, regulated, and socially rejected in free societies, for the very reason that it infringes upon society’s prevailing understanding of religion as a personal and private experience that should be untrammeled by externals. Freedom of religion becomes in practice freedom of worship–the right to believe and do most things inside one’s own mind and one’s own properly registered religious building, without interference. Provided it occurs among consenting adults and provided that anything that emerges from one’s private and corporate ruminations functions more or less compatibly with a government’s social agenda, a surprising number of countries around the world are quite willing to grant this kind of religious freedom.
Even our popular images of Christian persecution become reshaped by the way we prize religious freedom as interior liberty. The prototypical persecuted Christian is one who “stands up” for their beliefs and “would rather die than deny” Jesus. In reality, however, throughout history Christians have generally been persecuted not for what they believe but for how they act on those beliefs. Even in North Korea, individuals who are Christians in their own minds (and, with some limitations, even their own homes) stand a reasonable chance of survival, provided they are savvy as regards their dealings once they step outside the door. The fact that we so highly regard Christians who don’t “deny their beliefs” is symptomatic of our relegation of Christianity to the interior spaces of life. We would prefer a world where everyone can believe whatever they want to believe and engage in their own spiritual disciplines, so long as they don’t interfere with our own and we can still post our opinions about it all on Facebook.
But Christ did not die so that we might have freedom of religion. The liberty he brings is not primarily personal, but interpersonal. “Christian” is neither an identity nor an ethnicity but a description of how we relate to others, no longer regarding them from a human standpoint but instead receiving and responding to each one as unto Christ himself, regardless of the personal consequences. That this is rooted in beliefs is absolutely true, and crucial; that such beliefs are quite literally meaningless as interior states is the consistent testimony of Scripture.
As regards Christianity outside of our own minds and buildings, to co-opt a Reformation dictum, Christians relate to others not according to law(s) but according to God’s grace. As such, Christianity can never be framed, granted, restricted, rest within, nor be shaped by governments. If it could, our manner of relating would not arise from grace and it would not be Christian. For the Christian, the laws in our given country of residence (where we only ever remain resident aliens, since we are citizens–fully–of another kingdom) can only determine how others (including governments) react to us, not how we react to others (including governments).
And as faithful Christians know, governments have no corner on the principalities and powers market. Corporations, sports teams, malls, even languages all seek to conform us to their image as we alternatively submit ourselves to transformation by Christ. The idea that the authentic Christian life is somehow more amenable in some countries than others–ostensibly because of a country’s Christian heritage or liberal social values–is sinking sand at best and dangerous to Christianity at worst. As the Apostle Paul notes,
There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power.
As I have traveled, I have not noted that people in any nations are exempt from these characteristics, or that any laws or any national religious heritage mitigate or exempt individuals from the disastrous effects of original sin. As Ezekiel affirms, God does not grant indulgences for heritage but rather traffics in the faith of the living, not the dead:
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
In short, it is just as easy to sin in America as it is in North Korea, and the trip to hell is the same distance from every country on earth.
It may sound cavalier to regard religious freedom so lightly and to highlight its danger to Christians rather than its desirability. “Would you rather live in a nation with religious freedom or without it?” seems to be little more than a rhetorical question. And yet I suspect that that is because we have not yet comes to terms personally, psychologically, theologically, or missionally with the challenges of living the Christian life in the “free” world, and we have not fully experienced the freedom in Christ that is not government’s to grant or to take away. Christians do live in countries without religious freedom, and God is hardly distant and powerless there. It is worth noting that in the Apostle Paul’s one recorded encounter with a society espousing religious freedom–Athens, in Acts 17–Paul does not breathe a sigh of relief, hang a flag on his porch, or espouse the virtues and wisdom of religious plurality. Instead, he is “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).
The typical move here is to question, then, whether in the countries where we are living as resident aliens we ought to be about promoting religious freedom, or whether we should be about promoting Christian values in government, or whether that’s basically the same thing. But the move I am proposing is a different move altogether: principled indifference. Whether free or not, whether legal or not, we know exactly what is commanded of us as Christians. We can expect to be persecuted because he was persecuted and because everyone who seeks to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
From this there are no geographical exemptions, no reprieves due to national ideological compatibility. For Christians, there is only the holy task of daily pouring out the suffering love of Christ to all we meet without expectation of return, because this is how we learned it from our master, because this is how he first loved us.