The General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution on May 28, 2019, “strongly condemning continuing violence and acts of terrorism targeting individuals, including persons belonging to religious minorities, on the basis of or in the name of religion or belief.”
Referencing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the statement stressed that “Freedom of religion or belief, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association are interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing.”
Tragically, these basic rights are not upheld around the world, not even in America – despite the “self-evident truth” set forth in the Declaration of Independence that everyone has the God-given and inherent right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Because people’s experience of life, liberty and happiness is so often interwoven inextricably with their deepest and most profound encounters with the Sacred, their religious beliefs and practices must be protected as innate entitlements.
Many Americans are concerned about how these religious rights are trampled around the world.
Perhaps it would be fair to say, however, that the majority of exposés written and prayers voiced about this injustice focus on Christian victims of religious persecution.
The preponderance of information about this global problem that comes from American Christians is understandable, given the numerical dominance of Christianity in the United States, the manifold platforms for disseminating Christian data and the unequal attention given the issue by our government in Washington.
Consequently, Christian watchdog groups like March for the Martyrs, International Christian Concern and Open Doors USA disseminate frequent reports about the victimization of Christians.
For example, Open Doors USA in January published its World Watch List, an annual inventory of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.
The report notes these 50 countries, listed in descending order of the seriousness of their restrictions and abuses, are populated by “260 million Christians suffering high to severe levels of persecution.”
This figure apparently assumes every Christian in those countries is persecuted, which might be true of North Korea, the first country listed, but not true of India, the tenth.
International Christian Concern calls this catalog of perpetrator countries the “Hall of Shame.”
For the first time this year, the United States was listed in International Christian Concern’s Hall of Shame, an astonishing development for a country explicitly founded on the basis of religious freedom.
I suggest our nation’s inclusion on this list of 50 stems from our current political atmosphere and the implicit permission – coming from the White House – that citizens feel to translate their anger, fear and suspicion about people who are different into harsh words and even violent deeds.
As a Christian, especially one who spent 25 years working with Christian sisters and brothers in Indonesia, I am naturally disturbed by the persecution of Christians around the world.
But as a Christian pluralist I cannot only be concerned about the victimization of Christians.
To be clear, I am a Christian because I choose to commit my life to following the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am also a pluralist because I believe we must find creative and respectful ways of relating to one another as friends and partners in a religiously diverse world.
So I must learn from more inclusive reports about global religious persecution, such as those from the research centers, investigative advocacy groups, mainstream magazines, independent news organizations or even online encyclopedias.
These kinds of resources help me understand how committed followers of many faith paths suffer indignities, oppression and violence for their religious beliefs and traditions.
Being better informed, I am therefore much more able to reflect upon and pray for peace and the protection for adherents of all religions around the globe, not just for those who are my Christian siblings.
Why should I read more broadly and thus be more inclusive in my concern for others?
I must act this way because I want to be a disciple of Jesus. He was a wonderful example of compassionate acts expressed toward those who were different.
So, this is puzzling to me: Christians in my Baptist tradition testify to their need for a personal relationship with Jesus, letting him be their Lord as well as their Savior.
And, for some of these Christians, that act of surrender includes asking what Jesus would do in given circumstances and then imitating him.
Oddly, however, a lot of those same people of faith and piety rarely ponder “what Jesus would do” when they are deciding how to talk about or relate to people who are Baha’is, Buddhists, Confucians, Folk Religionists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Native Traditionalists, Pagans, Sikhs, Taoists, Zoroastrians or part of any other religious community – or who identify with no religion at all.
In his book, Many Mansions: A Christian’s Encounter with Other Faiths, Harvey Cox, Baptist professor of theology emeritus from Harvard Divinity School, says “[t]hat … seems like a blind spot in our Christology or discipleship – a lapse in vision caused either by an unfamiliarity with how Jesus treated non-Jews or an unwillingness to follow his example.”
Jesus empathized with Gentiles who were suffering. He cast out the demon from the daughter of a frantic Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), restored to health and community a Samaritan leper marginalized because of his disease (Luke 17:11-19) and rescued the dying servant of a trusting Roman officer (Matthew 8:5-13).
Since imago Christi, or “the imitation of Christ,” is such an important motif in Christian history, we should be concerned about the welfare of those who are religiously different from ourselves. By acting in this way, we will be imitating how Jesus himself lived.
Baptists have historically championed religious freedom. In that tradition, we must faithfully uphold and defend the religious rights of people around the world.
Our concern, however, must be for the religious freedom of all those who are suffering, not just for our fellow Christians.
If we are not doing this with sincerity and compassion, perhaps we are either unaware of how Jesus treated the religious other or we are unwilling to live like him.
Not to feel the pain of neighbors across the globe simply because they are not like us is to pass by on the other side. It is to express a concern that is far too narrow.
At this time of remembering the persecuted, prompted by the United Nations, may we recall the one who is our model and master and commit ourselves to God’s good work of prayer, solidarity and advocacy.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week for the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief (Aug. 22).