Reports from North Korea are a startling reminder of the true gift that religious liberty is for those who enjoy it. In North Korea, citizens are expected to worship the emperor. Persecution, arrest, imprisonment or execution may follow if they don’t.
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 it 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 in the context of 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 the 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.
Ed Sunday-Winters is senior pastor of Ball Camp Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. He blogs at Just Words.
Ed Sunday-Winters is pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ in Greensboro, Vermont.