Will Churches Stand Up for Christians?

On the heels of our discussion of Christian persecution, we explore why this issue should matter to broader society. Daniel Philpott kicked off the conversation with his piece, "Why Christians Deserve Attention." In it, he laid out a new joint initiative between the Religious Freedom Project and Notre Dame's Center of Civil and Human Rights that will focus on Christian responses to persecution. 

By: Robert J. Joustra

I’ve often been told that persecution strengthens the church. Sometimes, I suppose, this is true. Other times, like in many parts of the Middle East today, persecution just eradicates the church. Words like “genocide” are not idly invoked. The Christian church survives, sure, but not in all times and not in all places. Despite this, it is a perplexing truth that one of the groups most reticent to focus on this persecution is not just the White House, but actual North American churches themselves. The question “Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?” was asked in the New York Times not by a Christian pastor or elder but by the president of the World Jewish Congress. Why?

There are a range of anecdotal answers. In his opening post, Dan Philpott worries that some critics have regarded religious freedom advocacy as an exclusively Christian exercise. Others, he suggests, may think of religious freedom advocacy as special pleading on behalf of one religious minority. Christian churches advocating for Christians, especially in the halls of power, is just the sort of forbidden fruit that can kick start culture wars.

But, as a Canadian, one of the most convincing answers I’ve come across is that when American Christians talk about standing up for Christians, they usually mean using the power of the American government to do it. They mean diplomats and trade sanctions, aircraft carriers and humanitarian aid drops. I don’t mean to suggest these powers should not be invoked for the flagrant and barbarous slaughter of Christians. I believe there is a responsibility incumbent on governments to act in the face of such terrible tragedy. But this is not only the responsibility of governments. There is also a responsibility for specific Christian communities and for churches, too.

For a little more than a year I have served on the Christian Reformed Church of North America’s study committee on religious liberty and persecution. It was brand new when I joined. One of the first things the committee studied was the landscape of Christian churches and denominations in North America, and the range of their work on issues of religious liberty and persecution. It turns out it wasn’t a big project.

Our provisional findings so far, aided by the generous support of The Henry Institute at Calvin College, have uncovered that religious liberty or persecution tends to be a minor concern of evangelical churches. Note that this is not the same thing as saying it is not a concern of actual evangelicals, but our findings of structural ecclesial support for the issue were very thin. Evangelicals in America may be very excited about religious freedom, but so far as we can tell, they aren’t often using church structures to express it. Interestingly, a similar survey found that almost no mainline Protestant denominations had resources dedicated to religious liberty, but many did work on ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue.

Both of these are important halves of the work of religious liberty that Christian churches can be actively engaged in. The work of religious liberty and inter-faith dialogue are not coincidentally, but essentially related, and for one or the other to have any prospect of success, it must necessarily invoke its other half. Religious liberty—for a shorthand definition, let’s say the freedom or liberty to live and manifest fully, in public and private, one’s religion without social or political interference—is one of the fundamental dignities that makes a liberal society possible. It doesn’t require—in fact, it more or less assumes—that total religious and philosophical agreement on why this dignity is so fundamental won’t prevail. We are reminded of Jacques Maritain’s famous invocation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: We may agree on these rights, but we don’t all have to agree on why.

Here’s the other side of that religious freedom coin. Coming to that kind of consensusrequires inter-faith work and dialogue. We could even reasonably call that politics—a conciliation of a diversity of perspectives, with the outcome of certain bedrock, strong public principles. Dan Philpott calls this process “mutual resonance,” or the finding of rooted reason, in his book Just and Unjust Peace. He also argues that it is vital that religious communities engage in it. They must find, teach, and steward their own deep reasons for things like freedom of religion or belief.

Not only is this kind of political-theological work necessary for a liberal society, but it is also work that no ambassador or congressperson is well suited for. It is, explicitly and exclusively, the work of religious communities themselves: of churches, mosques, temples, and theological societies. The massacre of Christians must be stopped, but Christian churches don’t deploy drones. What they do deploy is bottom-up building of civil and social goods with inter-faith partners in response to the why of religious freedom. In a region defined by failed states and strong religion, we need a strategy to reach the religion. Ziya Meral writes: “Only Muslims can reform their religious traditions.” Or, as Chris Seiple argues, “Only good theology beats bad theology.”

States may drop bombs and brigades to stem the tide, but only reformist local political-theology will root a long-term, bottom-up change of culture. We need the liberty to have the dialogue, but we need the dialogue to root the liberty. That’s one way churches can stand up for Christians, and it’s one way that only churches—together with other co-religionists like reformist Shia’s, Sunnis, and others—are capable of achieving. Yes, we must have advocacy. Yes, we must have political and international justice. But we must also know why religious liberty matters, why we defend and protect it, and how our reasons may overlap in a world surging with rival religious rationales.

Robert Joustra is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. 

This piece was originally authored on September 3, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affair.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/30/will-churches-stand-up-for-christians