Christian Persecution in 2019

The bombings in Sri Lankan churches that killed over 300 people, claimed by ISIS and said to intentionally target Christians in response to mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, bring a moment’s attention to a horrifying underlying trend.  The persecution of Christians around the world is at an all-time high.  According to Open Doors USA, a watchdog group:

  • 1 in 9 Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution today
  • 345 Christians are killed each month for faith-related reasons
  • Christian women generally face the worst of it
  • China and India, the two most populous nations in the world, have bad records for human rights violations against Christians
  • Reported incidents of the persecution of Christians in the first half of 2019 are already higher than they were in 2018

The Wall Street Journal reports an exodus of Christians out of Egypt, as Muslim persecution of this minority grows, and the Christian population of Egypt in the last hundred years has shrunk from 15% to 9%.

Why the increase is a fair question.  Surely it doesn’t have to rise.  One would hope that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, all forms of persecution would wane.  An increases worldwide speaks of a trend, and trends have causes.

I have a suggestion.

The world of philosophy and its ideas are hotly contested in the University.  Some people think of it as nothing more than intellectual banter, but history says otherwise.  Ideas propagate themselves from the University and through a culture, and ideas lead to actions, belief spawns behavior.  Marx’s ideas about the oppression of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution led to the birth of new political regimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the hands of tyrants.  What started as philosophy made its way to warfare.  Likewise, Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest profoundly influenced Frederick Nietzsche, who chided Christianity for protecting the weak.  The weak should be put aside, he said.  Only power and genius should be allowed to thrive.  Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, took over his estate as he fell to mental illness, and she promoted his works.  As Nietzsche’s praise of power was taught in the German universities, the Nazis would take it on wholesale as an ideology.  Nietzsche’s work was so influential on the Nazi regime that Hitler attended Elizabeth’s funeral.  They agreed, the weak should be put aside.  There are dozens of other examples of how ivory tower ideas later carry worldwide influence.

Now, what have philosophers and academicians been saying about Christianity recently?

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a group of boisterous and condescending intellectuals began propagating atheist literature in the public sphere.  They had absolutely no new ideas to promote – most of their work was panned by their peers.  What was new was the absolute ire with which they approached their subject.  There has rarely been such a concerted mockery of religious people as this circle put together.

Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor, has been perhaps the most sardonic.  He refers to dawkinsthe God of the Bible as “the most malevolent bully in all of fiction” and he calls religion “a kind of mental illness.” He says God is “about as likely as the tooth fairy.” Anyone who has been to a secular American university knows that these types of taunt are taken up wholesale by the average sophomore, and Christian students are often mocked into a defensive silence.

It’s been over 12 years since Dawkins began his public attack on religion.  It’s been reported that his book has sold over 3 million copies, relatively small for the planet’s population.  However, the unofficial Arabic pdf of the book has been downloaded 13 million times.  (Arabic is the language of the Quran.)

Now, one could suggest that the book’s popularity in Arabic comes from a number of different impulses – curious, defensive, etc. – none of which have to do with the persecution of Christians.  But I want to suggest that there is a growing side effect of the treatment of Christianity in the American University.  As the American culture becomes visibly less supportive of its religious bodies, those who see Christianity as a rival become all the more empowered to act out against it.  If Christianity is ridiculed in America, it’s unlikely that the financial strength of America’s institutions is likely to be leveraged to make a difference in its defense overseas.  Furthermore, according to the Associated Press, church membership in America had dropped over the last two decades from 70% to around 50%.  There are simply fewer Christians pleading and speaking out for their brothers and sisters who are minority groups elsewhere in the world.  Here, Christianity remains an open target of public ridicule in a way that other religions are exempt from.

If the public voices of the University consider Christianity a fair and easy target for mockery (and no, they don’t give equal time to insulting Islam and Judaism), it’s easy to see that those will be propagated through the culture and ultimately be expressed in the form of action, specifically, action against Christians.  A dozen years of vicious attacks on Christianity may be paying off in the form of growing persecution.

Given its general uselessness as a contribution to intellectual exploration and inquiry, it might be fair to ask whether the open mockery of Christianity coming from public intellectuals ought not to be considered hate speech.  That seems the most apt description.

Dressed for Heaven

-excerpted from “It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church”

I discovered that the work of justice still needed to take place in my life when I was questioned by a Black friend of mine.  “What’s the experience of being White in America?” he asked me.

I shrugged.  “I’ve never thought about it.”

“That’s the experience of being White in America,” he told me.

320px-Martin_Luther_King_press_conference_01269u_edit.jpgI can now answer the question.  The experience of being White in America is comfortable apathy.  It’s not necessarily malice or stereotyping.  It’s the mere disregard for the fact that you are benefiting from a system which disadvantages others.  The sense of nonchalance in the face of the struggle of a minority, the passive negligence of the other who must work against tougher odds, is the modern face of racism.  We may not have separate bathrooms, but we still have separate possibilities.

Justice is that outward movement of love from a simple compassion for others towards a determination to create compassionate systems and structures.  Love seeks to build a home for the homeless.  Justice seeks to stop future generations from experiencing homelessness.  The blueprint of heaven is not merely for an individualized faith that makes one a better person.  It is a plan for a better world.

Justice means living as though by a set of laws no one else has read.  Becoming a citizen of a new kingdom means living by the laws of that kingdom, even it if is still only a kingdom to come.  It is when employment is free of gender bias, when education is free of political slant, when relationships are founded in respect, society is awash with civility, and classism gives way to abundant generosity that it becomes clear the kingdom of heaven is infecting the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus told us to look for signs of it – that the lame would walk, the blind would see, and the deaf would hear.  Is it any less supernatural when unjustly shackled are free to run, the prejudicially blind are awakened to clarity, and the apathetically deaf become compassionate?  These are the signs that the kingdom under construction is coming to be.

The call of Christians is to begin to live by the rules of the kingdom that is to come instead of by the rules of the kingdoms we’ve inherited.

Standing in the Chicago airport, I was bundled in multiple sweaters, coats, and undershirts.  I had been summoned to be a groomsman in a frigid January wedding (for which I never forgave the groom).  I couldn’t wait to get back to my home in Hawaii.  Standing across the terminal from me was an older couple dressed in matching aloha wear, which, in Hawaii, is the equivalent of writing “tourist” on your forehead.  I couldn’t resist walking up to them and asking, “So where you headed?”

They almost shouted, “We’re going to Hawaii!” Of course they were, and everything about them said that they were, from their audacious outfits to their beaming smiles.  They knew where they were going, and they couldn’t wait to get there, so much so that they had already dressed for it.  They dressed themselves in such a way that no one could miss what they were doing, even if someone might be prompted to make fun of them.  And making fun of them wouldn’t have dampened their spirits, because their destination was just that appealing.

Shouldn’t it be that way with the people of heaven?  Shouldn’t we be so dressed for our destination that no one could miss it, so excited about our travels that it just oozes out of us?  The kingdom of heaven is so compelling that we can’t wait till we get there; we have to start living it here.

A Mess of Metaphors

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First published in Sunday U Magazine.

Most church conflict is not about worship styles, theological affiliations, or carpet color.  Most church fights are about metaphors.

Everyone has an operating metaphor for what the church is supposed to be.  Some think it should be a cruise ship, where the staff offer stellar customer service and glittering performances.  Some expect it to be a classroom, whose primary purpose is to instill a hearty theology in the minds of the students.  More than a few want a circle of wagons that keep them safe from the evils of post-Christian culture.  Some just want a punch clock that they use at Christmas and Easter to check in.  Whatever the preferred analogy, most people have one, and that frames all of their expectations for the church.  Nothing is more disorienting than a new pastor who comes to town with a fresh, vision-inspiring metaphor that isn’t the one the last pastor preached.

One of the biggest conflicts in churches in the 20th century came when….

Read the rest here.

 

A Christmas Miracle

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Well, this one is beyond explanation.

A family from the Real Life Church family contacted our Children’s Minister, Staci, to tell her that their house had been robbed.  The thieves got away with some cash that the family had set aside to send their kids to Winter Camp with the church.

Of course the church was ready to jump in and cover the costs for these two kids anyway, but the family told Staci to save the money.  The church might have to buy a new building this year – save the money for that.

This sweet family was about to sacrifice their kids’ opportunity to go to camp so that the church could continue in its mission.

What they didn’t know was that earlier the same day I had received a call from another member of the congregation who told me, “God is telling me to pay for a couple of kids to go to camp, in case anyone can’t afford it.”  The same day the house was robbed, even before it was robbed.

So of course, the kids are going to camp.

Now a skeptic might suggest that if God was behind this, he could have just stopped the robbery, right?  But think about that.  The family isn’t losing out on anything – they’re still going to camp, and not only that, they also know that God is watching out for them.  The donors aren’t out anything – they already wanted to give the gift.  Now on top of that, they know how special their gift is.  Even the thieves are not at a loss – they walked away with the cash, and, God willing, they are a step closer to finding out that money and theft will not lead to happiness.  If God had stopped all this from happening, we wouldn’t have this story to tell, and we wouldn’t have a deep sense of God’s hand in our lives.

So this is our Christmas miracle this year, and it’s my Christmas miracle, because what pastors want to see, more than beautiful services and shining smiles, is the powerful hand of God intervening in the world.  That is, after all, the story of Christmas.

#RLLA

Kyo

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Kyo

It’s not news that the Christian church is not proliferating in Japan.  It’s less than half a percent of the population.  There’s an interesting phenomenon in the Japanese language that help accounts for this.

In Japanese, a religion is named with the title of that religion, followed by the suffix pictured here, pronounced “kyo” (rhymes with crow).  So Christianity is “Curisoto-kyo.”  Islam is “Isulamu-kyo.”  Literally translated, it simply means “teaching,” but as with many words, there is a nuance not captured by the strict definition.

The nation of Japan is not religious in the Western sense.  They may offer worship to idols or ancestors, loosely grouped under the title, “Shinto,” but Shinto has no clearly defined doctrines.  When the Japanese talk about religions, they are generally referring to ideas from outside.  And when they think of such things, they still discuss the 1995 subway gas attack that killed 13 people and poisoned thousands.  The leader of that attack was executed this summer.  The name of that cult was Shinri-kyo.  “Kyo” has subsequently come to imply “cult.”  Because Christianity falls under the same broad umbrella of religious teachings, it too now bears a suffix that implies “cult.” Everyone in Japan has heard of the gas attacks.  Less than 1% of the population is Christian.  But when Christianity comes up, it’s immediately branded as related to the gas attacks.  No surprise that it’s not catching on.

A word to wise Christians in America: guilt by association is a real thing.  If Christians generally associate with unloving power-mongers who are more interested in politics that loving the lost, don’t be surprised when no one wants to talk to Christians any more.  At that point, the faith might as well be branded “The Christian Party,” because the suffix captures exactly how it’s thought of.  In America, there is a real risk that people may come to think Christianity is just a political slate that claims to have fallen from heaven.

That’s simply not what Jesus came to build.  He wasn’t out to create political power structures to shelter the fearful.  The teachings of Jesus (Jesuskyo?) are all about surrendering in the name of love.  The more his followers do so, the more likely Japan and the rest of the world are to see Christianity stand apart from cultish shadows.

My book is available!

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My new book, It’s Like This: Visions that Help and Hurt the Church is now available by ebook at Amazon.  For everyone who cares about the church, It’s Like This is meant to be an essential step towards a God-sized vision.

Churches languish for lack of vision, and pastors often blindly misunderstand the way their congregations already think about the church’s vision.  Everyone has a governing metaphor by which they think about the gathering of God’s people – some think it’s a country club, and some think it’s a battle ship.  Some think it’s a circle of wagons, and some think it’s a kingdom under construction.  Identifying the metaphor you think best for the church is critical to casting a vision for the church’s future.

It’s my hope that any church attender, church leader, pastor, or visionary will find the book of use.  Enjoy the book and pray for your church!

It’s Like This, page 1

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This is an excerpt from the opening page of my new book, It’s Like This, to be released before Christmas, with an introduction by Olympic Gold Medalist Bryan Clay.  If you’d like to receive a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up at the bottom of this page.

-Jim

 

Church Fights

I’ve been assaulted in church twice.  The first time was during a worship service by a 275 lbs. amateur boxer who was high on crystal meth and stalking a woman in the congregation.  The second was by an organized and judicious Board of Elders who decided I was not qualified to be a pastor.  If I had to choose between the two, I’d take the former.  The first incident left a precise spine of stitches woven into my right eyebrow.  The scar is invisible and harmless, and memories of it are only triggered when I’m bragging to my seminary students.  The second incident was as precise as a shotgun blast.  They handed me a seething letter saying that if I didn’t leave the church quietly they would damage all of my future career opportunities.  I shivered an unnatural kind of shiver.  I had young kids at home to support.  One of the Elders, sneering ear to ear, told me I could just let the congregation know on Facebook that I had left the church.  Fortunately, these wounds resolve into scars as well, my therapist assures me.

I had lost a fight over metaphors.

 

It’s Like This

I begin my seminary class by talking about the power of metaphors.  “Metaphors are as powerful as a crystal meth addict,” I say sagely.  In fact, they do have a strength of their own.  Metaphors sneak a world of ideas from the mind of the speaker into the mind of the listener.  They serve as a filter for implications but don’t tell the listener which ones are intended.  A single image communicates an entire system of relationships.  Furthermore, when someone takes an image as authoritative, it becomes the defining force in the way they think about and relate to a given subject.  Would you rather marry the person who thinks that love is a flower or the one who thinks love is a battlefield?  The governing metaphor shapes everything else.

Metaphors are not just poetic flair.  They decide from which vantage point a thing is looked at.  If someone compares an argument they just had to a war, it’s very hard for anyone to imagine the possibility that the two debaters might have been able to come to a helpful, mutual conclusion.  If he compares the argument to a dance, one might see it as creating community rather than damaging it.  The metaphor through which one views arguing will shape the way one argues.  Metaphors are not add-ons to language.  They shape language, and they shape thought.

There are metaphors for the church, and everyone has one.  Our operating assumptions about the purpose of church derive from our preferred analogy.  Some see it as a mission and others as a museum.  A few churches are modelled on nightclubs, and even more on castles.  Historically, churches were based on the structure of the classroom – lecturer up front pontificating, pupils in chairs, staring at the clock.  The Bible uses a range of metaphors for churches.  They’re not pretty.  The most shocking are pornographic. The more we pursue an appropriate metaphor for the church, the more we may find that God doesn’t think about it the way that we do.

Whatever metaphor for the church we choose, it defines everything we expect from the church.  Every complaint ever made by a church-attender was made because the experience didn’t match the assumed metaphor.

The same is true about the way pastors are thought of.  If a pastor sees herself as a shepherd, she may be compassionate but condescending; if as a general, distant but effective.  Perhaps some of the most important metaphors for pastors come from Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in the fourth century, distilled a description of Jesus down to three images: prophet, priest, and king.  This means that as a prophet, he scolds us and tells us what we did wrong.  He makes us feel a little bit guilty, and then tells us what we need to do to fix it.  Sometimes there is a thin line between a biblical prophet and your mom.  As a priest, he cares enough to plead our case before God in our defense.  As a king, he rules over the birds of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish in the sea, the sorting of the mail, and so forth….

 

If you’d like a free copy of the first chapter and a notification when the book is published, sign up here:

 

The Honduran Exodus

honduras-flag.gifThere is a migrant train of over 7000 people walking north towards the southern border of the US right now, Honduran refugees fleeing a context of poverty and violence.  It’s an exodus.

What’s walking towards America is more than that.  An awakening and an ethical decision is approaching. 

Americans have long thought of ourselves as the world’s good guys, using force to back up democracy and justice.  We are the ones who landed on the beach at Normandy.  Our first President couldn’t lie about chopping down a cherry tree.  We stand for Jesus and family.  Now that we’re the richest country in the world, it’s assumed that God has materially rewarded our spiritual and moral goodness like a parent reinforcing a well-behaved child with treats.

A 2007 report showed Honduras to be over 80% Christian.  They’re praying as they come.

American Christians have for a long time voted for candidates who claimed to be Christian, or, at least, promised to support Christian values.  Voters have rarely paused to consider the fact that that set of values has never been defined for them.  “Christian values,” in public discourse, seems to include freedom of religion (especially its expression in schools), a general opposition to abortion, and opposition to gay marriage.  They may include some nebulous affirmations like “Love thy neighbor,” but there is a sizable omission when it comes to Jesus’ very clear teachings about money and the poor.  In the American suburbs, these are generally add-ons for the specially motivated.

“Christian values” in America don’t especially exclude values which seem to be at odds with the teachings of Jesus and the early church, like xenophobia and nationalism.  Someone who is in an adulterous relationship would generally be seen as out of keeping in American churches, but someone who spends their money frivolously, doesn’t donate to charity, and doesn’t care what happens to the poor in other nations does not stand out.

What’s walking towards American Christians is a reality check.  Jesus isn’t as obsessed with sex as we are; he is far more obsessed with the poor and the outcast.  The package of values American Christians have accepted needs to be unpacked, separated, cleaned up and lightened up.  Some of it needs to be thrown away.  Self-identified evangelicals are overdue to face their baptized love of money and apathy for the oppressed. 

What’s going to be ironic about the American Christian response to the Honduran exodus is that we have an Exodus in our own Scripture, and consequently in the DNA of our faith.  God was on the side of the wanderers fleeing oppression for the sake of a land of freedom in that Exodus.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). What do you think Honduran Christians hear when they read that?  Probably the same thing the first European immigrants to the US were hearing when they read the same scriptures – that is, the ancestors of a lot of Americans.

So, before the story takes over the headlines and the blogosphere, a word to Christian America: remember Jericho.

Eye-to-eye

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Jesus sat with a Samaritan woman (John 4) talking about life and eternity.  For all the interesting aspects of the conversation, my favorite detail is this one:

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

In a highly conservative culture, Jewish men would not be seen alone with a woman who was not their wife.  People would talk; assumptions would be made.

Jesus sat eye-to-eye with a woman, on a flat, 180˙ plane, which was not the normal angle.  Men looked 45˙ down to women.  This was the Creator of the universe parenting all the boys of the world.  If you want to be a good man, this is what it looks like.  Eye-to-eye.

I love not only that he did it, but that the disciples had already given up trying to change him.  They were surprised but surrendered.  He’s just going to do it this way.  We’ll probably just have to do it this way too.  Eventually maybe all men will sit eye-to-eye with women.

Maybe.