RELIGIOUS LIBERTY: FROM 2005 INTO 2006
THE CENTRALITY OF LIBERTY
Just as the industrial revolution brought changes that made the
world a smaller place, the changes being brought by the revolution
in communications and information technology are making the world a
more open place.
But change rarely comes easily. Change can generate tension and
conflict between new competitors, as well between those who benefit
from and endorse it, and those who are threatened by and reject it.
As the world opens up, people find they have choices. But choices
cannot be appreciated without liberty. While multitudes of people do
or could benefit from liberty and therefore endorse it, dictators
and false ideologies are threatened by it and therefore reject it.
These days it is liberty, not territory or even resources, that is
central to most conflicts.
THE POWER OF OPENNESS
In the past, isolation has been a powerful weapon with which to
control and basically imprison and subjugate entire populations. But
for isolation to be an effective controller of the people it must be
absolute. In the past isolation was achieved (with various degrees
of success) through sealing off the outside world – thus imprisoning
the nation – and then frequently purging the population. In this age
of globalisation and information technology, isolation is
increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve or maintain.
Openness, whether overt or covert, breaches prison walls. It lets
light and fresh air in; cries and odour out. Thanks to openness, the
free can see in and the prisoners can see out. Openness presents
people with choices. As people faced with real choices demand real
liberty, pressure builds – eventually reaching breaking point. The
length of time this takes depends on the depth of darkness, the
strength of the fortifications, and the nature of the breaches
(overt or covert). After watching the explosion in Eastern Europe
that shattered the Soviet Empire, the Chinese Communist Party chose
to defuse internal pressure quickly and decisively. The Tienanmen
Square massacre prevented a similar explosion in Asia. Asia now
monitors and controls internal pressure: minimising it through state
repression, and defusing it through persistent persecution,
primarily incarceration and violent intimidation. But these days,
the power of openness is such that isolation is like virginity –
once lost, it simply cannot be regained.
PROTECTING FAILING SYSTEMS
In this increasingly open world, information, knowledge, and
ideology are on trial like never before. Only truth is strong enough
to withstand scrutiny, which is why Christianity is not, and never
has been, threatened by openness or liberty. Truth defends itself.
Regimes and ideologies that cover-up or falsify history and use
deception, repression and persecution to hold on to power, should
see their dependence upon those means as evidence of their inherent
weakness. The prison, which is built on a foundation of power-lust,
protects the dictator, the regime, or the ideology, not the masses.
In the early part of the 7th Century, Mohammad attempted to bring
religious reform to the pagan Arabs. He preached a message of
monotheism and decried the Arabs’ idolatry which centred around
worship of the moon and pilgrimages to the Kabah in Mecca, a city
which was economically sustained by its idolatry industry. While
Mohammad wanted to be recognised and followed as God’s prophet, he
was instead rejected and persecuted.
Eventually Mohammad and his small band of followers were forced to
flee to Medina. There Mohammad re-invented himself. No longer would
he be rejected and persecuted. In order to secure the allegiance he
believed, or at least claimed, he was owed, Mohammad established and
strictly applied repressive laws. Mohammad’s laws pertaining to
blasphemy, criticism, apostasy and other liberty issues enabled him
to crush opposition, obliterate scrutiny, engender compliance, and
sustain a dictatorship by denying liberty to both his followers and
his subjects. Because Mohammad decreed that his laws were from
Allah, he secured for them (in the hearts of Muslims) a divine,
eternal and universal authority, inseparable from Islam.
Right to this day, Islam secures the allegiance of Muslims through
threat of death. Right to this day Islam demands protection from
openness and scrutiny, and bunkers down behind a fortification of
repressive religious laws which include the denial of religious
liberty. In this age of openness this is not only unacceptable and
unreasonable, it is also increasingly unmanageable. Islam does not
fear the battlefield – Islam only fears liberty. But Islam will be
scrutinised, just like everything else. Islamic resistance, though
it may shed much blood, will be in vain.
TRIBALISM, NATIONALISM AND NOW ANTI-NGO-ISM!
In recent years, tribalism and religious nationalism have been
employed to resist change. While these have led to an increase in
persecution, they have not been able to resist openness and prevent
the flow of information.
Those who hope to keep “their people” in some degree of isolation
and ignorance for the purpose of wielding power over them find
non-government organisations (NGOs) a real nuisance. The NGOs
educate or enlighten the people, thus generating (often
inadvertently) internal pressure. They also report to the outside
world (possibly only to their international headquarters) thus
generating external pressure. Christian NGOs also expose people to
sacrificial, non-sectarian humanitarianism, something modeled by
Christ and integral to true Christianity but not generally found in
Empire building, warrior, self-serving or fatalist religions. This
generates extreme religious tension and jealousy in those religious
dictators who find the hearts of “their people” gravitating towards
those who sacrificially love and serve them.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalists have, for several years, been
escalating their persecution of the Church. In recent years they
have been campaigning to criminalise conversions and ban Christian
witness. Recognising the problem presented by openness, they have
also targeted foreign NGOs, especially World Vision, and were making
real inroads until the Boxing Day Tsunami rendered Sri Lanka in
desperate need of all the NGO assistance it could get.
But need does not quieten all dictators, religious or otherwise.
Many would sooner see “their people” homeless, drug addicted, and
dying of preventable disease than risk losing their influence over
them. Islamic religious dictators in tsunami-devastated Aceh are
extremely hostile to the NGOs. On 26 December, The AGE (Melbourne,
Australia) published Mark Forbes’ report on his Christmas Day in
Banda Aceh: “Police with machine-guns guarded Banda Aceh’s
churches… Thousands of foreign aid workers in Banda Aceh for the
tsunami reconstruction were warned to keep Christmas celebrations
low profile and no Christian charities held public events. Two days
ago 100 Islamic students demonstrated in the capital, calling for
Christian charities to leave, alleging they were converting
Muslims.” Forbes comments on the enthusiastic Christmas service in
Banda Aceh’s Catholic Church and then notes, “At the nearby
Methodist church, many of the congregat
ion had returned from Sumatra
where they fled when their homes were destroyed. Twenty baptisms
were performed, a reflection of the increased post-tsunami attendance.”
During 2005, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Belarus and Russia all advanced
their isolationist policies and enacted laws that severely restrict
the activities of NGOs. In each case the stated aim is to rid the
nation of “Western spies” and “subversive elements” and “cultural
imperialists” for the sake of “national security” and “social
harmony” and “cultural integrity”. In this age of openness via
radio, satellite, mass media, Internet and mobile phone, it may be
possible to restrict, minimise and slow down the flow of
information, but it is impossible to stop it. Vain attempts to stop
the flow of information can only heighten suspicion, and exacerbate
internal unrest, repression, persecution and conflict.
DICTATORS EXTEND FORTIFICATIONS BY FORMING ALLIANCES
Dictators are forming alliances to bolster themselves against the
forces of openness and liberty. This strategy of forming alliances
to remove the leverage of open, free, reform-advocating nations has
existed within the United Nations for some time and is beginning now
to function openly in the relationships between nation states.
Because of these alliances, advocates of religious liberty (and
liberty in general) will increasingly find their voices drowned and
their actions frustrated.
Zimbabwe, Libya, Sudan, Belarus, Iran, China, Russia, Central Asia,
Cuba and other repressive, resistant states are developing their
alliances and support structures. Thanks to the Shanghai
Co-operation Organisation (SCO) even small, poor nations like
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can thumb their noses at the United States
and its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, because they now
have China and Russia as committed allies. China and Iran have both
offered support to Belarus’ President Lukashenka as he seeks to
prevent a popular uprising and preserve his repressive, Soviet-style
dictatorship. Iran even promised to help Belarus resist Western
pressure! What on earth does that mean? Belarus will hold a
presidential election on 19 March 2006 – maybe we will find out then.
One commentator has described the SCO as “a huddling of harried
elites”. Well it may be expected that in their vain battle to
maintain the status quo and preserve their fortresses, more and more
dictators will seek to find strength and comfort in “huddling”. But
ultimately, no amount of huddling can resist such powerful and
pervasive winds of change.
CHOOSING, RESISTING, AND PRESERVING
The revolution in information technology is bringing us into a whole
new era in world history. It is now very easy to imagine the 21st
Century being the century when the gospel will reach into every
corner of the world via indigenous church planter, foreign
humanitarian, radio, film, CD, DVD, MP3, television, satellite, mass
media, literature, Internet, and mobile phone.
The enemies of liberty have a vested interested in resistance. They
will continue to purge their ranks, silence opposition, crush
dissent, terrorise the masses and plug the breaches. This is already
happening in Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Eritrea, China, Vietnam,
Laos, Cuba and other states where dictatorial regimes are stepping
up the fight against openness and liberty through systematic
repression and persecution. It is also happening in India, Sri Lanka
and the Muslim world as religious dictators from religious
organisations fight libertarians, crushing multitudes in the process.
The battle has also begun to boil over in the West as the religious
dictators within Muslim communities fight libertarians for the
religious liberty to remove religious liberty. But in North America
and Western Europe it has also been Muslims who have been the
loudest, most informed, impassioned and powerful voices against the
Islamic religious dictators. So it is not really a choice of
standing for or against the Muslim activists. Rather it is a choice
of which Muslims do we stand with: the Islamic religious dictators
or the Muslims appealing for liberty? The only justice is in
liberty. It is imperative that we CHOOSE liberty.
The only way to defeat darkness is with light and the only way to
defeat error is with truth. Yet we see Christians and Western
leaders surrendering, in the name of political correctness and
tolerance, to the demands of religious dictators to keep religious
criticism or the gospel of Jesus Christ out of earshot of “their
people” allegedly because it offends their religious sensitivities
or infringes their right not to hear it. This is both a disaster and
gross abuse of the fundamental human right of religious liberty.
So too is surrendering to the dictate that we indiscriminately and
uncritically tolerate, even respect, all cultural practices. But
Western multicultural societies have already judged and rejected
many foreign cultural practices, religious and otherwise.
Cannibalism, hallucinogenic drug taking, caste and untouchability,
suttee (the Hindu practice of burning a widow on her husband’s
funeral pyre), FGM (female genital mutilation), honour killing,
forced marriage, as well as many other barbarous or abusive
practices are not respected and not tolerated. They are banned so
rights and liberties can be preserved.
Surrendering to the dictatorial demands of religious dictators is
akin to re-building prison walls around people who desire and
deserve to be free. That Christians and Western leaders are falling
for this ploy of religious dictators to keep “their people”
isolated, ignorant and enslaved, is outrageous. These measures, to
repress religious information and deny religious liberty to
multitudes, are ultimately all about power, control, and religious
dictatorship. These calls must be RESISTED and liberty PRESERVED.
Truth does not need to be protected behind a fortification of
repression and persecution. Religious liberty does not deny anyone
the right to reject the message. But religious liberty emphatically
denies that anyone has the right to enslave and imprison another
through the removal or denial of their fundamental liberties.
Advancing openness and liberty is the most important thing we can do
– not simply liberty to vote, but liberty to write and read, to
preach and hear, to think and learn, and to believe. (In reality,
and for effectiveness, these should ideally come first.)
If we actually believed that political dictates or military might
were God’s vehicle for the fulfillment of his promises, then we
would have grounds for serious despair, or at least profound
confusion. However, the risen Lamb is not threatened by dragon or
sword. His Spirit cannot be restrained. God has made promises that
will be fulfilled not by political dictates, and not by might or
force, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the
Church of Jesus Christ as she prays, preaches, advocates, loves and
serves in obedience to his will.
As long as the gospel of salvation is repressed and the God’s
children are persecuted and imprisoned, the Lord will cry from
Heaven, “LET MY PEOPLE GO!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who firmly
believed that God shares the suffering of his people (Isaiah 63:9,
Acts 9:5), believed it was imperative that a Christian “stand by God
in his hour of grieving”.
And so as we enter 2006, the exhortation is to “stand
by God” who
declares that his salvation is free (Isaiah 55). And let’s
faithfully, courageously, energetically, passionately, sacrificially
and expectantly persist in prayer-empowered advocacy and mission,
and scripture-inspired prayer for the preserving, empowering and
expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ and for religious liberty
“Let these false prophets tell their dreams, but let my true
messengers faithfully proclaim my every word. There is a difference
between chaff and wheat! Does not my word burn like fire?” asks the
LORD. “Is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes rock to pieces?”
(Jeremiah 23:28,29. NIV)
“I pray that you will begin to understand the incredible greatness
of his power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power
that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of
honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far
above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else in
this world or in the world to come. And God has put all things under
the authority of Christ, and he gave him this authority for the
benefit of the church.” (Ephesians 1:19-22. NLT)
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or
imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be
glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations,
for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20,21. NIV)
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