Category: Religious Liberty

Religious liberty in Nepal

People of Nepal have been dealing for months with the aftermath of an earthquake disaster. Now, the Asian nation faces a possible religious liberty disaster that could impact people’s lives for years.

The Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission is part of an international Baptist effort to encourage the Nepal government to not include restrictions on religious liberty in its new constitution, as currently proposed.

Working with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, the CLC staff is encouraging religious leaders to sign a letter to the Nepal government. This needs to happen quickly. To co-sign the letter, send an email with your name, professional title, and city/state/country by today, Friday, Aug. 14.

Nepal’s proposed constitution says:

No one shall behave, act or undertake activities that breach public order or break public peace/peace in the community; and no one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardize the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law.

The Wilberforce letter drafted by former Texas Baptist Elijah Brown notes wisely that this proposal “nullifies and criminalizes the freedom to share, change, and choose one’s religion.”

Religion is communal by its very nature; therefore a person’s decision to accept a particular religion or no religion can only take place with the assistance of others from within that religious community. Very few become Hindu except by being the taught by Hindus. The same is true for other religions.

In short, no religious conversion is possible without several “acts to convert another person from one religion to another.” Since the proposed draft of the constitution criminalizes these acts, it in effect makes conversion impossible – and thereby completely denies the freedom of people to choose and change their religion. Section 31(3) would severely undermine freedom of religion in Nepal; an area that should be dictated by the voluntary adherence of citizens to the dictates of their conscience, rather than by the coercive force of law.

For more information, visit the 21st Century Wilberforce website.

It is great to have Wilberforce’s Brown in the middle of this issue. The CLC sought Brown’s involvement after we learned of the situation from our partners in the Baptist Relief and Development (BReaD) Network. We care both about the physical and spiritual needs of the people in Nepal, as we do for people throughout the world.

Please sign the letter if you get this notice in time. And also pray the people of Nepal will have the freedom to form their own religious convictions.
(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)

It’s time to learn about West Papua

I hugged three men today. Each was physically smaller than me, but they seemed larger than life. None looked me in the eye before we hugged, but each returned the embrace.

The men did not say anything. All I could say was something like, “God bless you. We will not forget you.” It seemed so weak and inadequate, but I didn’t know what else to say.

These men live in West Papua, a part of Indonesia. Life is not good in West Papua.

At the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Durban, South Africa, Socratez Yoman presented videos, photos, and information regarding human rights abuses in West Papua. At the end, the moderator described the presentation as “moving, in fact, horrifying.”

A number of people in the audience stood to express concern for the situation and solidarity with the Christians of West Papua.

In the midst of a part of the presentation that was in another language, I checked my email. The top story in the Washington Post dealt with the battle in New York City between Uber and taxi companies. In other words, the biggest news in one of the United States’ top newspapers addressed getting rides around town while I listened to a man talking about life and death, torture and abuse in a small corner of the world.

Life is much different in West Papua. One man at the meeting in Durban travels widely had recently visited West Papua. He described it as the “most militarized place I’ve ever been to.” He also noted the Indonesian government policy of islamization of the province, which has been primarily Christian and the environmental destruction of the region.

A man from South Africa said Nelson Mandela had not delivered his nation from injustice; rather, it was “everyone in the world who contributed something. … Some marched, some prayed, some gave.”

I surely will now pay attention to what is happening in West Papua, and I pray that my family and friends will do the same. International pressure helped bring change to South Africa. West Papua is one of several places in the world that now need our prayers and our efforts to halt human rights abuses.

Freedom is important to Christians and to Americans. It is critical that we value freedom for all people, not just for ourselves. Our voices for others can make a difference — the end of apartheid in South Africa provide it.

(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)


Satan tempts us with kingdoms of this world

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. . . . 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1, 8-11, NRSV)

Jesus, in the wilderness, explicitly rejected having a kingdom that would rule the physical world.

He did it again later.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23, NRSV)

Peter is likened to the tempter in the wilderness — Satan.

We all bear the image of God, and yet we all are stained by the self-centeredness of Satan. There is a part of us that still wants to rule the world even though our Lord rejected such notions.

This is related to religious liberty. European history has profoundly impacted our understanding of church and state in the United States. Notions of religious liberty arose out of a context in which church and state were married together, first in Europe and then in colonial America, and then in the earliest days of our republic. In other words, despite Jesus’ example, the church existed for centuries in Europe with the church thoroughly involved in political affairs.

This led to wealth, and we all know the allure of power and wealth. Christianity fell victim.

Then there arose some followers of Christ who reconsidered the words of Scripture and realized the faith had been co-opted by the politics and money. The Reformation ensued, and many believers began to see their faith differently. But, before long there were new state churches. And soon other groups arose challenging the new state churches.

Each time new groups arose, they wanted freedom to worship as they saw fit, but they also faced a real temptation to replace an older state faith with a new one, often in a new place.

Baptists gained in numbers right as the colonies in America moved to rebel against Great Britain, and they worked with Enlightenment deists to push for constitutional protections for religious liberty.

America was special. America was also very different from the Rome of Jesus’ time and of the early church’s time. Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament luminaries never voted on Roman policies; they merely lived under them. Paul, a Roman citizen, says governmental authority is given by God, but it was that same Rome that took Jesus’ life.

Jesus and Paul could not vote on Roman policies, but in the United States, we can. Historically, that is a significant change from what most people have experienced. And, of course, every privilege carries with it responsibilities.

Our nation, by the way in which it is constructed, offers to each of us the temptation to rule with power and wealth. Jesus, however, brought about a spiritual kingdom, and Christ followers are therefore members of both Christ’s kingdom and the United States, with responsibilities in both.

We are not, however, the only ones in that secular kingdom. We share the political space. Thank heavens we Baptists were just emerging from persecution when this nation was forming. As a result we and the rationalists helped create something quite different from other nations, and we invariably protected ourselves somewhat from the historic temptation to be become persecutors.

Baptists now are often in very powerful places. We’ve had two Baptist presidents in my lifetime. There are countless Baptist senators, congresspersons, and other elected officials. And, even if not Baptists, most American politicians are Christians.

But America is changing, as it always has. The first Great Awakening exploded the ranks of Protestant Christians in America. Then Protestants grudgingly gave way to the arrival of more Catholic Christians and Jews. And now we are being asked to give way to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and all sorts of people.

This is not easy. In history, it has never been easy for a majority with a set of commonly held beliefs to make room for others.

In the United States we make it pretty easy to allow people their own religious notions when in private or in their worship center, but in the public square differing worldviews collide. They are colliding now, again, in America.

Evangelical Protestant Christians, who once dominated, may struggle the most in this time of change. Many people no longer share our values and beliefs, and those differing values and beliefs make their way into law.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is simply hard for some of us to imagine. But no-fault divorce was once hard to imagine, as well.

Muslim prayers in government buildings seem so strange to our understanding of America. But Catholic prayers were once a similar shock.

Unfettered greed is often championed in Congress despite our national Forefathers’ grasp of the power of self-centeredness. But our history is riddled with money and power grabs.

This is not a Christian nation, and that is hard for some of us to accept. Of course, our spiritual forefathers in this land set it up to not be a Christian nation. Even though most of them were Christians and Christians dominated the scene, they made room for others who thought differently.

Some of them probably only imagined a Christian future, but I suspect others saw clearly that the world was full of new or newly recognized ways of understanding reality.

We Christians have been tempted to worship this nation. In many ways it has been and is what John Winthrop imagined — a shining light on the hill of civilization. But Jesus tried to teach His disciples so many years ago that His Kingdom is not a worldly kingdom. It was not a new Jewish state then, and it is not the United States today. His Kingdom outlasted the Romans and will outlast the Americans.

Oscar Cullman said Jesus, as revealed in the New Testament, “certainly does not regard the State as in any sense a final, divine institution: on the other hand, we see that he accepts the State and radically renounces every attempt to overthrow it.” (Cullman, The State in the New Testament, 18-19)

I am so proud to be part of two kingdoms — God’s and the United States. I love both. I honor both. I’m actively involved in both. But God’s Kingdom takes precedence, and I’m proud that the United States gives me freedom to worship God as I see fit and that others have the same choice.

At the end of my favorite movie, “Braveheart,” a scene occurs that I can hardly watch. William Wallace cries out from deep inside himself the one word, “Freedom,” as he dies at the hands of the authorities.

May we all have brave hearts today as we pursue religious freedom for all, even when it ends up with results we do not like. While we love our nation and work to help it be its best, our kingdom is not of this world. Our kingdom is the one Jesus inaugurated. We have freedom in that kingdom, as well. We are free to enter it or to stand outside it. To enter it, means to make Him Lord, and no one else.

Pursuing God’s Kingdom may mean that sometimes we have to do as Jesus did and say to well-meaning friends, “Get behind me,” if you want to follow the way of the world. Of course, Jesus also offered to all, “Follow me.” He did not say exactly where he was going, but he said to follow. Today, I suspect Jesus is still saying, “Follow me or get behind me. It’s your choice.”

Trying to get this church-state thing right

(This article originally appeared on the Texas Baptist web site.)

Some Bible verses are so clear and direct they are like taking a finger in the eye; you can’t ignore them. Paul seemed to specialize in the finger-in-the-eye genre, while generally, Jesus was more subtle, as if whispering a word one had to take some time to think about.

In one of Paul’s finger-in-the-eye passages, he told the Christians in Rome the following:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Romans 13:1-2, NRSV).

This verse is a bit striking because history has exposed some very evil governments.

The key to understanding finger-in-the-eye verses is to read more verses, including the more subtle ones, especially the ones in which Jesus spoke.

Paul told the Corinthians to not take their grievances to the courts (1 Cor. 6:1-4). He called the Roman courts unrighteous. Settle issues among yourselves because you understand some things the unbelievers will never get.

He also told the Corinthians that the “rulers of this age” do not understand God’s wisdom. In fact, those rulers, the Romans again, “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:6-8). Mature believers know a greater wisdom – God’s.

Jesus also had something to say on the subject, and, as usual, He said it in rather veiled language because some people were trying to trap Him in theological and political debate. Jesus said:

“’. . . Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him” (Mark 12:15c-17 NRSV, also see Mt. 22:21).

We sometimes take this as meaning the state and God have an equal claim on our lives. That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying certain things belong to the government, such as taxes.

What belongs to God? Our lives.

If Paul’s words in Romans 13 are taken alone, they can lead us into untrue places. Governments reign for a time, only for a time, but we are part of a greater kingdom – God’s.

We do not stand idly by as governments trample upon innocent people, or at least we shouldn’t.

Unlike the Rome of Jesus and Paul’s time, this nation of ours is uniquely ours. We elect our leaders, and we communicate our opinions. And we do so in the midst of a public square, which includes people with very different ideas and opinions.

As Paul said, we owe our governments great respect and deference. But, as Jesus made clear, it is important to remember we owe our lives and ultimate allegiance to God. As a result, in all that we do, we stand for the things of God: for love, for grace, for fairness, for kindness, for morality and for the “least of these.”

We respect government. We worship only God. And we can be thankful we live in a nation, which grants us the freedom to worship. If it didn’t, we would worship anyway.

Grieving with the family of the cross

(This article originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)

They have names – Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaiman Shehata, and on and on – 21 of them. Their names seem odd to most of us in America, but they are our brothers. Our human brothers. Our Christian brothers.

The Islamic State beheaded these Coptic Christians in Libya. There is no way to ignore the religious nature of this massacre. Muslim extremists killed Christians because of their faith.

The video of the killings is titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” Of course, we are no nation; we are a family.

Coptic Christianity counts John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, as its founder in 43 A.D. This ancient church, centered in Alexandria, in many ways rivaled Rome for leadership. Basically, it split from the rest of Christianity in 451 A.D. as a result of the Council of Chalcedon.

There now are Coptic (or Egyptian) Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, but 95 percent of Egyptian Christians are Orthodox.

Western Christianity traditionally has accused Coptic Orthodox Christians of being “Monophysites,” or believers in Christ’s one nature to the point of denying his humanity. More recently, Copts themselves have used the word “Miaphysites,” which means they believe Christ’s human and divine natures united to make up his one nature.

What separated Christians centuries ago is of “little concern to most modern Copts,” Christianity Today reported in 2012. “Of more importance is the development of spirituality.”

The Christians martyred in the sands of Libya this month are indeed brothers of the Christians more commonly known in the West. “Coptic” says something about their faith just as “Baptist” says something of a person’s faith, but both words are best used as adjectives to modify the noun, “Christian.”

The atrocity in northern Africa is very real. It calls out for a response. But the Christian family is not like other families. We follow the Prince of Peace, the One who told us to turn the other cheek when someone assaults us, the One who said to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this family, we love even our enemies. Jesus said, “Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV).

We bless, we do good, we pray and we even love those Muslims who did this terrible crime and others like it.

And as we do so we must remember most Muslims are not like these vicious few. Muslims are not the enemy. Many of them value the same things we Christians do. They honor Jesus even though they do not worship Jesus as the unique and saving Son of God.

The killers in Libya were wrong when they referred to us as the “Nation of the Cross” when we, in fact, are a family. They are a self-described nation, the Islamic State, and other nations will deal with them accordingly.

They made the mistake of thinking we are like them. The followers of Christ are different. We are a family created, held together and empowered by God. As we remain true to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we show the world what God is really like – worthy to be worshiped, worthy to be followed.

And the blood that flowed from Calvary continues to offer covering for our sins, even the sin that caused blood to flow on a Libyan beach.

Connecting religious liberty & evangelism

brent-walker-speakingEvangelism and missions can be conducted openly and forthrightly only in an environment that fosters and protects religious liberty. The United States, with its constitutional protections, is a shining example of this reality, while nations with limits on religious expression are examples of the opposite.

Brent Walker, in the January Report from the Capital, develops the link between religious liberty and evangelism. Americans are “able to practice our religion as we see fit and free to go tell others about it,” said Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

One person’s freedom, however, can best be expressed only in a context that respects another person’s freedom.

“Respecting the other person’s soul freedom does not mean we cannot share our faith; it does mean, however, that we respect and honor that person’s right to say no. We must fight to resist others doing, or the church doing, or the government doing what even God will not do — to violate conscience or coerce faith.”

A commitment to “religious freedom and sensitive evangelism has resulted in amazing religious and cultural pluralism” in the United States. It also has changed the missions task.

“The ‘world’ is now next door, down the street, in our workplace and throughout our culture.

“Living alongside people from around the world allows us to get to know and understand them and their religious points of view. Ideally, ‘with-nessing’ should come before ‘witnessing.’ That makes what we say so much more effective and credible. And, it allows us to learn from the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Jew, the Muslim and countless others. As Christians, we believe we know the ultimatetruth in the person of Jesus Christ, but we do not presume to know all the truth. We can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters from various religious traditions.”

The multi-religious culture that now exists in the United States makes the Baptist distinctives of soul freedom and religious liberty even more important.

Walker says:

“The Bible teaches both individual freedom and responsible evangelism. The Apostle Paul issues a clarion call for freedom in Christ to the Galatians when he said, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free, do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Gal. 5:1)

“Paul was a freedom guy through and through. But he was also the great missionary of the early church. His embrace of freedom did not detract from — but added to — his enthusiasm for sharing the Gospel. And, Peter tells us in his first letter that we must ‘always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.’ (1 Peter 3:15) (emphasis added)”

The principle of religious liberty also is important in preventing human rights violations caused by religion. Walker noted that a recent op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Stephen Hopgood attributed the diminution of human rights internationally to the influence of religion. ”This need not be the case,” Walker said. “Religious freedom — including the freedom to share one’s faith and change one’s mind — is not antithetical to human rights. In fact, they are closely related.

“People of faith were integrally involved in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, J.M. Dawson, the first executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, along with Gov. Harold Stassen (a Baptist from Minnesota), were instrumental in convincing the United Nations General Assembly to embrace the Universal Declaration in December 1948 as the aspirational goal for the post-World War II world. Both Dawson and Stassen understood religious rights and human rights go hand in glove.”

In addition to the article, Walker has written a new book, a “basic primer,” titled What a Touchy Subject! Religious Liberty and Church-State Separation. The book is available at and

(This post originally appeared on the site.)