Whenever religious freedom in the world is discussed today, it is hard to avoid the lack of freedom in the so-called 10/40 window world. Scarcely a day goes by without a headline story of a fresh religious atrocity in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt or any other country in the area. But something curious is going on here. Such news may inspire some to advocate military action and others to cry “none of our business.” Very few see it for what it is: religious persecution on a massive scale. Much as I might have winced at the late Christopher Hitchens cynicism about religion, he was right in identifying a problem.
The 10/40 window has been a convenient marker for evangelistic imperative, but it misses a very important point for Christianity: within this window we find the cradle for Christianity. Christianity was once the dominant religion in Egypt, Turkey, and whole swatches of the window. The euphoria of the Arab Spring has largely faded, and hardly a news entity speaks of it now without foreboding. But even now few news reports adequately link the upheaval of the Arab Spring with concerted violence and, indeed, religious genocide against Christians. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square were preceded by lethal bombings of Coptic Christian churches in Alexandria and elsewhere. The civil war against the Assad regime in Syria was preceded by a huge upsurge in attacks on Christians and other religious minorities protected by the secular regime. In fact, the truest way to view the Arab Spring from a religious liberty perspective is to see it as the final expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.
An online article entitled “A Global Slaughter of Christians, but America’s Churches Stay Silent” began this way: “Christians in the Middle East are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity. One would think this horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening.” Kirsten Powers, in The Daily Beast, September 27, 2013. “Someone else, somewhere else” should not lead us to indifference to a global religious liberty holocaust.
Almost by chance Seventh-day Adventists recently discovered that one of our members in Pakistan has been on trial for blasphemy for almost two years. Twenty-nine-year-old Sajjid Masih faced the death penalty after a false accusation of a blasphemous telephone conversation. A double hazard: the law itself is immoral and has a low threshold of what might be called blasphemy; and the accusation itself was not substantiated. Now Sajjid is in jail on a life sentence. He has appealed—a process that will take at least two years. But in jail he is safe from mobs that would surely kill a blasphemer.
Also in the window and caught in a net of prejudice and hostility is Pastor Antonio Monteiro, a missionary from the Cape Verde Islands now imprisoned since March 2012 without trial in Togo on an unsubstantiated change of multiple murder and ritual bloodletting. Media in that country accompanied his arrest by lurid tales of presumed Adventist “bloodletting.”
The poet-minister John Donne is remembered best for his “no man is an island” reminder. It was not a poem but a meditation for Emergent Occasions, written in 1624. Near the end of the meditation he muses on tribulation itself as a blessing, and says this: “If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.” I think in the most curious way that the troubles coming to our brothers and sisters in far-off lands are reminders of the need for us to guard our faith. It is worth meditating upon the currency of our lack of troubles: are we prepared, even here in “Christendom,” in Christian America and Canada, to face a consequence for our faith?
I remember sitting on a sun-drenched beach in Bermuda and talking with newfound friends from Beirut, Lebanon, who shared what it was like to be a Christian in that part of the world. They told how each day as they went to school on a bus that traveled through non-Christian areas, the bus driver would ask everyone’s name and note if it were Christian or not. To have a Christian name might mean being taken off the bus for special treatment. And yet in such places so many parents take pride in naming their children after Bible characters of Christian principles! Hard to be invisible with a Christian name!
Donne’s “no man is an island” reminder should be applied to the realities of religious freedom around the world. None of us can rest easy while others are being persecuted for their faith. None of us should think that ours is a place somehow immune to the howling hatred that is engulfing the world. Hitchens had it wrong in seeming to lay all the ills of the times against religion: a secularist can as easily dispose of an unwanted people by a trade embargo as a religious zealot can murder because the earth must be cleansed of the, to him, unholy unbeliever. In fact, the world is far too interrelated to think that religious forces operate in some sort of a cloistered vacuum. Surely since September 11 we have seen how easily a religious hatred can become a toxic force that aims to change society, overthrow powers, and destroy economies.
A few years ago a brilliant scientist named Albert Einstein figured out E=MC2, the theory of relativity, and set us on the road to nuclear fission. His insights were revolutionary and generally proven experimentally. However, Einstein was troubled that elements of his discoveries could not be reconciled—particularly with rules of gravity. He set out to discover a “unified field theory,” which could relate all scientific theory to some unifying principle. Today Stephen Hawkings and others continue that quest. Religious liberty must be seen as a unified field theory, or else it degenerates into different strokes for different folks.
In the aftermath of World War II Dylan Thomas remembered the innocent days and wrote, “Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.” (“Fern Hill”, 1945). In reality the free practice of religious freedom is under a severe threat even here. While we may not yet be called off the bus, the system is consolidating against true faith by the day.
“Fundamentalist” once meant someone who was a firm believer in the Bible and one who walked purposefully before God: it now implies a hateful bigot who might kill you for his or her faith. An extremist was once a Puritan or a vegan—now “extremism” itself is so suspect that to believe fervently in anything except the right political party is seem as incipient terrorism. And in opposing newfound gay rights, sometimes unchristian Christians have allowed biblical faith to be characterized as unacceptably bigoted.
So much of what is happening in the West, and in particular here in the United States, relates to changes in views of the rights of the individual and the rights of the state. After the scares of September 11 we have settled into a semi-comfort zone that allows unlimited surveillance, including eyes in the sky and background checks for everything, it seems, except on military contractors. Almost without meaning to, our system has restructured itself into what amounts to a Fascist model, in which the power and structures of the state are transcendent and a “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision can without irony hold that corporations “are individuals too.”
In post September 11 America religious liberty has a good following. But not all who value the principle value a separation of church and state. Many indeed hunger for state power to increase their religious influence. When talking about religious liberty, we must always bring it back to conscience and one’s integrity before God. Life in prison for “blasphemy” and a job lost because it required Saturday Sabbath work are two sides of the same coin. We are called to proclaim liberty in any situation.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."