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Uphold religious liberty for all, Baptists urge

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please see related article on religious liberty and the Middle East below this story.

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Calling for Baptists to remember their roots as a “jailhouse religion,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said Christians must be willing to be marginalized and offended for the sake of the Gospel.

The remarks came at Baptist Voices: Left, Right and Center, a Sept. 29 forum sponsored by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square that brought together Baptists from varied perspectives to discuss challenges to religious liberty around the world. Speakers included Moore, Gregory Komendant, Ukrainian Baptist statesman; J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and others.

Throughout history Christian leaders often found themselves on the “wrong side” of economic and political authorities for the Gospel’s sake, Moore said. He urged believers to “maintain a witness to religious liberty” and to remember what it means to “be a people of the jailhouse.”

Just as Paul and Silas chose to stay and share the Gospel with the Philippian jailer after God opened the prison doors with an earthquake, Christians must be prepared to give up rights so the Gospel can move forward, Moore said.

“This is why Baptists are committed to religious liberty. Because of how we believe the Gospel works,” Moore said. “The Gospel works by the addressing of the conscience person by person where individual people are made right with God and then brought into the community and into the people of God.”

Because salvation comes when the Holy Spirit convicts and changes the heart, Christians cannot rely on political or economic circumstances to advance the Gospel, Moore said.

“State power or economic power or community pressure can never turn people into Christians,” Moore said. “It can only make fake Christians.”

Moore distinguished between actions that offend believers and true persecution and warned Baptists against becoming an interest group that lashes out at those who ridicule the faith. In Acts 16 Paul demanded an apology from the magistrates not because he was offended for being mistreated as a Roman citizen, but for the religious rights of believers that would remain on in Philippi after he was gone, Moore said.

The Gospel compels believers to stand up for the religious freedom of all because freedom of conscience is precisely the environment where the Gospel will flourish, Moore said.

“We must be willing to be offended; we must be willing to be marginalized for the sake of the Gospel because we know that the Gospel has to go forward and often that is going to mean giving up our rights in many circumstances,” Moore said.

Christians are not Americans first, Moore noted. Believers are members of the global body of Christ, first, and must teach their children that the state has no authority over conscience and that the local church is an embassy of the kingdom of God, he said.

“I feel I have two callings,” Moore said. “One is to keep us out of jail and the other is make sure we’re willing to go to jail because there’s one thing worse than jail and that’s having a faith too safe to jail.”

Religious liberty abroad: Ukraine

Gregory Komendant, who serves at Kiev Theological Seminary and is the former leader of the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists, told the crowd his grandfather died in prison under the Stalin regime for allowing Christians to worship in his home. Komendant was baptized at night because daytime baptisms were forbidden, he said.

“It was a difficult time, but God was at work,” Komendant said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Komendant, said Jesus’ words through the apostle John in Revelation brought comfort: “‘Don’t be afraid. I have suffered … I hold churches, pastors and history in my hand.'”

During Stalin’s regime, “God was excluded from conversation” and churches were allowed to meet only in homes, Komendant said. Later, schoolteachers were placed at church doors to prevent children from entering, he added.

Komendant, who led the work of Baptists in the former Soviet Union, said that after Billy Graham’s visit to Moscow and meeting with Gorbachev two decades ago, doors opened for the Gospel and seminaries were founded. In the last decade, the Ukrainian Bible Society has distributed 10 million Bibles.

“We were once in prison, now we have the opportunity to share Jesus in prison,” Komendant said of Ukraine’s religious freedom.

Komendant said the Ukrainian Bible Society recently received a substantial order for waterproof Bibles for the military. He noted, “In Ukraine, we have perhaps more freedom for Christianity than even you have in the United States.”

At one time, Khruschev boasted that “the last Baptist” would be paraded out on television for all to see, Komendant said. He concluded that instead, “Khruschev is dead. Baptists are preaching on TV.”

A tie that unifies Baptists

The forum was a unique in the fact that it brought together Baptists from inside and outside the SBC to discuss this shared Baptist value.

“Religious Liberty has been a common thread throughout Baptist life since the very beginning,” said Lloyd Harsch, director. “We sometimes disagree on how to apply religious liberty in a particular context, but the idea itself has been a unifying tenet of Baptist life.”

J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, examined the state of religious freedom in America in light of the three clauses guaranteeing religious liberty in the First Amendment. Walker noted recent Supreme Court rulings and concluded that the “free exercise clause” and “church autonomy clause” have been upheld consistently. “We are doing well,” Walker said in regards to these tenets.

But in regards to the “no establishment clause,” whereby the government cannot advance or favor religion, Walker concluded the nation is doing “terribly and is losing ground.”

Walker cited the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the Town of Greece v. Galloway that upheld that the New York town’s practice of opening board meetings with prayer did not violate the no establishment clause. Walker said the Baptist Joint Committee viewed prayer in that context to be “impermissibly coercive to require those folks to undergo or to experience and participate in a state-sponsored religious exercise as a ticket to exercise and perform their civic responsibilities.”

Walker distinguished the case from that of the U. S. Congress opening in prayer, noting that the public is seated as observers of Congress rather than participants.

Suzii Paynter said religious liberty is not a fragile principle and encouraged listeners to practice liberty of conscience and engage others in conversation about the subject.

“God will use that conversation,” Paynter said. “The public square needs to hear the deliberative thoughts of religious liberty-conscious people.”

Other speakers included Mike Edens, NOBTS professor of Islamic studies; William Brackney, Acadia Divinity College, Canada; and Kenneth McDowell, Union Baptist College and Theological Seminary, New Orleans.

The lectures are available online at www.faith-publicsquare.org /past-events.html.


True freedom in Middle East
only found in Christ, Edens says

By Gary D. Myers

NEW ORLEANS — After spending much of his adult life in Egypt and Iraq, Michael Edens sees few hopeful signs of religious freedom in the Middle East. Yet with the rise of the particularly violent interpretations of Islam, he concludes true personal freedom in the region can only be found in Christ.

Edens, who serves as professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, made the comments during “Baptist Voices on Religious Liberty: Left, Right and Center,” a one-day conference on religious freedom Sept. 29. Other event speakers included Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Ukrainian Baptist statesman Gregory Kommendant; J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; and Suzii Paynter, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The event was sponsored by New Orleans Seminary’s Institute for Faith and the Public Square.

“Certainly there is great cause for concern for religious freedom in the Middle East,” Edens, a former missionary with the International Mission Board, said. “But I come to you recognizing that the region I spent half of my adult life in is changing dramatically even as we speak.”

According to Edens, most of the countries of the Middle East include Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their constitutions. The article reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Edens noted, “That’s in the constitution of Egypt. That’s in the constitution of Iraq. That’s in the constitutions of most of the countries in the Middle East. Government documents are not the primary problem. It goes deeper.”

The religious heritage of the region also provides a source for understanding and internalizing personal freedom, Edens said.

“It is true that the Middle East, as the birthplace of the monotheistic religions, has been the major carrier of freedom of thought, conscience and religious liberty,” Edens said. “However, Middle Eastern cultures and peoples demonstrate a marked resistance to internalizing the concept.”

The roots of the current conflict stretch back through history. The geography of the region is dominated by arid, desert wasteland and the scarcity of water defines much of life, Edens said. In this setting, conflicts arose between nomadic peoples and those settled in cities. The groups had different lifestyles and different value systems. Edens pointed to Genesis and the problems Abram faced in region as an example of this ancient cultural clash.

“While conflict marks all of human history, there is a difference in the Middle Eastern conflict because the descendants of those ancient combatants are still neighbors today,” Edens said. “The tribes have not moved, the conflict has not been resolved, instead families carry the culture memory of the wrong that was done to their revered ancestor.”

Edens said that time heals few wounds in the region. In fact, he said, past events become part of the collective, living memory in the Middle East. Edens offered the Crusades as an example.

“The Crusades — in the West it is barely a footnote in our history, but in the Middle East the Crusades are about wrongs done to [their] family, to [their] clan, to [their] kinsman,” Edens said.

At times, Islam did offer some freedoms for “peoples of the Book,” Edens said. A notable example is the Pact of Umar which offered the Christian citizens of Damascus the ability to practice their religion “with moderation.” This approach continued into modern history under the Ottoman Empire. During this time, there was a degree of personal freedom of religion, but those freedoms had limits and Islamic law was the final arbiter.

When European powers began to guide the region during the colonial period, the leaders naturally gravitated toward the Christians of the region due to a shared belief heritage. When colonial rule failed and local rule was finally achieved, there was a marked decline in Christian influence, Edens said.

According to Edens, other influences that fostered the current situation include the rise of Jewish Zionism in the late 1800s and the discovery of oil in Arabian Desert (providing wealth for the House of Saud and leading to the rise of Sunni Islam). However, Edens sees the Six-Day War as the most important catalyst.

In June of 1967 more than 200,000 soldiers from nearby Arab nations surrounded the Israeli army near Jerusalem. Outnumbered two-to-one, it seemed like a sure defeat for Israel. But, to the dismay of the Islamic world, the Israelis defeated to the Arab armies.

This defeat, Edens said, led to a desire to return to 7th Century values among many Muslims. Individual Muslims began to see a stricter form of Islam as the solution to problems like poverty and lack of power.

“Morality (in the Middle East) is based on the corporate honor/shame model not the guilt/innocence model of the individualistic West,” Edens said. But the rise of the ISIS terrorist group is leading to a significant break in this “family-first,” communal identity.

Today, young people are defying their parents and breaking the honor of their family to join ISIS. In a way, Edens said, these individuals who join ISIS are expressing personal conscience in a way that is unheard of in the Middle East.

Edens saw signs of increased personal freedom of conscience during a recent trip to Egypt. He heard stories of young people rejecting the Islam of their families and turning to atheism and agnosticism. Others, he said, are rejecting Islam and coming to faith in Christ.

“Personal religious identity is changing in the region,” Edens said. “There is movement, coerced and otherwise, that is dramatically changing the trajectory of personal freedom.”

Edens said he is encouraged by the renewed verbal witness by national Christians to the Muslim neighbors. This was not happening when Edens lived in Egypt, but on his recent trip back he spoke with many believers who are actively sharing their faith.

“It is different today in the Middle East. There is a sense of urgency and a sense of responsibility and a sense of freedom to share Christ with their neighbors and to get prayer support from their brothers and sisters in Christ,” Edens said.

But the signs of hope for personal freedom are overshadowed by ISIS. The Islamic State is making people convert or die, Edens said. The very threat of ISIS is causing entire communities to leave their homelands in search of freedom. He noted that 11 million Syrians are currently on the move seeking freedom of conscience for their children.

“Something has broken down in the Middle East,” Edens said. “True religious liberty for the other is a distant, unreal dream in the Middle East outside of faith — faith in and a living faith with Jesus Christ.”

Edens full presentation is available online at faith-publicsquare.org/past-events.html.

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  • Marilyn Stewart