It has become yet another heralding of “the most wonderful time of the year.” Along with the temporary inclusion of Bing Crosby and Burl Ives into light rock radio formats, holiday sales, and cheerful family photographs wishing “Season’s Greetings” from the mailbox, every December I have come to expect stories of the ACLU’s persecution of the Christian part of Christmas. So effective has the secular left’s legal onslaught been that now the mere whisper of a threat is enough to pull down the Christmas trees in Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport. And elementary school principles no longer wait for the stray Wiccan parent to complain before they scurry around banning red and green construction paper from decoration activities and “Away in a Manger” from Christmas pageant programs.
So, like clockwork, with the arrival of colder weather also arrives my wounded sense of injustice as one of the majority who worships the Jesus the city of Chicago deemed unfit to portray on film. This year, however, while the stories of the ACLU’s grinchiness remain as ridiculous as ever, I’m having a little trouble mustering up my traditional holiday outrage—and not just because the clerks at Wal-Mart have resumed wishing me “Feliz Navidad” (I live in a Southwestern city.) After a close encounter with believers who daily live Christ’s prediction, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also,” I can’t help but blush a bit at my previous, very vocal indignation.
For almost two-weeks in October, the organization Gospel for Asia (GFA) hosted a small collection of journalists for an informational tour of India . With 54 Bible colleges, 400 Bridge of Hope centers (elementary-level programs for children of Dalits, India’s lowest caste), a radio ministry broadcasting in 102 languages, and a network of over 16,000 native missionaries throughout the country, GFA is in a unique position to provide insight on the state of the Church in Asia.
The common challenge they say all workers in Indian ministry face is violent opposition. These are but a few reports out of the country from the last month alone:
¨ On November 14, villagers in the northeast state of Assam , India forced nine families from their homes for converting to Christianity.
¨ On November 17, students of a GFA Bible School were beaten and threatened with being burned alive by a mob on a road in Uttar Pradesh. All their Gospel literature was burned.
Simon John, a GFA regional director, acknowledges that such incidents are common throughout the Northern region.
¨ On November 21, Bashir Ahmad Tantray was killed by unidentified gunmen for attempting to evangelize in the northern district of Jammu and Kashmir.
¨ On November 30 more than 50 members of an extremist Hindu group stormed a Catholic girls’ school in Karnataka, assaulting several teachers for teaching the Bible to children. Later the same group attacked a Carmelite seminary, desecrating the statue of Our Lady in Karnataka.
¨ On December 7, a 23-year old Anglican charity worker was stoned to death, his body found underneath a pile of rocks in the cemetery of a church in the Dharamasala region of India .
Of course, I am annoyed when I hear that liberal atheists are once again protesting a courthouse crèche—but I likely would be more annoyed to be on the Christian end of any of the above incidents.
Only a handful of such stories even make the news. Meeting with GFA missionaries, pastors, and Bible college students, I heard numerous first-person accounts of sacrifices made to become followers of Christ. Disowned by families, driven from homes, jailed, beaten, and sometimes killed, America ’s version of anti-Jesus hatred seems like petulant child’s play in comparison.
While state-side secularists stir up trouble in the public square, few have shown the temerity to enter our very churches. Not so in India . Gospel for Asia’s church service in Karnataka last Easter was interrupted by masked men who waited for the husbands and fathers in attendance to leave the building before descending on the women and children, beating some to the point of collapse. Earlier in the year, i nsurgents burned to the ground a GFA Believers Church building that was under construction. The fire also destroyed the nearby temporary shelters of GFA missionaries. During another attack on the same building site, Hindu extremists fired 40 rounds of ammunition into the construction area. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Lest we’re inclined in our first-world comfort to think this is merely the work village barbarians, its worth noting that their government provides tacit approval of anti-Christian prejudice. In some Indian states, new believers face harsh anti-conversion laws that require astronomical financial penalties and jail time. Indian law actively prosecutes proselytizing efforts. On the local front, authorities routinely invent charges against pastors and evangelists in order to take them into custody and off the preaching circuit.
However shifting the legal ground the ACLU stands on in the United States , compared to the hostilities third-world Christians must endure, their activities seem more like a nuisance than persecution. This is not to suggest that the war on Christianity in America isn’t real, but in other parts of the world, that war has a body count.
How often, as we file our briefs and lodge our protests for our First Amendment rights, do we remember what believers of other nations, with whom American Christians share a closer bond than merely that of citizenship, face all year long? As one GFA leader pointedly asked our small group, “How often do our American brothers and sisters fast and pray over our situation?”
Because it speaks especially to the hearts of India’s most destitute (and illiterate) caste, the Dalits, Christianity there has become known as a “low class” religion, a religion of the poor and cast off . . . the untouchable. How very like New Testament faith that seems. And with our elaborate high-tech structures, mass media outlets, and thriving Christian book/music/film industries, how very unlike our own.
God has blessed American believers with every good material thing. The poorest of United States ’ Christians would be counted among those unable to go through the eye of a needle in the majority of the world. Asked how he might approach evangelizing in the States, one GFA worker shrugs ruefully, observing that, “Trying to reach Americans is like trying to reach the Brahmins” ( India ’s highest and wealthiest caste). It goes unspoken that we might also share the Brahmin sense of entitlement and superiority.
Perhaps our success as a Christian nation has narrowed our vision so that we no longer recognize the blessing of being able to congregate, pray, and give to God as freely as wish. Perhaps it has made us too eager to appeal to courts, and not eager enough to appeal to hearts.
GFA Regional Director Benny Moses described the attitude Indian believers hold in regard to persecution in a way that may leave some of us in the Western world squirming: “Christian means you never react—we do not even file charges when they beat us.” He seems similarly unconcerned about his minority status as a Christian, expressing confidence in the prospect of converting the country: “He [the Holy Spirit] will do his business as we do our business.]” (Perhaps an apt message for his American brethren suffering from troubled hearts this Christmas?)
As American Christians, we do have much for which to be grateful. But we should never confuse our allegiance to the United States with our true “home” country. And in that concept, even our adversaries have something right.
“What Americans don’t understand about Muslims is that that their faith is their citizenship,” comments GFA founder and author Dr. K.P. Yohannan. How much more true should that be for Christians? We may have a patriotic obligation to protect the biblical principles on which our founders based our government, but we have an even higher calling to do what we can to sustain those with whom we share a heavenly citizenship.
Christmas is not a national holiday—it is a religious one. Those of us who profess faith in Christ would do well remember that we honor the Lord of the holiday not only by asserting our own religious rights, but supporting our overseas spiritual family as they face worshipping without any. The day may come where the ACLU has its way and our faith is officially declared an affront to the state, but that day has not yet arrived. While I would never suggest that we acquiesce to the secularists’ efforts to make mention of the Messiah’s name a crime, we must also make it a priority to support our brothers and sisters for whom that day has already come.