A native of Burkina Faso has said, “As children, we grew up with people with differing religious beliefs—playing together, celebrating each other’s festivals and mourning each other’s death, with humanity as the overriding connector common to all.” Recently, however, jihadists opened fire in a bustling café filled with foreigners and have targeted Christians on several occasions.
Alarming attacks have occurred more frequently in the United States in recent years, some of them random, but others fueled by religious fanaticism and white supremacism.
This is not new, by any means, but in first world countries, many thought such extremes had been overcome. Just this month I was privileged to hear pastor, author and activist Dr. John M. Perkins, a contemporary of Martin Luther King, in an interview by pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (as part of the series Loving like Jesus in a Fractured World). Now 87, Perkins witnessed the upheaval of the civil rights movement, where his brother was killed by a racist. He himself was imprisoned and beaten numerous times, and as a result was tempted to seek retaliation. God made him understand, however, that in doing so he would fall into the same error of hatred, and in the end he became “a living legend…the founding father of the reconciliation movement”, in Warren’s words.
The day when racial segregation was abolished in the United States was a major landmark, but intolerance, resentment and more have simmered below the surface and on occasion exploded.
Perhaps for all of history, ethnic and religious differences have triggered acts of discrimination, intolerance, violence and even war. At this very time, we are witnessing the exodus of Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh, as a result of wide scale human rights violations in a Buddhist-majority country. They have been denied citizenship in their country of origin and some have even called the persecution “genocide”.
Islamic fundamentalism has fuelled a growing number of jihadist attacks in recent decades, with groups like Al Kaeda, ISIS, the Talibans and Boko Haram wreaking havoc in more and more countries. Even Indonesia, the country with the largest percentage of Muslims in the world, with a history of moderate Islam, is finding that base crumbling in the face of increasing extremism. Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor Ahok was accused of blasphemy by a fringe group for quoting a verse from the Koran about electing non-Muslim leaders. He received a two-year sentence and is presently in jail, causing even Arabic news network Al Jazeera to ask if Indonesia’s religious tolerance is on trial.
Intolerance is not unknown among religious groups considered to be Christian, but has raised its ugly head over centuries. The greatest rift in the Church was that initiated by Martin Luther, much as it was his intention to bring reform and renovation to the Roman Catholic Church. The backlash resulted in the Counter-Reformation and the expansion of the Catholic Inquisition, which aimed to combat religious heresy. Those who did not repent could suffer terrible torture and even death by burning at the stake.
Without a doubt, the most horrendous instance of religious and racial intolerance was that of the Nazi holocaust, wiping out an unspeakable six million Jews as well as other undesirables. Recounting its horrors goes beyond the scope of my post.
Fast forward to our generation. Some studies indicate that more Christians died for their faith in the twentieth century than in all other centuries of church history combined. Italian author Antonio Socci placed this number at 45 million. And that is only the tip of the iceberg, for the number of deaths is only one way to measure persecution.
In an editorial in Christianity Today, David Neff pointed out that American Christians do not lead typical Christian lives. “The typical Christian lives in a developing country, speaks a non-European language, and exists under the constant threat of persecution– of murder, imprisonment, torture, or rape,” he wrote.
Although Communist and Muslim countries immediately come to mind, they don’t have the monopoly on religious intolerance. Sadly, nations whose constitutions raise the flag of freedom of religion do not always support those whose rights are trampled. In Mexico, the state of Chiapas has had the most documented incidences, but Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Jalisco are also high on the list. Nowadays, the majority of cases have involved evangelical Christians who refuse to contribute economically for Catholic religious fiestas. They have had their water supply cut off, their lands and livestock taken away, homes and churches burned. Children have been banned from public schools. On occasions, whole groups of families have been forcibly displaced, the most recent example being 64 people from a Huichol community in Jalisco in January, 2018.
Of greatest concern is the fact that the Mexican government seldom defends these mostly indigenous people from acts of intolerance. Their failure to act is apparently related to the system of “usos y costumbres”, which grants native communities the right to impose their own set of laws based on traditional customs and practices. How is it possible that these are allowed to trump basic human rights, including those defended by national law?
Among my ancestors were those who arrived in North America seeking religious freedom. Sadly, this and other fundamental rights have not always been defended. In this continent and elsewhere, divisive walls are still erected. The words and actions of those who call themselves Christians have all too often been based more on prejudice than on love and respect.
It’s time to go back to the roots of that faith, which involves respecting and loving those who are different, defending their rights to freedom of creed and expression. More than that, we need to pursue reconciliation with those who consider us their enemies.
Some ways to respond are:
Break out of your comfort zone and be more aware of the realities of the marginalized, including those who suffer because of their ethnicity, race, and creed, among other conditions. Read, watch documentaries, and get to know some of those people. “Treat everyone you meet with dignity” (1 Peter 2:17). One of the best ways to put an end to stereotypes (applied to a group) is to converse with “real people” (individuals) and make friends with those who are different from you.
Connect with organizations that focus on defending individuals and groups who suffer from discrimination and intolerance. Quite well-known is Amnesty International, “a global movement of people who take injustice personally”. As far as Christian organizations, whereas some (Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors) prioritize giving victims and their families financial and legal assistance, others such Christian Solidarity International also advocate for victims of religious persecution and trafficking by influencing the media and governments in an effort to effect change. The latter supports followers of other religions, as well.
Be active. Share news and needs with others. Donate to those organizations that most click with your concerns. Consider writing to those imprisoned for their faith or offering to volunteer for an NGO.
Above all, know that each of us is able to be an agent of change.