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National and international religious freedom: an essential part of Christian mission in the twenty-first century.

I sat down for a meal with Imam Karim and announced, "I am here to partner with you in your jihad against Islamophobia!" A big smile flashed across his face as he reached out to shake my hand across the table. But, this conversation was not just about my jihad against Islamophobia. As I explained to Imam Karim, "I am on a jihad against all forms of religious discrimination and oppression." The very same ethical concerns I have for Muslims to experience freedom of worship here in the United States also compels me to speak out against religious discrimination in Muslimmajority countries.

Some of my Christian readers may not like my use of the word "jihad" to describe my convictions, but I use the word purposely because I want to help Christians better understand Islam. "Jihad" can refer to a personal spiritual struggle against our evil inclinations, a campaign, or a war (depending on context), but in its most basic sense "jihad" means to strive against something. (1)

My jihad against Islamophobia and all forms of religious discrimination is best summarized in the "Seven Resolutions against Prejudice, Hatred, and Discrimination" document written by Christians, Muslims, and Jews: "[W]e stand against all forms of religious persecution against Jews, Christians, Muslims, or anyone else. God desires all people to choose and practice their faith based on conscience and conviction rather than any form of coercion or violence" (Point #s). (2)

The Islamic Society of North America is also engaging in what I call a "double-edged jihad." Their "Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign" (3) addresses Islamophobia in the U.S., while their groundbreaking campaign on "Citizenship and the Rights of Minorities in Muslim-Majority Countries" (4) speaks to oppression of other religions. So, where do evangelical Christians and Muslims stand on this double-edged jihad?

Far too many Christians and Muslims prefer a "single-edged jihad"--one that focuses only on their own community. In popular parlance, they believe in "religious freedom for me but not for thee!" Christians boldly speak out against persecution of Christians, but few speak out against Islamophobia. Muslims speak out against Islamophobia, but few speak out against persecution of Christians in Muslim countries.

Let me be clear: Christians must continue to speak out against the present massacre of Christians by ISIS in Iraq and the war in Syria, but few people seem to realize that ISIS has killed far more Muslims than they have Christians. We need to speak out for Muslims' religious freedom as well. This orientation to a single-edged jihad is understandable, but it lacks ethical consistency and integrity--and it is unbiblical! There are no direct commands about freedom of religion in the Bible, but the Bible's call to imitate God and obey God's commands has direct relevance to this issue (Eph. 5:1; 1 Jn. 5:3). Both the biblical doctrine of humanity's being created in God's image and the biblical mandate to pursue justice provide a basis for religious freedom.

Here are six reasons why I believe freedom of religion is a crucial biblical mandate:

1. Freedom of religion is based on the creation story. God gave Adam and Eve freedom to obey or not to obey the divine commands (Genesis 1-3). Because God wanted them to choose to love and obey God, they were given freedom of choice. True relationship demands freedom to choose. We need to imitate God by giving people freedom to choose.

2. Freedom of religion is based on the doctrine of the image of God. As I mentioned previously, every person in our global community is created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-28). When we look at someone, we should not see him or her primarily through the lens of religion or race. We should not see Buddhist, black, white, WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant), Muslim, or Mexican. We should instead see God's image-bearers. When we see that image in others, when we treat people with dignity and equality, we honor God. Thus, to coerce an image-bearer against her or his will is an affront to her or his humanity. In fact, lack of religious freedom is an attack on God's image-bearers. (5)

3. Freedom of religion is based on the life of Christ. Jesus repeatedly called people to follow him, hut he gave people freedom to choose. Some followed him, and others did not. In one of the most poignant moments in the Gospels, Jesus felt love for the rich young ruler who decided he would not follow Jesus (Mk. 10:21). Jesus demonstrated a love that gave people freedom to accept or reject him. We need to imitate Jesus by giving people the freedom to choose.

4. Freedom of religion is based on the Golden Rule. Jesus said, "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets" (Mt. 7:12, New Revised Standard Version). Surely, everyone wants freedom to follow their own conscience without coercion. We must grant to everyone else the same thing that we desire. We need to obey this command that summarizes the ethical demands of the law and the prophets.

5. Freedom of religion is based on the love command. Jesus said one of the greatest commands is to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Mk. 12:31, NRSV). The standard for love in this command is the phrase "as yourself." In other words, love means that I treat my neighbors just as I want to be treated. I want the freedom and protection to worship. This is what I would want for my neighbor as well.

6. Freedom of religion is based on the call to justice. The Hebrew Scriptures frequently define justice in terms of protecting the rights of the poor and needy: "Give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute" (Ps. 82:3, New Living Translation). "Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows" (Is. 1:17 NLT). They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans (Is. 10:2 NLT). In other words, "God's justice aims at creating an egalitarian community in which all classes of people maintain their basic human rights," 6 including the right to freedom of religion. In other words, religious freedom is not about "just us" but about justice! Therefore, we promote and protect it for all.

In 2008, I led a conference in Kenya of fifty evangelical leaders from around the world. One of the issues on the table was how to counter the increasing alienation between Muslims and Christians. I began the session with a presentation about my experience in the Common Word Dialogue at Yale--one of the highest profile dialogues between Christians and Muslims in modern times. (7) Many rejoiced to hear of the positive and robust dialogue that took place and, especially, that evangelical leaders engaged in this dialogue without compromising the gospel. (8)

One of the negative results of the Common Word Dialogue was that Evangelicals were divided over how to respond. A large number (including myself) were positive about the Common Word, while a vocal minority were negative. There were many Evangelicals caught in between, sympathetic to the dialogue, but not feeling that they could sign the Yale response because they disagreed with a few important phrases. (9)

So, we faced two crucial issues at Kenya: (1) the increasing alienation between Muslims and Christians, and (2) the growing tension and division among Evangelicals about how to respond to Muslims. In response to this, I wrote a consensus document for Evangelicals, "The Grace and Truth Affirmation." This later grew into my book, Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims. (10) In this document, we commend nine biblical guidelines for Christlike relations with Muslims, one of which is to be persistent in our call for religious freedom. Note that this statement affirms both the right to conversion along with the responsibility of ethical witness:
   We affirm the right of religious freedom for every person and
   community. We defend the right of Muslims to express their faith
   respectfully among Christians and of Christians to express their
   faith respectfully among Muslims. Moreover, we affirm the right
   of Muslims and Christians alike to change religious beliefs,
   practices and/or affiliations according to their conscience
   (2 Cor 4:2). Thus we stand against all forms of religious
   persecution toward Muslims, Christians, or anyone else. (11)


This kind of emphasis on human rights puts some Evangelicals on edge. I can imagine someone asking: "As Evangelicals we don't want to oppress other religions, but don't we want our government to favor the Christian faith? Isn't that better for us, especially since Christianity is the truth?" The famous First Amendment to the Constitution was crafted carefully so that our government would not do that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (11) This "establishment clause" was "intended to eliminate the possibility of" a state church (such as the Church of England, from which some of our forefathers fled). The "free exercise clause ... was intended to preserve the right of" citizens to believe according to the dictates of their own conscience. (13)

A story about Benjamin Franklin illustrates what this meant to the Founding Fathers in practice. When churches closed their doors to the famous evangelist, George Whitefield, Franklin built a new hall where he could speak. This was not just for Christians, but it was for the use of all religions. Franklin boasted that "even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." (14) For Franklin, the First Amendment meant there was a place in America for both the leading American Evangelical and the Muslim Mufti of Constantinople!

This emphasis on religious liberty provides four important benefits: (1) It resists political coercion. We do not want our government--or any government anywhere--dictating or unduly influencing our faith commitments and practices. Our faith is between us and God. (2) It allows for a healthy expression of diversity. We live in an increasingly multireligious and multicultural world. According to Harvard professor Diana Eck, "The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth." (15) (3) It allows for open-minded investigation of thought. It frees up people to examine, explore, and consider alternatives. The gospel is in the marketplace of ideas. (4) It keeps our faith pure. Pressuring people to accept the gospel does not produce true disciples. Freedom of religion allows people to make choices out of their own free will, which leads to authentic Jesus followers. (16)

I agree with Steven Waldman's studied assessment: "The Founding Faith, then, was not Christianity, and it was not secularism. It was religious liberty--a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone." (17) Jesus does fine in an environment where there is freedom of religion! But, is this emphasis on religious freedom part of our mission? Are we getting off track to be concerned about this ethical issue? The Evangelical Manifesto, signed by a veritable "who's who" of evangelicals gives wholehearted support to this cause: (18)
      Let it be known unequivocally that we are committed to religious
   liberty for people of all faiths, including the right to convert to
   or from the Christian faith. We are firmly opposed to the
   imposition of theocracy on our pluralistic society. We are also
   concerned about the illiberalism of politically correct attacks on
   evangelism. We have no desire to coerce anyone or to impose on
   anyone beliefs and behavior that we have not persuaded them to
   adopt freely, and that we do not demonstrate in our own lives,
   above all by love.

      ...

      ... Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right
   we defend for others. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew,
   and a right for a secularist, and a right for a Mormon, and [a]
   right for a Muslim, and a right for a Scientologist, and [a] right
   for all the believers in all the faiths across this wide land. (19)


Freedom of religion is not only biblical and constitutional, but it also has positive and powerful implications in the real world. Brian Grimm's research led him to this startling conclusion: "Our research on 143 countries finds that when governments and religious groups in society do not erect barriers to religious competition but respect and protect such activities as conversion and proselytism, religious violence is less.... In sum, religious freedom promotes stability, helps to consolidate democracy, and lessens religious violence." (20)

Christians and Muslims, those of other religions, and those with no religion, let us commit ourselves to a "double-edged jihad"--one that defends the rights of one's own community as well as the rights of all other communities. This is a peace jihad--an essential part of Christian mission in the twenty-first century! (21)

(1) See John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 159-160.

(2) See http://peace-catalyst.net/initiatives/7-resolutions.

(3) See http://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/.

(4) See http://www.isna.net/isna-cosponsors-international-conference-on-citizenship -and-the-rights-of-minorities-in-muslim-majority-countries.html.

(5) David P. Gushee, in his brilliant book, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future (Grand Rapids, Ml, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), p. 33, draws out the implication of humanity's being created in God's image: "Human life is sacred ... Through God's revelation in Scripture and incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has declared and demonstrated the sacred worth of human beings and will hold us accountable for responding appropriately.... It includes offering due respect and care to each human being that we encounter. It extends to an obligation to protect human life from wanton destruction, desecration, or the violation of human rights. A full embrace of the sacredness of human life leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing."

(6) T. L. J. Mafico, "Just, Justice," in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 1129.

(7) Press release, "Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims," July 17, 2008; available at http://www.yale.edu/divinity/common word/.

(8) One hundred thirty-eight Muslim scholars from virtually every Islamic country or region in the world, representing every major school of Islamic thought (Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi, etc.), invited Christians to dialogue. These Muslim scholars maintained that the common ground between Muslims and Christians centers on the commands to love the one true God and to love our neighbor. This invitation is referred to as "A Common Word between Us and You" (http://www.acommonword.com/). Because of this, the Yale Reconciliation Program has responded with the publication of "Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to A Common Word between Us and You'" (hereafter, "the Yale response"). The Yale response was featured in a full-page ad in the New York Times on November 18, 2007, with over 300 Christian signatories. (There are now over 600.) I happened to be at Yale on sabbatical doing post-doctoral studies when this happened, so I was recruited to help put on the dialogue in conjunction with the Reconciliation Program of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture; see http://www.yale.edu/faith/acw/acw-2008-conf.htm. For historical background and my report on this, see http://ricklove.net/?page_id=n.

(9) For a helpful description of tension among Evangelicals, see my paper, "Conversion, Respectful Witness, and Freedom of Religion," p. 9; available at http://ricklove.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Lubar-Institute-Presentation-on-Conversion.pdf.

(10) Rick Love, Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims (Arvada, CO: Peace Catalyst International Publications, 2013).

(11) "Grace and Truth: Toward Christlike Relationships with Muslims: An Affirmation"; available at http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/26_4_PDFs/grace%20and%20truth%20affirmation.pdf.

(12) "Bill of Rights"; available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/ bill_of_rights_transcript.html#text.

(13) This is a paraphrase of Derek H. Davis, "The Classical Separation Perspective," in P. C. Kemeny, ed., Church, State, and Public Justice: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press Academic, 2007), p. 83.

(14) Quoted in Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 30 (from Franklin's Autobiography, part 11).

(15) Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 4.

(16) Bob Roberts, Jr., Real-Time Connections: Linking Your Job with God's Global Work (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 194-195, provides valuable insights into these important issues.

(17) Waldman, Founding Faith, p. xvi.

(18) The Cape Town Commitment, which is part of the Lausanne Movement, also acknowledges this priority. Section IIC, "Living the Love of Christ among People of Other Faiths," point 6, reads: "Love works for religious freedom for all people. Upholding human rights by defending religious freedom is not incompatible with following the way of the cross when confronted with persecution. There is no contradiction between being willing personally to suffer the abuse or loss of our own rights for the sake of Christ, and being committed to advocate and speak up for those who are voiceless under the violation of their human rights. We must also distinguish between advocating the rights of people of other faiths and endorsing the truth of their beliefs. We can defend the freedom of others to believe and practise their religion without accepting that religion as true.... Let us strive for the goal of religious freedom for all people. This requires advocacy before governments on behalf of Christians and people of other faiths who are persecuted"; available at http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/ctcommitment.html.

Pastor John Piper also supports Christian advocacy for religious freedom. In the "Grace and Truth Exposition" (a much longer, comprehensive document related to the "Grace and Truth Affirmation"), he offered an incisive rationale for religious freedom: "Christians are tolerant of other faiths not because there is no absolute truth or that all faiths are equally valuable, but because the one who is Absolute Truth, Jesus Christ, forbids the spread of his truth by the sword. Christian tolerance is the commitment that keeps lovers of competing faiths from killing each other. Christian tolerance is the principle that puts freedom above forced conversion, because it's rooted in the conviction that forced conversion is no conversion at all. Freedom to preach, to teach, to publish, to assemble for worship--these convictions flow from the essence of the Christian faith. Therefore we protect it for all" ("Grace and Truth Exposition," 2005; available at http://grace-truth.info/exposition/).

(19) "An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment," pp. 16-17, May 7, 2008; available at http://www.anevangelicalmanifesto.com/docs/Evangelical_Manifesto.pdf.

(20) Brian J. Grimm, "Religious Freedom: Good for What Ails Us?" Review of Faith & International Affairs 6 (Summer, 2008): 5 and 6.

(21) Joshua W. Daneshforooz, Loving Our Religious Neighbors: How Christians Can Bear the Fruits of the Spirit with Conviction in a Pluralistic Culture (Lexington, KY: CreateSpace, 2011), p. 64.
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Author:Love, Rick
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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