Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why Complete Religious Freedom is Essential to our Future

In a few hours, I'll be checking out of the office and spending the month of May trying to finish two new books for publication in the fall.  Among other things, this means I won't be posting very often here until June.  But before I leave, I wanted to write a bit about an issue that I've been thinking deeply about lately:  religious freedom.

Last Thursday, I spent a wonderful evening of food and friendship with people of diverse faiths at an event sponsored by my Turkish Muslim friends.  Additionally, they honored me with the opportunity to speak about our growing friendship.  Each of us represented very different faiths--faiths that often contradict one another and present very different views of God, sin, redemption, heaven and hell.  And yet there were were; Episcopal and Catholic priests, Jewish Rabbis, Muslim Imams, and a few Baptist pastors from the network of churches I serve, eating and learning together.

I've been asked before why I participate in these kinds of events.  Is it because I believe that ultimately, we are all the same?  Do I believe that ultimately, we all worship the same god?  

The answer to that question is a resounding "no."  

And I state that clearly every time I'm given the opportunity to speak to my friends who adhere to other faiths.  I believe God has ultimately revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  I believe Jesus' bloody death and bodily resurrection is the only avenue to having your sins forgiven.  I believe repentance from sin and toward Jesus, and faith alone in HIS finished work is the only way to a relationship with God.  And because I believe this, and because I love my friends, I spend time with them.

But I also spend time at events like this for another reason:  because we must model for the rest of the world what "tolerance" really looks like!

The term "tolerance" has had so many definitions applied to it over the past few years that the word itself has nearly been emptied of all significant meaning.  In the mainstream media, the term is largely used as a weapon against anyone who disagrees with the prevailing views of the day.  In short, to be "tolerant" you must agree with the majority, and if you don''t, then you are "intolerant."  Pot, meet kettle!

Another way this term has been abused is by assuming that all ideas and beliefs are of equal value, and that no particular belief or worldview can possibly be superior to another.  Practically, this approach to tolerance results in talking about what we hold in common while completely ignoring our deep differences.  The problem with this view of tolerance is that those who practice it can, at best, only develop "surface level" relationships with those of other faiths.  This view of tolerance never leads to deep friendships, because the deepest and most meaningful parts of who we are--our most cherished beliefs about God and redemption--are never discussed.  

Truth is, I've never met a Muslim Imam who believes I can go to heaven as long as I continue to believe that Jesus is God, and I've never met a Bible-believing pastor who believes my Muslim friends can go to heaven unless they believe He is God!  We have to find ways to talk openly and honestly about these differences--and why we hold them--in order to promote genuine peace among each other.  How can you have a genuine, respectful relationship with anyone if you don't understand why they believe what they believe?  My friend Bob Roberts says it best: "Multifaith not only respects but encourages religious people to say exactly what they believe, no matter how stark the differences.  But it encourages them to do so in the spirit of peace."

This is the kind of environment in which we can understand each other better, and share our faith openly, and it should exist on every square inch of planet earth!

Which brings me to the subject that prompted this post.  For some time now, Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen, has been confined in an Iranian prison for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in that country.  According to an article in Baptist Press released yesterday, he has been told by Iranian authorities, "Deny your faith in Jesus Christ and return to Islam or else you will not be released from prison.  We will make sure you are kept here even after your 8 year sentence is finished."

Such is the epitome of "intolerance," and in practice, it really doesn't look much different from the "tolerance" that we see in our own land.  No, we aren't threatening to imprison people for what they believe (although you don't have to go back too far in our history to witness the drowning of women suspected of witchcraft), and we aren't denying anyone medical treatment because they hold to a minority opinion.  But no one can argue that we have become a nation quick to prejudge others based on their religious beliefs.  Those who oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage are simply labeled "bigots."  Muslims denied a building permit are assumed to be "terrorists in hiding."  Some days, I think we would actually imprison people for their beliefs, if only it weren't for that pesky Constitution!  

And, I think that says something indicting about our culture.  

We are, in reality, far from being a tolerant people.  Most of the "tolerance" we observe in our culture isn't really tolerance at all.  Its intellectual cowardice.  Albeit, its of a different variety--and thankfully, a far less violent variety-- than that of an Iranian government that locks up minority opinion, but both are examples of what people will do when they are simply too afraid to talk to each other.

Last Thursday evening, I shared a table with a Methodist pastor, a Catholic priest, an Episcopal priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim engineer.  And I did it because meetings like this are the starting point for genuine religious freedom to continue.

I did it because I believe Jews should be free to build a synagogue in my South Carolina hometown.  I did it because I believe Muslims should be free to build a mosque near "ground zero" in New York.  And I did it because I believe I should be free to plant a Christian church in Istanbul, or Cairo, or Tel Aviv, or Tehran.  And, I believe Pastor Saeed should be free to do the same.

But we will never get there until we drop the "tolerance" charade and start talking to each other!

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