Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two stones, a matchstick, and a call for religious liberty

If you looked closely at the bookshelves in my study you would notice rather simple two stones . For many this would be clutter that needed to be thrown away. For me that are precious artifacts, symbols of religious liberty. The two stones are from Kittery, Maine. They act as a reminder that the origins of Baptist life in the South began when the Baptist congregation in Kittery, after a repeated arrests and harassment, were expelled by order of the court in 1684 and boarded a ship that took them to Charleston, South Carolina. The persecution and religious intolerance that had defined Baptist life in England had followed them to these shores. The story of difficulty for Baptist in Kittery is repeated in varying degrees across the early history of our nation. It seems that we have forgotten that Baptist were one of the earliest voices for religious liberty as we spoke as a minority voice, seeking the hope and promise that we could worship as we believed to be right. It is interesting that when we moved from being a voice on the edges to a voice of influence we seemed to quickly forget our history and the need to protect the rights of religious minorities- even when we strongly disagree with them.

Over the past week I have read stories of ministers who seek to justify the torching of a Tennessee mosque. These are the same pastors who love to preach about the Christian martyrs in Indonesia and India who had their churches burned to ash by angry mobs. Now, an insignificant radical church in Florida is dominating world headlines by promising to burn Korans on 9/11. Despite calls from military leaders serving in Afghanistan, US embassy representatives working in the Middle East, and from some key Christian leaders, this arrogant pastor plans to move ahead with his plan. He seeks to be an example for all Christians and wants to make a statement to the world. Those two rocks on my shelf remind me to the rocks Jesus must have been jiggling in his hands when he looked up at an angry mob and told them; “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Somehow I cannot imagine this Jesus of love and redemption showing up at a bonfire designed for religious books. Most of you know that I was a missionary among Muslims in Southeast Asia. I wanted those that I invested my life in to know about a Jesus who brought grace instead of judgment; freedom to those enslaved by the cold religious regiments of Islam. I wanted them to know the Jesus who would look at an angry crowd and turn them away with the power of love rather than hate. I fear that people’s passionate anger has clouded their eyes to the face of Jesus looking up from the Samaritan dirt and with the strike of a match they will unravel the work of countless Christian missionaries and endanger the lives of American soldiers serving across the globe.It seems that they have forgotten that Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:43-45, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven."

May we, who were once religious outsiders and were persecuted for our faith, demand that the same kind of religious intolerance that once allowed the court in Kittery, Maine to expel be stopped here and stopped now. Our gospel is strong enough to stand against Islam. I staked my life on this belief as a missionary. Our faith is strong enough to handle Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and others in our midst. We need not fear. Our God does not need people to try save His name in acts of anger, for He came to save us in the power of love. We are not called to do “grand acts for God” in fear and anger, but rather to claim our place as children of God because if God’s grand act of grace for us.

Grace and Peace, Tom

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