Sunday, October 26, 2014

Religious Freedom in an age of Realpolitik.

The following address, entitled Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik, was delivered on Saturday 25 October 2014, to the annual conference of the Australian Christian Lobby.

It is Australian Christian Lobby's vision "to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community. 

"ACL aims to foster a more compassionate, just and moral society by seeking to have the positive public contributions of the Christian faith reflected in the political life of the nation."

Entitled Speak Up, this year's annual conference had a specific focus on religious liberty.  

Religious Freedom in an Age of Realpolitik

It seems to me that the topic of persecution is one of the most unpopular topics in the Church today.

One reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular and so difficult for many Western churches and Western Christians, is because the Western church is immersed in a media-obsessed culture – in which character has become less important that personality (persona) the image that is presented. The image most prized by our culture seems to be that of person who is always chirpy, bubbly and carefree to the point of being care-less.  It doesn’t even matter that it’s all completely fake. It is imperative that the Church rise above this. 

Another reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular is because the Western church has become enamoured with ‘celebratory worship’ – a style of worship that, while being wonderfully joyful, has no place for indignation or lament. It essential mandates that everyone who enters the auditorium, must have an upbeat experience (theoretically that will keep them in the faith, and keep them coming back).

Another reason why the topic of persecution is so unpopular is because the Western church is clinging to an easy, triumphalist Christianity. There are far too many false teachers chirping, “‘peace peace’ when there is no peace” and promising believers, “Jesus would never let anything bad happen to you”. Churches that teach, preach and sing that message – cannot handle the topic of persecution; for it sets up an intellectual conflict.

The Bible, however, is absolutely riddled with material on persecution. “Why do they righteous suffer?” is the eternal cry.  The “valiant man” of Lamentations 3 (possibly the prophet Jeremiah himself) had been taken captive by the enemy who forced him into slave labour, broke his teeth and abused him until he cowered in the dust . . .

Look at the suffering of Christ in the gospels and of the Apostles in the book of Acts. All of the Apostles were eventually martyred -- except for John, who was exiled to a prison island for life. Indeed, history is replete with waves of persecution. Jesus warned us that persecution would come and he calls his followers to take up their cross. YET still, persecution is a no-go area in many churches. 

But to be silent about persecution is to live in denial – in unreality. For the reality is, things are not good. In fact the situation facing most Christians today is intolerable, totally unacceptable – truly lamentable.

I believe the Western church’s failure / inability / refusal to confront the reality of persecution (and even suffering in general) is one of the reasons why Western churches are shrinking. If we can’t face reality – then we are irrelevant – and certainly not helpful! 

It is imperative that the Church END DENIAL: things are not fine. 

Then there is the problem that the Church doesn't think it needs to bother with this topic. In fact the Church has grown accustomed to the idea that the world will save the Church. 
We reason:  
  • If we can just inform the UN, then the UN will save the persecuted church.
  • If we can just get an audience with the Pres of the US – then Captain America will save the persecuted church.
  • If we can inform the world’s Human Rights NGOs and get reports into the media etc etc, then the goodness of humanity will take over and they – good people – (i.e. someone else) will save the persecuted church.

When the Cold War ended with Christian America as the world’s sole superpower, many Christians – especially Protestants / evangelicals truly believed that God was in the process of transforming the world through the military and economic might and political leadership of the US. 

In November 1998, when the US congress passed the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Act, which tied US foreign policy to international religious freedom, mandating sanctions for states / regimes deemed to be severe persecutors / or violators of religious freedom -- Christians were more convinced than ever that God was in the process of transforming the world through politics, as distinct from through transforming power of the Gospel. 

For a decade, the US IRF Act did provide many vulnerable minority Christians with a veil of cover/protection as it gave dictators a reason to reign in hostile elements and to enact reforms and pursue at least a modicum of justice for the sake of US aid and trade.

Well those days are now well and truly over. The power of the IRF ACT was US economic leverage – when the US housing bubble burst – in Aug-Sept 2008, the financial crisis ripped the teeth right out of the Act. Persecution escalated immediately.
Christian woman, Pakistan, March 2013.

We have reached a confluence of trends: the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the non-West has converged with the radicalisation of Muslims; the coming of age of religious nationalism; the ascendancy of Communist-ruled China and the ascendancy of Shi’ite theocracy-ruled Iran -- and now we are witnessing the loss of Western influence (which is itself a symptom of the decline of Western civilisation, a consequence of Culture Change).

To summarise: we have more believers – living in increasingly hostile environments – and the West is powerless to help them. 

So, after a momentary historical anomaly – the Church must face the reality that we have to live with realpolitik = i.e. politics based on power and “interests” rather than ideals. 

Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop China returning to its old ways of bulldozing churches, incarcerating pastors and torturing high profile dissidents.

Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop Iran abusing, incarcerating, torturing and executing political and religious dissidents. The reality today is that the US needs Iran more than Iran needs the US! 

Realpolitik is the reason why no can stop Vietnam and Laos forcing Highland Christians to renounce their Christianity.

Realpolitik is the reason why no one can get the Pakistani government to pursue justice for Pakistani Christians who have lost everything on account of Muslim pogroms.

Realpolitik is the reason why no one can get the Egyptian regime to guarantee security for Coptic communities in Upper Egypt.

Realpolitik is the reason why religious freedom is on the decline in BJP-ruled India.

Realpolitik is the reason why Western governments are reluctant to speak of the Burmese regime’s military abuses against the Christian Kachin. We wouldn’t want anything to get in the way of our ability to exploit Burma’s resources, markets – and we especially wouldn’t want Burma drifting back into China’s sphere of influence.

Realpolitik is the reason why no one can stop the Government of Sudan's genocidal jihad against the predominantly Christian Africans of Nuba Mountains! We are powerless!

Realpolitik is the reason why Western governments can’t or won't stop torture and tyranny in Papua. We wouldn’t want to scuttle an arms deal, or cause geo-strategic Indonesia to shift into China’s sphere of influence.

I could go on like this all day . . . . 

Of course Western governments do raise these issues -- as they should -- in Human Rights dialogues and in diplomatic meetings. But the truth is, it is more for domestic consumption and a deep sense of moral duty than from any expectation that the situation can be changed with “mere words”. 

In 701 BC – as the Army of super-power Assyria advanced across Judah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, boasted that he had Hezekiah, king of Judah “holed up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage”.  When the Assyrian Rabshakeh asked Hezekiah, “Do you think mere words are a strategy and power for war?” (Isaiah 36:5) he was saying, "Get real, Hezekiah. This is what realpolitik looks like. I will crush you because I can. There is no-one coming to save you. There is one who can stop me. So face reality and surrender." 
Iranian regime

And today, in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Nth Korea and so many more – regimes are saying: "We will treat Christians however we like. There is no-one coming to their rescue. There is no-one who can stop us. So get over it; for this is how it is going to be from now on and you can’t do a damn thing about it."

And they are right. We can’t. 

Makes you feel sort of hopeless doesn’t it? 

Good! For that is exactly where we need to be; for . . . it has never been God’s plan that the world should save the church. God saves his people by grace through faith -- that is not just God’s paradigm for personal salvation, it is God’s paradigm for everything.

In the latter part of the 8th C BC when God’s people were imminently imperilled, God said “Trust me and I will save you.” But they wouldn’t do it. “We’ve out-grown faith” they said (Isaiah 28) “faith is for children. We do politics now.” And they put their trust in all the things we put our trust in today: diplomacy; military might (Egypt); collective security, grand alliances, spiritually rebellious projects of self-sufficiency and in the cultural and economic power of great cities. And it all failed – and the enemy flooded Immanuel’s land right up to its neck, just as Isaiah said it would (Isaiah 8).

It was hopeless – the battle was at the gate and the fall of Jerusalem was imminent and inevitable – until Hezekiah remembered that there is another option, that there is another player. In humble repentance and faith, Hezekiah appealed to the Lord and the battle was turned back by grace in response to faith. 

[That is the message of Isaiah 7-39 – and of my book, Turn Back the Battle, which presents a Biblical response to suffering, persecution and threat by applying the lessons/teachings of Isaiah to our present situation.]

Indian Christians protesting violent persecution.
The world will not and cannot save the persecuted church. 

Neither can the church of herself, operating in her own strength, save the persecuted church.

Does it sound like I am advocating abandoning works / abandoning advocacy? Well I am not! I’d be a pretty poor Director of Advocacy if I was to do that! [Elizabeth Kendal is the Director of Advocacy at the Canberra based, Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF).]

The issue is who or what do we trust

We demonstrate our trust in the Lord through obedience to his word. 

So we must seek the Lord’s will and DO it – trusting him for the outcome. 

Fortunately, so much of God’s will is clearly revealed, for example:
  • Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9)
  • Bear one another’s burdens . . . (Galatians 6:2)
  • Remember those in prison as if you yourself were imprisoned with them. (Hebrews 13:3)
  • Give generously – sacrificially (Deut 15:10 and 2 Sam 24:2) – not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). 

But though we work – we do not put our faith in our works.

The prophet Isaiah can be our role model in this. For in obedience to the Lord’s command, Isaiah lobbied the king – first Ahaz (735 BC) and then Hezekiah. But he never put his faith in those kings, or in his diplomacy, or in the political or diplomatic process. He always only ever rested his faith in the Lord.  

Everything we do is useless – unless the Lord blesses it.
Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

And so prayer must be integral to every stage of everything. 

The world has changed – and so must we (the Church) – we need to change gears.

We need to face the reality of persecution and engage with the persecuted through provision of aid (giving generously, sharing the burden), involvement in advocacy (speaking up) and the serious business of intercessory prayer (advocacy in the courts of the Lord). 

We must welcome indignation and lament into our worship, which will give our worship a depth and breadth that I can assure you, will go a long way to making worship more relevant to the human experience.

While this persecution is unprecedented in our lifetime, it is not unprecedented. Waves of persecution have been breaking over the church ever since its inception. What is unprecedented today is the global nature of the persecution.
Christian IDPs in Arbil (Iraq)

But equally as unprecedented is the global connectedness of the church, such that the Church in Australia can learn of a great need on the other side of the world – in real time – and respond immediately – for the saving of many lives. 

Christian IDPs in Dohuk (Iraq)

All proceeds from the sale of books today [25 Oct] will be going to Christian Faith and Freedom's fund for Christian IDPs in Dohok in the far Nth of Iraq. While many are holed up in church halls and monasteries and schools – being cared for by local churches – others are in camps. These Christians fled Nineveh at the height of summer, so in shorts and T-shirts.  Winter looms – the rains have already set in; soon it will be snowing. 

Otherwise - Books are available on my website – and if you want to donate to the CFF fund for Christians in Dohuk [or Syria, or the Nuba Mts, or Burma . . . ] but can’t do it now – then please take a CFF brochure or give through the CFF website.

Please stay, informed – sign on to my weekly emailed RLPB – and please, get your small group and your church involved. Please, remember the persecuted.
Thank you.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Elizabeth Kendal's message in solidarity with Syrian and Iraqi Christians.

On the afternoon of Saturday 2 August, several thousand Syrian and Iraqi Christians gathered in Melbourne's Federation Square to stand in solidarity with Christians suffering severe persecution under ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria -- now known as IS).

For background please see:
Raqqa, Syria: Christians in the lions' den
By Elizabeth Kendal, 4 March 2014
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 250.

ISIS takes the war back to Iraq
By Elizabeth Kendal, 11 June 2014
Religious Liberty Monitoring.

Upper Mesopotamia: Christians at the mercy of ISIS
By Elizabeth Kendal, 17 June 2014
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 265.

IRAQ: Christians Flee the Killing Fields
By Elizabeth Kendal, 13 Aug 2014
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 273.

 For many of those present at the rally, the victims are not merely their co-religionists, but their relatives: grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters.

They were joined in Federation Square by a spattering of sympathetic fellow Christians, but not nearly enough.

The rally included a series of short speeches given by guest representatives from various religious, ethnic, political and advocacy groups.

Following the speeches, a group of Assyrian youths presented a short skit in which they re-enacted the way ISIS treats Christians.

After enacting their capture, humiliation and massacre, the Christian youths rose up, lifted up a giant cross and declared: "We are Christians and we are proud! Save Iraqi Christians!"

I was greatly honoured to be given the opportunity to address the rally.

Speech by Elizabeth Kendal 
"The March in Solidarity for the Persecuted Christians of Iraq".
Federation Square, Melbourne, Saturday 2 August 2014

Thank-you for giving me this opportunity to address this gathering.

I would like to make two appeals:
1) To the Australian Church
2) To my Christian brothers and sisters from Syria and Iraq

To the Australian Church I would like to say:

You have heard on the news that for the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now devoid of Christians.

But I want to tell you, the crisis stretches far beyond Mosul.

This year, Christians have been driven out of towns as far west as Armenian town of Kessab in Syria's the far north-west corner. Even now, remnant Christians are being driven out of towns right across Syria’s north and east – out of Al-Raqqah, from where photographic evidence of public executions and even crucifixions have emerged, and out of the Al-Hassekah and Deir al Zour. In Iraq they are being driven out of Nineveh, while a decimated remnant survives in Baghdad. Indeed, across the entire Christian heartland of Upper Mesopotamia, those who choose to remain Christian have no choice but to flee.

This is the land where the disciples of the Jesus Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

This is the land from where mission was launched west in Europe and east in to Persia and China.

Christianity has been decimated in its historic heartland, in our lifetime and before our eyes.

What’s more, Christianity is in the process of being eradicated from its historic heartland.

All we need to do for this to eventuate is nothing.

It will happen – unless we step up and be the Church God demands we be and has gifted and empowered us to be.

The day has arrived when Church passivity must end.

We are exhorted in Galatians 6:2 – “bear one another’s burdens, for in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” / the law of love.

And unless we want to hear the Lord say to us, “Whatever you did not do for the least of these children of mine, you did not do for me” – then we had better get serious.

My message to my Christian brothers and sisters from Syria and Iraq is this:

It is possible that those who have fled their homes and lands in recent years -- in order to save their lives -- may never see their homes again. Upper Mesopotamia is in the eye of a very big storm that will probably wreak havoc for a long time yet.

But – God has promised that one day, a highway will stretch from Egypt through Israel to Assyria (Isaiah 19:23f) -- and there will be peace. In that day the Lord will declare: “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” (v25)

As Christians, all of us are called not merely to live righteous and just lives – but to advance righteousness and justice in the world. And so, following the manner of the prophets and apostles, we lobby the king – we exhort our leaders to do what God expects them to do: “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves . . .  plead the cause of the needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

BUT – we do not put our faith in princes, or in humanity (Psalm 118:8-9)

NOR do we put our trust in horses and chariots (military hardware) (Psalm 20:7)

RATHER – we put our trust in the Lord Almighty, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23)

After all – what will this Assyria of Isaiah 19 be – but the work of HIS hands.

“But,” you might ask, “how do we keep faith alive through these dark days?”
ANSWER: By remembering.

When the Israelites lamented over the fall of Jerusalem – crying “God does not see, God does not care” (Lamentations 1-2), God exhorted them to remember, saying (Isaiah 40:27f): Why do you say God doesn't see and God doesn't care? Remember! "The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable." In other words: he sees!
What’s more, he cares! For he lifts up, revives and empowers those who wait for  / trust in HIM;
   "they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint." (v31)

Remember – that your faith might be energised, that you might soar in his strength.

So the Australian Church I say
– get to work!
Don’t be passive observers of suffering!
Don’t leave the sacrifice to others!
Get down; get active!

And to my Iraqi and Syrian brothers and sisters in Christ, I say – arise!
And keep your eyes fixed on Jesus for he is your shield, your glory and the lifter of your head. (Psalm 3:3)

May we stand together – One Lord – One Body.

Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012)