Are American Christians on the path to severe persecution for their faith?

Are American Christians on the path to severe persecution for their faith?

Image by Drew Beamer/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — A retired U.S. Army lieutenant general spurred debate recently when he said that the rise in global attacks on Christians could become a national security threat to the United States.

In an interview with The Washington Times, retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a former commander of Delta Force and undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said the attacks indicate an increased religious intolerance that could hit closer to home. He warned that Christian persecution is “only going to grow unless we wake up and start taking a very strong stand against this.”

Boykin is not alone in his fear that America is plunging toward an increasingly anti-Christian future. A 2017 survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that millions of Americans, including 57% of white evangelical Protestants, say that “there is a lot of discrimination” against Christians in the U.S. today.

Those who follow the news have heard countless stories of Christians who have, to one degree or another, experienced some level of pressure about their faith from individuals and institutions in our increasingly secular society. Certainly, domestic trends around religious freedom should be closely monitored.



And yet, at least right now, there is a marked difference between the treatment of Christians in many countries abroad and what believers are facing here at home. American Christians still enjoy broad religious protections under the law, and the intensity of what Christians face here pales in comparison to the depths of persecution suffered by followers of Jesus in many places around the world.

While a Christian college student in New York City might face ridicule for their beliefs, it would be impossible for them to live openly as a believer if they were living in Afghanistan, ranked No. 1 on Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Last year, the Taliban began the restoration of their oppressive rule by going door to door looking for Christian leaders. Those who are identified as Christian face dire consequences — our sources indicate torture or death are possible. The prospect of fleeing the country is largely hopeless. Refugees face chaotic and difficult journeys, risking being kidnapped and trafficked along the way. The governments across the Pakistan and Iran borders are little more accepting of Christians. Given these dangers, unmarried women, widows and older people especially have a very small chance of getting out of Afghanistan safely.

Christian politicians in America have been attacked for their religious convictions, but in places such as Vietnam, Christians face much more than mere criticism. Several house churches in Dak Lok province were recently harassed and fined by police because they publicly honored the United Nations’ International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

In the central Vietnam province of Nghệ An, government officials compete to create “Christian-free zones,” and authorities pressure animist relatives to drive Christians from their homes and communities. Some have been forcibly separated from their spouses, children, farm fields and even their wedding rings. The head of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ was tortured and imprisoned until the government yielded to international pressure urging his release. Despite his nominal freedom — the government tracks him constantly — he was kept from attending the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington this summer.

Similarly harrowing anti-Christian discrimination and violence exist in numerous other countries — from the slaughterous actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria to China’s surveillance state to Iran’s state-sanctioned crackdown.

While we cannot deny that Christians in America today experience discomforts, inconveniences and sometimes even social ostracization, these instances simply do not rise to the level of the horror that countless global Christians face every day. Moreover, there is very little evidence that this level of carnage is coming to the United States soon.

In America, we’re blessed with incredible amounts of freedom. We can attend church, pray, meet with fellow believers and read the Bible whenever we want without legal consequence. But many millions of our brothers and sisters around the world simply cannot do those same things without facing repercussions, often dire.

David Curry. Courtesy photo

David Curry. Courtesy photo

We should be “wise as serpents,” as the Gospel of Matthew counsels, when it comes to monitoring domestic trends around religious freedom. The liberties we enjoy should be defended at all costs. But we must also invest the resources we have where the needs are so much greater, to defend those around the globe who risk life and livelihood simply for confessing the name of Jesus.

(David Curry is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which advocates on behalf of those who are persecuted for their Christian faith throughout the world. Open Doors publishes the World Watch List, an annual report on the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Why We Must Wait: An Advent Reflection

Why We Must Wait: An Advent Reflection

Video Courtesy of TheKingdomChoirVEVO


Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season observed by many Christians as a period of waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. This season begins four Sundays before Christmas and concludes on Christmas. The hanging of greens, adorning sanctuaries and wearing vestments of purple, and lighting the Advent wreath candles in order to move from darkness to light are key components in Advent observation. All of this is in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, a birth that people anxiously awaited then and a symbolic birth we should anxiously await now. But some may ask, “Why must we wait for something that has already happened? Why exist in symbolic darkness for a time in order to celebrate that which was revealed some 2000 years ago? Why is this relevant to our time?” I suggest that we must wait in order to reclaim the wonder of the light that was brought into this world.

Earlier this year, during an Ash Wednesday service at a large Baptist church, I looked forward to ushering in the season of penitence with somber worship and a penitent message. Ash Wednesday is supposed to remind us of our finitude and it plunges us into a season of penitence, and the journey into the wilderness with Christ. But as I sat in that Ash Wednesday service, I was jolted from somber reflection with songs of joy and a sermon celebrating victory. Not a moment in the service–besides the impartation of ashes which concluded the service–was spent ushering people into the dry season ahead of them because the church couldn’t not praise. On one hand I understood the church’s inability to squelch their praise. It’s a church that has seen many trials and tribulation and its membership are a part of the resilient race in this country who can’t not praise because of how far they’ve come by faith. Why would they want to launch themselves into a period solemnity? But on the other hand, I desired for this congregation to withhold their praise and shouts of victory in order to rightfully claim it at the end of the Lenten season. In doing this, they would truly walk with their redeemer and taste the sweetness of victory because they had made the journey by way of symbolically situating themselves on Ash Wednesday as sojourners with Jesus. This too is our call during the season of Advent except that we are not sojourners with Jesus this time around but sojourners with a generation of people who were awaiting his arrival. People who heard a particular prophecy about the coming of Jesus and who were waiting and preparing for his arrival. People who didn’t have Christmas gift shopping, parties to attend, and a plethora of “holiday” distractions, but who were watching and waiting for him. I imagine that their wait was one of wonder mixed with skepticism fueled by the rumors of Mary, a virgin, who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit with the son of God. How unbelievable that had to be then and how unbelievable we should consider it now in order to rekindle the wonder of it all. Awesome wonder is what this season is about.

Yesterday in church I was reminded of how in danger we are of losing that wonder because we are so familiar with the stories that tell of the coming of Jesus. Some of us know it like the back of our hands and it has become so commonplace that the narrative of a young virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit and giving birth to the son of God seems just as plausible as a man getting pregnant and giving birth. Some of us are no longer moved by the story because we’ve spent years with it in our churches, in our seminaries and Bible colleges, and in our homes, but we force ourselves to be moved just a few days before Christmas because that’s what we’ve been trained most to do. Many wind down and reflect as they start to wrap up their Christmas shopping, place the last few gifts under the tree, and bake the last batch of cookies. A reflection on the true significance of this moment on the Christian liturgical calendar is sometimes left as an afterthought to what is given top billing on the calendar of capitalism. But we must wait, and wait longer than a few days, to acclimate ourselves to the coming of Jesus. When we take hold of the season of waiting that Advent is, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonder of every occasion that lead up to the birth of Jesus.

When we read the Gospel narratives that foretell of Jesus’ birth, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, of the Magnificat, we must stop ourselves from breezing through it quickly because we’ve heard it all before. Instead we should be held captive by every word as if we were hearing it for the first time and as if we may never hear it again. When we repeat the refrain, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear,” we are implicating ourselves as those in captivity in need of a release from our self-imposed exile. Given the capitalism and consumerism that has marked this season—and the violence it has wrought—we are now, more than ever, in the need of the discipline of waiting. We must wait in order to restore the wonder of this blessed season we are in, a season that shines light into dark places and gives many hope. We must wait, not only for ourselves but for every person who has yet to experience the great hope that many of us know so well. We must wait so that we refresh ourselves in the wondrous love to come over receiving it as an entitlement that we might take for granted. We must wait, because in waiting we are forced to slow down, and in slowing down we gain perspective on the significance of this season which brings us back to wonder. The awesome wonder of the coming of Jesus is what this season is about, just wait for it.

 

DEVOTION: Why You Should See This Movie

DEVOTION: Why You Should See This Movie

It is not often that I go to the movie theater and feel like a movie left my speechless but that is exactly how I felt about Devotion. It is based on a true story and has been the culmination of decades of work by the family and friends of Jesse Brown, a true American hero. There was a national conversation a few years ago about the “Hidden Figures” of American history. As African Americans unfortunately much of our history has gone untold, and some of it has been erased by racism, fear, and cultural amnesia. The story of Jesse Brown, one of the first black Naval Aviators to serve in an integrated unit, is a piece of history that must be remembered. It is an honor to Jesse’s daughter and grandchildren who are still alive that their grandfather’s story can finally be told. We are rooting for everybody black, and as we learn his story we help to remember more of our own history.

Jesse served during the Korean War, a war that is not often highlighted on the big screen. It is called America’s forgotten war because it was not the heroic story of good triumphing over evil from World War II and it is overshadowed by Vietnam during the Cold War in its tragedy and impact on American consciousness. But it was the first war where young Americans who were inspired by WWII joined the ranks of the military in order to fight for their country and were not drafted. Jesse Brown was like many African Americans in his era in that he was motivated not simply by patriotism, but an opportunity to help his family advance in a rapidly changing society. He saw himself not as an incredible black man, but as an incredible man. His wife and daughter were the center of his world and his purpose was to fly with the best pilots in the nation.

As we watch the impeccable talent of Jonathan Majors bring Jesse Brown to life we cannot help but to see his devotion. He was a man of faith, a man of family, and a man of fortitude. He demanded respect but rarely opened himself to trust people outside of his home. A lifetime of facing overt and structural racism had taught him to test before he trusted. A new and accomplished member of his unit Tom Hudner played by Glen Powell attempts to build a friendship across the cultural divide.

There is a special bond between team members that go through battles together, and it builds a devotion to one another and to the cause they fight for. This movie explores the depths of that passion in a profound way. But the reason why you should really see this movie is because the story of Jesse Brown needs to be told. We hear about how African Americans have to work twice as had to get half as far, Jesse Brown lived it in our military. We remember stories of American heroism trying to serve our country and protect their fellow soldiers. We rarely hear about black men in those positions. There have been countless successful war movies. This one is for our community with all of the nuance and authenticity that is true to our struggle to be part of the military let alone thrive in it. How can we honor the people in uniform for a country that has long neglected the rights and humanity of black people? Hundreds of our ancestors wore those uniforms and the story of the American struggle for freedom has been the story of the African American struggle for freedom since America’s first war. All Americans need to hear that story and be reminded of the struggle and the triumphs. We need to tell Jesse Brown’s story the same way we tell the stories of Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and all of the other films that share tragedies and triumphs of our veterans.

I left the theater in tears. I was moved. I could not believe I had never heard about Jesse Brown’s story, and had rarely heard about the Korean War in all of the history classes I had taken. I feel myself particularly acquainted with African American history having attended the illustrious Howard University and taken several African American history courses. I could not shake the sadness, frustration, and inspiration I felt because I had never heard the name Jesse Brown as one of the “First Black” in the long list of first blacks. We have to know and share our history. We have to share our devotion to our heritage. You have to see this movie, so that this piece of history, our history, is never forgotten again.

Thanksgiving hymns are a few centuries old, tops – but biblical psalms of gratitude and praise go back thousands of years

King David playing the lyre in a scene from a 15th-century manuscript of the Book of Psalms. Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive via Getty Images
David W. Stowe, Michigan State University

Thanksgiving doesn’t ring in the ear for months on end, unlike another holiday that lies just ahead. Yet readers may remember a couple of hymns that roll around each November in church, around the dinner table, or even – for readers of a certain age – in school. One I remember well is “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Then there’s “We Gather Together,” or “We Plough the Fields and Scatter.”

Interestingly, for songs associated with a distinctly American holiday, none have American origins. “Come, Ye Thankful People” was written by Henry Alford, a 19th-century English cleric who ascended to become dean of Canterbury Cathedral and supposedly rose to his feet to give thanks after every meal and at the close of every day. “We Gather Together” is much older, written in 1597 to celebrate the Dutch victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Turnhout. “We Plough the Fields” was written by a German Lutheran in 1782.

As someone who studies American culture and religious music, I’m interested in the backstory of the songs that we have come to take for granted. Someone wandering into a church and picking up a hymnal will likely find a handful of hymns filed under “thanksgiving,” but many more express a general sense of gratitude, such as “Now Thank We All Our God” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Even more hymns fall under the related category of praise – after all, a common response to feeling blessed or rescued is to offer praise to the higher being thought to bestow those gifts.

None of these impulses are uniquely Christian, or even religious. But hymns of praise and gratitude have been central to Jewish and Christian worship for millennia. In fact, they go back to one of the best-known scenes in the Hebrew Bible.

Fleeing Pharaoh

The earliest musical performance mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is “The Song of the Sea,” referring to two songs Moses and his sister Miriam sing to celebrate the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. As Pharaoh’s army pursues the fleeing slaves to the edge of the Red Sea, God opens a dry path for them before closing up the sea to swallow the soldiers, according to the Book of Exodus:

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’

Jewish singer Debbie Friedman, who died in 2011, wrote “Miriam’s Song,” adapting these lines from Exodus into a modern favorite.

A page from an old Book of Psalms shows a woman in a red dress dancing next to a group of people emerging from water.
‘The Chludov Psalter,’ a book of psalms, shows ‘The Song Of Moses and Miriam,’ from around A.D. 850. Found in the Collection of State History Museum, Moscow. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Temple worship

One research project took me deep into the world of the Hebrew Psalms, which originally were sung mainly during rituals at the temple in Jerusalem. Scholars have speculated for centuries over the composition and sequencing of these Hebrew poems that form one book of the Bible. The 150 psalms include a great many laments, expressions of praise and gratitude, and quite a few texts that combine both.

Hermann Gunkel, a pioneering Bible scholar at the turn of the 20th century, developed a system of classifying the texts in the Book of Psalms by genre, which experts still use today. What Gunkel called “Thanksgiving” psalms are texts that celebrate God’s actions to bestow blessings and alleviate affliction in particular times and places: healing from a serious illness, for example. Gunkel’s categories also include psalms that refer to gratitude for more general divine actions: creating the cosmos and the wonders of the natural world, or protecting the ancient Israelites from foreign enemies.

It’s hard to find a text more brimming with gratitude than Psalm 65, which includes verses very suitable for Thanksgiving Day:

 The streams of God are filled with water
 to provide the people with grain,
 for so you have ordained it. 
 You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
 you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
 You crown the year with your bounty,
 and your carts overflow with abundance. 

A new idea: Songs about Jesus

Though the original tunes of the psalms have been long lost, their words are still a mainstay of religious singing for both Jews and Christians.

Their key role in Protestant churches today owes partly to the Reformation of the 16th century. During the Renaissance, Catholics had developed more ornate musical forms for the Mass, including the use of polyphony: songs with two or more simultaneous interwoven melodies. Protestants, on the other hand, decided that unadorned psalms, put into standard musical meters that matched existing tunes, were optimal for church.

Reformation leader Martin Luther loved music and wrote his own hymns with original words that are still popular today, such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” As far as the more austere reformer John Calvin was concerned, however, the plainer the better. Unharmonized a cappella psalm singing was plenty good for the sabbath, he insisted.

Calvin’s judgment carried the day in New England, which was settled largely by Puritan Calvinists. In fact, the first book published in North America was “The Bay Psalm Book,” in 1640. It took a century for hymns with new words to start finding acceptance in churches, and even longer for organs to make an appearance there.

A black and white illustration shows a woman helping four children sing from hymnals.
An illustration from an 1866 edition of hymn writer Isaac Watts’ ‘Divine and Moral Songs for Children.’ Bridgeman/Culture Club/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Gradually these restrictions began to soften, even in New England. During the 1700s, hymns began to compete with psalms in popularity. The key innovator was Isaac Watts, a talented poet who wondered why Christians couldn’t sing worship songs that referenced Jesus Christ – since the Book of Psalms, written before his birth, did not. John and Charles Wesley, founders of Methodism, were also inveterate hymn writers.

Praise yesterday and today

To modern ears, the difference between psalms and hymns is barely perceptible. Hymns often draw heavily on the images and tropes of the psalms. Even a simple-sounding Thanksgiving hymn like “We Gather Together” contains no fewer than 11 allusions to particular psalms.

Watts, the Wesley brothers and several other hymn writers were part of movements that helped birth modern evangelical Christianity. Some of the most famous hymns of thanksgiving and praise have been popularized by evangelical revivals over the centuries: “Amazing Grace,” by an 18th-century English curate, and “How Great Thou Art,” the theme song of world-famous preacher Billy Graham’s revivals.

Over the past 30 years, the booming genre of contemporary worship music, often referred to simply as praise music, has become the standard heard in megachurches and other evangelical congregations across the world. Not surprisingly, praise and gratitude are inescapable themes in this genre – whether or not they evoke a Thanksgiving feast.The Conversation

David W. Stowe, Professor of Religious Studies, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Never Would Have Made It: An Interview with Bishop Marvin Sapp

Never Would Have Made It: An Interview with Bishop Marvin Sapp

Bishop Marvin Sapp is a pastor, musician, author, artist and now filmmaker. He’s working on learning how to cook. He has over a dozen Grammy nominations, Stellar Awards, BET Awards and more as a Gospel Artist. He is the co-founder and pastor of two churches in Grand Rapids, MI and Fort Worth, TX. He is the Bishop serving over 100 congregations. He is a gifted preacher, speaker and leader. He most recently released a film with TVOne telling his testimony and was an executive producer and star of the film. To put it lightly, Marvin Sapp is a busy man of God. But it is his love for people, his incredible testimonies, and his heartfelt authenticity that have helped him be a vessel for the Holy Spirit for decades. UrbanFaith sat down with this legendary Gospel artist and minister and talked about everything from film to football and ministry to mental health. The full interview is above, more about Bishop Sapp is below.

Bishop Marvin L. Sapp is a passionate orator and biblical teacher, who desires to be a living epistle glorifying our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ both in word and in deed who is the Co-Founder of Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Senior Pastor of The Chosen Vessel Cathedral in Fort Worth, Texas as well as a Metropolitan Bishop that oversees more than 100 churches in the Central Deanery of Global United Fellowship.

Bishop Sapp is a multiplatinum selling artist who has enjoyed a decorated music career receiving 13 Grammy nominations, 24 Stellar Awards, 2 Soul Train Music Awards, 2 BET Awards, 4 Dove Awards, 8 BMI songwriter’s awards for sales, Black Music Honors Gospel Music Icon Award along with many other accolades and honors from national, regional, and local institutions.