Shane McNary, Chair of EBF Commission on Freedom & Justice
22 August is designated by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. On this day, we remember those who have been targeted simply because of their religious belief. Remembering those who have lost their lives and their surviving families on this day reminds us to be diligent as we work towards ensuring freedom of religion or belief for all.
Reports of increasing deadly persecution of Christians in China, India, and Nigeria cannot be ignored (see Persecuted Christians are Not Given Much Hope in 2020, Forbes, 18 February 2020). In some countries where the majority religion is Christian, persecution of minority Christian groups based on denominational affiliation is also on the increase. Religious-based violence is increasing globally. This impacts not only Christians. Increased intolerance leading to violence against people of minority faiths including Jews and Muslims is seen in countries across Europe.
On this day of commemoration, how can European Baptists respond?
We need to remember that as Baptists, we have been persecuted and even killed because of religious belief. Whether it was the thousands of Anabaptists who died for their faith during the 16th Century at the hands of other Christians or prosecution of a Baptist for distribution of religious literature in violation of “anti-missionary” laws (see Forum 18 report) in June, 2020, our own history has been shaped by persecution and religious violence. This history has formed in us Baptists a deep commitment to preserve the right of every person to choose and freely practice their own religion. As we seek God’s reign and justice we do not utilize the power of coercion via the state or the sword to achieve our goals. We remember those from our own Baptist family who have been imprisoned, beaten, and even lost their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
We need to repent of ways of thinking which lead us to act in ways that denigrate others who are different ethnically or culturally. This includes religious differences. The increasing diversity of communities across Europe is an opportunity for us to proclaim with actions and words that all persons are bearers of the Image of God. As such, every person is entitled to the same dignity and freedoms we expect for ourselves. In obedience to the example and commands of Christ Jesus, we know that all nations, all ethnicities, will be judged by the way they treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those in need of clothing, the sick, those imprisoned (Matthew 25.31-46). To the measure we continue to fall short, we confess and repent.
We need to recommit ourselves to be advocates for freedom of religion or belief for all while maintaining our evangelistic commitments. Advocacy includes standing against intolerance and seeking to nurture acceptance of others, even those of different faiths. In Jeremiah 29.7 the prophet reminds those who have been taken into captivity that they are to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (NRSV) We await a new generation of prophetic Baptist voices who will remind us of what it means to “seek the welfare” of all, not just other Baptists/Christians. As Baptists, we have an evangelistic faith. Because of our love for Jesus, we seek to share the truth of the Gospel with others. May Johann Gerhard Oncken’s motto, “Every Baptist a missionary” renew our passion to share our faith just as it inspired Baptists across Europe 200 years ago. Evangelism is not intolerance. It is an expression of love which respects the freedom of conscience of those with whom we share our faith.
So on this International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, may we find new hope that our life together with people of every ethnicity and culture be fertile ground for what God will do in us and among us. As we remember those who have been persecuted and killed on the basis of their belief, let our prayer be one of remembrance, repentance, and recommitment.
Photo: Tony Peck, 2017. Iraq. The cross still stands on this church destroyed by the Islamic State forces.