Liberty and Tyranny

I’m attending the American Baptist Mission Summit (what used to be called the Biennial) in Kansas City this weekend. I have had a chance to re-connect with some old friends and colleagues, and also to meet some new people. Most of these new people (new to me, that is; they’re not babies) I like and respect. But then there was this one guy....

On Friday evening, I attended the Roger Williams Fellowship Dinner. I sat next to the development director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC). Both these organizations are committed to the concept of religious liberty for all—a hallmark of Baptists from the very beginning. The Roger Williams Fellowship is named for the man who got exiled from the colony of Massachusetts because he dissented against the Puritans who held the power. He moved to what is now Rhode Island, founded the city of Providence, and started the first Baptist church on North American soil. The BJC educates citizens, congregations, and policy makers on the tenets of religious liberty and the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, gets involved in judicial cases on religious liberty issues, and acts under the assumption that “the separation of church and state is good for both.” I was pleased to attend that dinner and be among kindred spirits.

At lunchtime today, however, I met a missionary to Hungary who calls himself a Baptist but seems to have forgotten his Baptist history. I asked him how things are in Hungary today—how’s the economic situation, what’s the religious climate like, that sort of thing—and he said that it has been difficult in the past but it is getting better. I asked him what he meant, and he told me that the Hungarian national government recently passed a law to limit official recognition to those religious denominations and groups that have at least a 150-year history in the country. The “acceptable” groups included the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptists, the Jews, and a few others. As a result of this ruling, the Baptist Union had come into possession of an enormous amount of property—church buildings, schools, and so on—the government had confiscated from religious groups who did not meet their 150-year standard. The missionary (I’ll call him Ray) seemed to think this unexpected windfall was the work of a gracious God, and saw no reason not to think of it as wholly positive.

A decade ago, I worked for a couple of years with a small nonprofit organization that advocated for religious freedom around the world. We would go to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the State Department, and Congress to seek redress for religious minorities who were experiencing persecution. I organized rallies, made speeches (a couple of times outside the US Capitol, as in the photo below), wrote reports, and even traveled to other countries to investigate reports of persecution. It was fascinating work.

The author speaks at a rally for Falun Gong practitioners outside the U.S. Capitol in 2005.

The author speaks at a rally for Falun Gong practitioners outside the U.S. Capitol in 2005.

Some aspects of the job bothered me, however. The executive director and most members of the staff were much more politically and theologically conservative than I, and subscribed to a brand of Christian triumphalism that I found unpalatable. When I would describe my work to others, I would use the language I used above about religious minorities, but in actuality we advocated on behalf of religious minorities if they were Christians. We did work with a group of Mandaeans from Iraq and the Falun Gong in China (I was speaking at a Falun Gong rally in the picture above), but mostly we spoke up for Christians who were being persecuted by governments or people of other faiths in places like North Korea, China, Vietnam, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, and so on.

In the course of my work I saw or read about a lot of different tactics governments would use to suppress religious groups they did not favor. One of the most common was the registration of such groups with the government. Russia, Georgia, and Eritrea were notable culprits. As I found out today, Hungary is riding on that bandwagon too. The director of my organization often wanted to take the tack of trying to help the groups we were supporting get registered. But then, she wasn’t a Baptist, and I don’t know if I ever convinced her of the bankruptcy and danger of cooperating with civil officials who thought they had the authority to approve or disapprove of someone else’s theology and religious practice. Giving in to that mindset only invites further abuse. No government has jurisdiction over the consciences of its citizens. That way lies tyranny. Roger Williams knew it. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew it. The Bill of Rights enshrined it as law.

So back to Ray the “Baptist” missionary. After describing how the Hungarian Baptist Union became the beneficiary of the Hungarian government’s overreach, he concluded, “Things are getting better.”

 I replied, “Yeah, as long as you’re not one of the ones that haven’t been around for 150 years.”

He said, “Well, those were Mormons and Buddhists and some other groups like that—I can’t remember who exactly. They don’t preach the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation.” (This is not an exact quote, but it captures the gist of what he said pretty well.) The implied next sentence was, “So it’s okay if they get their freedoms (and their property) taken away.”

I knew at that moment that our conversation was over. I thought about engaging him in a discussion about the Baptist heritage of defending persecuted minorities even when (especially when?) we disagree with them. I thought about talking to him about the danger of handing any government that kind of power, even when their exercise of it works in our favor in the short run. I thought about pointing out the well-worn yet true maxim that none of us can be free if any of us is not free. I wish now that I had voiced some version of one of these arguments, but suddenly I felt very tired and more than a little discouraged, and my top priority was getting out of there.

I wish I had a better ending to this story. Maybe I’ll run into this guy tomorrow and I’ll be able to talk to him again and tell him some of my concerns. Maybe he’ll listen to what I have to say and say something thoughtful in return. Maybe I’ll find out that not all the negative, curmudgeonly, judgmental things I have been thinking about him all day are justified, and I will have to repent and apologize. Maybe something I say to him, even if he disagrees with it in the moment, will stay with him and have a positive influence on his thinking in the long run. Or maybe he’ll convince me that he is right and it really doesn’t matter what happens to those who don’t preach the message of Jesus with an acceptable level of purity.

I hope that last option doesn’t happen, though, because that way lies tyranny.