A mother was arrested for saying something that was interpreted as being critical of the national religion. Asia Bibi was sentenced to death according to the anti-blasphemy law in her country. A governor and a government minister were assassinated because they defended her and denounced the abusive use of the law.
A Christian pastor, 33 years old, was arrested in 2009 for deciding to become Christian when he was 19 years old. He was sentenced to death according to his country’s law against apostasy. This law states that it is a crime to choose a religion other than the national religion.
Would you like your children to live in a country in which they would be treated as second-class citizens because of their religion? Or in a country in which police raid your church during the service, take parents to the police station, and interrogate their children because they are members of a religious minority?
Would you like to live in a country in which a young mother lost her job, was rejected by her husband, expelled from her house, and separated from her children because she chose to follow Christ as her Savior?
You may think that such cases are rare; that they are caused only by religious fanatics. True, religious fanatics kill those who are accused of apostasy and blasphemy. They put such pressure on their governments that religious freedom does not exist. Sometimes police arrest their victims to protect them. And many of these individuals face the prospect of being assassinated either in prison or once they are freed.
The young pastor sentenced to death for apostasy was released after three years, and the mother accused of blasphemy is still alive. Why were their sentences not executed? Because people of goodwill around the world reacted, sent petitions, demonstrated, and prayed. Under those international pressures, the government commuted their sentences.
We are called to be actors, not just observers.
The best answer to religious fanaticism and religious persecution is religious freedom, promoted with love and respect for others.
Ellen White wrote, “We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience. Fervent, effectual prayer should be ascending to heaven that this calamity may be deferred until we can accomplish the work which has so long been neglected. Let there be most earnest prayer, and then let us work in harmony with our prayers.”1
As a church we take Ellen White’s counsel seriously. We have been promoting and defending religious freedom from the beginning of our history. Our church president, Ted N. C. Wilson, said that religious freedom is in the DNA of the Adventist Church. He also said that every Adventist should be a champion of religious liberty.
Religious fanaticism is spreading around the world. Fanatics in one part of the globe provoke fanatics in other parts of the world. Believers are killed in their places of worship; churches are burned from Indonesia to Nigeria. Thousands of innocent believers lose everything they have—family, houses, schools—and now live as refugees.
Every day my colleagues and I receive news about persecuted believers, oppressive laws, and attacks on places of worship. Religious intolerance is increasing, and those who stand for freedom for all are underrepresented or forced to keep silent.
How is a Christian to respond to religious fanaticism? Jesus and the apostles were clear: They never commanded their disciples to answer violence with violence. They told us to pray for our enemies, for those who persecute us. We are to respond to hatred with love: to preach, proclaim, and live the good news without reservation.
The good news of Jesus can take many forms: helping the poor; promoting integrity and justice; healing the sick; preaching God’s message for this time; and, of course, defending and promoting religious liberty for people everywhere.
Ellen White wrote concerning the times in which we live: “The banner of truth and religious liberty held aloft by the founders of the gospel church and by God’s witnesses during the centuries that have passed since then, has, in this last conflict, been committed to our hands.”2
Promoting and defending religious liberty is our mission, and it is a prophetic mission. Why? Because religious freedom is a gift from God.
God created us with the freedom to choose. Religious freedom is a sign of the kingdom of God and the expression of God’s character of love. No one is forced to love Him, no one is forced to worship Him; we are free to decide. Jesus gave His life to save us. He calls us, He wants us to be saved, but the decision is in our hands.
As religious intolerance spreads around the world, our answer is not to imitate the fanatics, but to affirm with conviction the supreme value of religious liberty for all people everywhere. God’s great gift of freedom is not only for Americans, Europeans, Africans, or Asians, but for all—men and women, poor and rich, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. Religious freedom for all is a gift from God.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a worldwide reputation as protectors of religious liberty. Adventist congregations around the world—every-where possible—are encouraged to plan a special service at least once a year that begins with a sermon on the theme of religious liberty, continues with the sharing of information, and features prayer for those who are persecuted. Churches are encouraged to invite community officials and have afternoon programs with lectures and concerts to which the public is invited.
Some congregations organize symposia during the week and sponsor festivals of religious freedom on Sabbath. We want all Adventists to do their best to send a strong message to their communities: We love religious freedom. It is a gift from God. We want it to apply to everyone.
In the matter of religious liberty, we are called to be actors, not just observers. Inspired by God, and following in Jesus’ steps, we affirm that promoting religious freedom is the best antidote to religious fanaticism.