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Freedom to Worship

NYC Trade Center Site under construction in May 2010
NYC Trade Center Site under construction in May 2010

I accidentally heard Neal Boortz (had to look up the spelling) for a couple of minutes on the radio yesterday. I was immediately searching for a place to vomit. He literally made me feel ill. His invective against all people of Islamic faith is astounding. Really astounding.

I feel naive. I did not think people really spoke so hatefully in public forums and broadcast such hatred on a national media syndicates. I’ve obviously been protecting myself from it. How many times worse must this sound to our Muslim neighbors. I’m especially worried about friends and acquaintances who are Muslim. Not fundamentalists. Judging every person of Muslim faith by the standards of suicide bombers is like judging every person of Christian faith by the standards of abortion clinic bombers. My friend Andy Watts recently argued such a point very convincingly.

Over 400 years ago Thomas Helwys was a leader and pastor of the first Baptist church on English soil. He argued that everyone should be afforded religious freedom. In 1612 he wrote a small book called A Short Declaration on the Mistery of Iniquity. In it he said, “Let them be heretikes, Turks, Jewes, or whatsoever, it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” (“Turks” would be the way he referred to Muslims in the seventeenth century.)

Baptists have been taking the concern for free exercise of religion in a free state seriously ever since. To the point of dying for it. Helwys was locked up in Newgate Prison where he subsequently died.  This is one stream of Baptist heritage for which I have nothing but admiration. Protecting the freedom of others to worship as they please is to protect ourselves and to foster freedom for all people in matters of conscience. Of course there are tricky spots and dilemmas in this approach to the separation of church and state. But it is neither tricky nor a dilemma to welcome neighbors of other faiths so that they can make a place to gather peaceably for worship.

Jesus was pretty unambiguous on the matter of loving neighbors. He minced no words on the matter of loving and praying for enemies, either. Where does that leave us? Even if we wanted to argue that those of other faiths were our enemies, and I absolutely don’t want to argue that, we are asked to love in a way that welcomes and prays for, even blesses our enemies.

Whether in Tennessee or in New York City, Christians have an obligation to love, welcome and pray for our neighbors of other faiths. It is not enough to merely support groups of other faiths. It is not enough to avoid open opposition of their practice. Our obligation extends to speaking up for their right to worship peaceably, to make a case for that right. It is a powerful way to follow Christ. And, my Christian brothers and sisters, our own freedom to exercise our faith and worship peaceably depends on it.

Oh and by the way, the same freedom (in the form of free speech) has to be extended to the likes of Boortz who can spew his venom. But I can also exercise my freedom of religion to pray for him and argue for his right to offer his opinion. Then I can exercise my freedom to turn off his broadcast at every opportunity.

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