The Glorious Freedom to Change Religions

Yesterday was July 4th, our American Independence Day. It was also our family day of rest, so I chose to not write anything, other than posting a song, my usual practice for Saturdays. But I didn’t want to miss the chance today to write about one freedom I am particularly grateful for now that we live in a part of the world where it barely exists. I am speaking of the freedom to change your religion, to convert to another system of faith based on what you believe in the depths of your soul to be true. In old Baptist terms, this is called Freedom of Conscience. In reality, this freedom is universal and God-given, but in many countries of the world, including ours in Central Asia, the government and the populace do their utter best to prevent people from exercising that freedom, from leaving their religion, especially if that religion is Islam.

When my Central Asian friends come to a conviction in their heart and a confession on their lips that Jesus, instead of Islam, is the way, the truth, and the life, persecution inevitably follows. The first time I had a friend become a believer he and his pregnant wife were kicked out of their family home for six months, in the heat of summer. My friend was then ridiculed by his friends, neighbors, and relatives, who had been content to leave him alone when he was a non-religious drunk musician. After his family came to terms with his Christian faith, his wife’s family (upset about her new faith) took them to court, made death threats, trashed their apartment, and eventually ran them out of the country. Another friend had his father and brother pull knives on him when they found out he was baptized. Yet another was beaten by coworkers with metal rods, then after having his legs dislocated put on trial in front of his tribal leadership. This was after his mother and sisters refused to cook him food for years because he had become “an infidel.” Another friend had a gun held to his head by irate neighbors. Others have lost jobs, marriage prospects, and had to go underground for a season until things calmed down. Many have fled the country. None of my local friends have been killed yet for their faith, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m aware of a few local believers in other circles have already paid for their faith with their lives.

If anyone goes to the police or the courts to report this persecution, these institutions simply reply that this is a family matter and that the government won’t get involved. They will often imply that the persecuted really had this coming to them when they chose to leave Islam. While the government doesn’t usually instigate the persecution in our area, they certainly don’t step in to stop it, and sometimes they make it worse by sending the secret police to track down a believer in hiding. While anyone from a minority religion can convert to Islam in our country, conversion out of Islam is forbidden by the constitution. So the full-force of family, tribal, or mosque persecution can be targeted at an individual, knowing that no one will even try to stop them.

Because of this, I talk often about religious liberty with my local unbelieving friends. I regularly get asked what I like about America and about the West, and I gladly respond by talking about the radical freedom that anyone has to believe anything they want. Then I make a beeline to the source of this stunning freedom: the Bible. I’ll share how the West wasn’t always like this, but as the Protestant Reformation spread and people returned to the text of the Bible for themselves, this beautiful idea was recovered: that a person is responsible to God alone for his faith (2 Cor 5:10). No family, no tribe, no government will be able to speak for an individual on the last day. So why do they have a right to constrain someone’s faith in this world? They have no right whatsoever. Thus the principle of religious freedom spread from the text to the West and now to many parts of the world. It has spread so far that many of my local friends will even agree with me, saying that yes, it would be better to live in a society like that. But the relatives…

There are many ways to think about missionaries. Most of my secular peers in America might think not-so-pleasantly about who we are and what we do. “You convert people? How dare you?!” But drop those same Westerners into a monolithic religious society with no freedom for dissent and they will quickly change their tone. Their critique comes from a place of historic privilege, since they have never lived in a society where you could lose your head for disagreeing with the majority religion. If they lived in these oppressed societies, they would find themselves pining for human rights. Freedom of religion, it turns out, is the foundation stone of human rights. Missionaries are then, in one sense, the foot soldiers of religious freedom, and therefore of human rights. We spread this crazy idea that you should not simply believe what your parents and ancestors believed. You should consider the claims of Jesus for yourself, because you will have to answer for yourself on the last day. As individuals believe in Jesus, communities of religious dissent emerge, and it becomes more and more normal for families, neighborhoods, and people groups to tolerate diverse beliefs, and to even hold this kind of diversity as an ideal. Protestants have been doing this all over the world now for 500 years.

We might not see total freedom of conscience in our area of Central Asia in our lifetimes, but then again, it took the West quite a few years to get there also. Baptists were imprisoned and beaten relatively recently in our own good ol’ America. And religious liberty still faces setbacks every time a group of evangelicals blocks a mosque or a temple being built in their neighborhood (not to mention the threats rumbling from places like the Supreme Court). But to the extent that we have religious liberty in the West, I rejoice. This is a glorious thing, something worth celebrating… and exporting.

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