Are the days of acceptable Christianity really over?
A truly remarkable speech was delivered at the 10th Annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on May 13. Robert P. George, McCormack professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, spoke to a mainly Catholic audience but his remarks could easily apply to other Christians, regardless of faith.
George got to the heart of the matter from his first words: "The days of socially acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It is no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, an authentic witness to the truths of the Gospel. A price is demanded and must be paid. There are costs of discipleship -- heavy costs, costs that are burdensome and painful to bear."
He further posited that while one could identify with being a Catholic, attending Mass and being seen as politically correct, it does not mean that one "actually believes" the church's teachings on marriage, sexual morality or the sanctity of human life. In doing so, even if one believes in those teachings but "is prepared to be completely silent about them, one is safe -- one can still be a comfortable Catholic."
George's most searing indictment was reserved for those who are ashamed of the Gospel. "In other words, a tame Catholic, a Catholic who is ashamed of the Gospel -- or who is willing to act publicly as if he or she were ashamed -- is still socially acceptable. But a Catholic who makes it clear that he or she is not ashamed is in for a rough go -- he or she must be prepared to take risks and make sacrifices. 'If,' Jesus said, 'anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.' We American Catholics, having become comfortable, had forgotten, or ignored, that timeless Gospel truth. There will be no ignoring it now." He compared this situation to Peter's denial in the Garden of Gethsemane that he was one of Christ's followers.
The issues George raises are being raised in mainline and other churches. One need not hear many Catholic services before hearing these themes espoused. Being a witness to the Gospel today has a price.
"To be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach," George continued. "To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one's security, one's personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one's standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one's public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one's witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship -- heavy costs." Around the world, Christians who stand up for the Gospel are currently exposing themselves to grave risks. I think of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a pregnant mother in Sudan, a Christian and the wife of an American, who has been condemned to be flogged, and has been sentenced to be put to death after she delivers her child. She was offered the chance to renounce her faith but refused to do so.
Last year, Christianity Today reported that persecution of Christians is on the rise in eight African countries, citing the 2013 WorldWatch Open Doors USA list of religious freedom violators. Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Niger were new entrants to the list last year. "Africa, where Christianity spread fastest during the past century, now is the region where oppression of Christians is spreading fastest," Open Doors noted. Twelve of the top 50 persecuting countries in the world on the 2014 Open Doors list are African.
Nigeria and the U.S. are currently trying to locate and rescue more than 200 schoolgirls, many of them Christian, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom reported in 2013 that more than 12,000 people were killed by the Islamists in their anti-Christian attacks.
Although the speech Robert George made was primarily to draw attention to several specific issues prominent in Catholicism and other denominations, I cite the African examples as they represent the reality that there are places today where Christians who are not afraid to stand and be counted suffer sever consequences, including death. In a recent Anchorage speech, Timothy Cardinal Dolan noted a whole floor was devoted to annulments in their New York City office building. His dream was to replace it with marriage rebuilders.
George ended on a note of challenge. "We would much rather be acceptable Christians, comfortable Catholics. But our trust in him, our hope in his resurrection, our faith in the sovereignty of his heavenly Father can conquer fear. By the grace of Almighty God, Easter is indeed coming. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Never be ashamed of the Gospel." Whatever you get out of his speech, I think the message is clear. The easy days of Christianity are over.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.