One of my great treasures are the journals of my great-grandfather, Aron and his son Nikolaj Reimer. The journals have been translated from German into English and they document a remarkable story of faith, persecution and perseverance. Aron and Nikolaj were Mennonite Brethren (Ana-Baptists) ministers. They were leaders in their small German village in Russia. Because of their faith they endured persecution and many challenges. In order to survive, my great-grandfather immigrated to Mexico and finally the United States along with his second wife and the youngest four children, which included my grandmother Helena who was 13 at the time. They were the lucky ones because they escaped and found religious freedom in our country. My great-uncle wasn’t so lucky. He stayed in Russia because he couldn’t find safe passage out and his journals document the many obstacles he and his family encountered.
Nikolaj had to serve in the army even though he was a pacifist, but because of his non-violent beliefs was assigned to the mess tent (food duty). When food supplies dwindled, he was reprimanded for inadequate meals and chastised even more when he refused to steal from nearby farmers because he didn’t believe in stealing. Later on he was imprisoned for holding religious worship services in his home and sentenced to death, however this was overturned and instead he was sentenced to 10 years hard labor in a work camp, which he served. My great-uncle’s faith was strong and admirable in the midst of so many trials. Nikolaj found strength in God and his church time and time again, even when he lost everything. But what catches my attention is that my family practiced their faith in a quiet and yet consistent way. They prayed, worshipped, supported one another in care, they read the scriptures and they lived their beliefs to the best of their abilities. The persecution that they endured was not because they were forcing their own faith on other people, but instead because they were practicing their faith and refused to stop.
Over the past few months, we have heard a lot of talk about Christians in the United States being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Politicians and business owners have pleaded that new laws are getting in the way of their ability to practice their faith. And this has forced me to wonder: what does religious persecution really look like? Are we being religiously persecuted when we can’t display the 10 commandments in front of our city buildings or in our courtrooms? Are we being religiously persecuted when we are told we must serve all people regardless of sexual orientation? Or does religious persecution look differently?
As I have thought about this, I decided the best place to look would probably be the bible (crazy, I know). Thankfully this year, I have studied and taught on a number of biblical texts that speak of religious persecution. The first book that came to mind was Daniel. In the book of Daniel, Daniel and many other Jews are living in exile in Babylon. They are trying to the best of their ability to follow God and practice their faith, but over and over again they encounter hostility that gets in the way of their ability to be true to God. So what does this really look like? What are they commanded to do and how do they respond?
When Daniel is told to eat the King’s food which are in opposition to the food laws he follows as a Jew, Daniel speaks to the food manager and negotiates a way that he can still eat what he believes is clean without hurting anyone else.
When King Nebuchadnezzar sets up a Golden Statue of himself and commands for everyone to bow and worship it, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quietly refuse to do it. Other people tattle on them forcing them to face a fiery furnace.
When King Darius declares that people can only pray to him, Daniel does not pray to King Darius but remains faithful by going to his home and praying three times a day to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Other officials point out Daniel’s disobedience resulting in his getting thrown into a lion’s den.
Daniel and the other Jews living in Babylon are longing for the freedom to pray to the God they believe in, to worship in a way that doesn’t harm others, and to follow their religious laws by eating those things they believe are clean. But none of their religious practices are being forced on other people; none of their religious practices are harming anyone else. Daniel and the other Jews live out their faith in a quiet and yet consistent way that does not seek to harm anyone or anything.
I think one of the hard parts of being Christians in the United States today is that as the dominate religion in our country we have enjoyed a number of freedoms. We have benefited from majority of people celebrating Christmas and Easter and for our schools and other institutions to structure breaks and activities around these holidays. But as our nation becomes more multi-religious, Christians no longer get to experience those same privileges. In some ways it is difficult that our kids don’t learn Christmas carols in school any more. There is a reason to grieve this change. But just because this change is happening doesn’t mean we are persecuted. Instead we are making room for others to experience the same religious freedom that we enjoy. We are indeed free to practice our faith, to worship the God we know and love and to pray as we want, this is what it means to experience religious freedom. No one is threatening to kill us or harm us or throw us in jail just because we worship God and we gather together as a church.
As I think about Daniel and my own family, my great-grandfather, and my great-uncle I become more and more convinced that some of the changes that we are experiencing in our cities and in our communities that might feel to some as persecution are the sacrifices we make so that all people might realize the same freedoms that we are so privileged to enjoy.