Monday, November 29, 2010

Embarrassing Freedom

It's the least wonderful time of the year. I've already been hit with one memo from the American Family Association, urging me to boycott Dick's Sporting Good's stores for promoting a "holiday shop" instead of a Christmas shop. Within days, Dick's caved to the pressure and changed their website to read "Christmas Shop". And so AFA has another "victory" in the "War on Christmas".

Well, I call, "Baloney".

While the AFA was fighting the good fight against pluralistic advertising, the US State Department issued its Annual Report on Religious Freedom. (Executive summary linked here.) This lengthy document covers the oppression, repression and struggle of believers of all faiths around the world. The report details how governments, juntas, militaries, private groups and others restrict religious freedoms, withdraw permission to practice from certain groups, kill, injure or imprison missionaries and charitable workers and otherwise prevent the free expression of faith. 

Here are just a few excerpts: 

Afghanistan:  Residual effects of years of jihad against the former USSR, civil strife, Taliban rule, popular suspicion regarding outside influence and the motivations of foreigners, and weak democratic institutions remained serious obstacles. Intolerance in the form of harassment, occasional violence, discrimination, and inflammatory public statements by members of parliament and television programming targeted members of non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, as well as Muslims perceived by government and societal forces as not respecting Islamic strictures.Non-Muslim minority groups, particularly Christian, Hindu, and Sikh groups, were targets of intolerant attitudes. Conversion from Islam was understood by Shi'a and Sunni Islamic clergy, as well as many citizens, to contravene the tenets of Islam. Relations among different Muslim sects continued to be difficult, and members of the minority Shi'a community continued to face societal discrimination from the majority Sunni population.

China: The constitution protects "normal religious activities," but officials have wide latitude to interpret the meaning of "normal." The government restricts legal religious practice to five (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations." The government bans some religious groups. Treatment of unregistered religious groups varied significantly across the country. In some areas unregistered religious groups met without interference; in other areas officials disrupted their meetings, and even imprisoned worshipers on charges of "illegal religious activities." Lawyers and other activists who tried to defend the religious freedom of unregistered or banned religious groups faced disbarment, harassment, and imprisonment.

Malaysia: Officials at the federal and state levels oversee Islamic activity and sometimes influenced the content of sermons, used mosques to convey political messages, and prevented certain imams from speaking. Religious minorities remained generally free to practice their beliefs, although approval processes for building permits for places of worship were reportedly at times extremely slow. The High Court overturned the government-issued ban on use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims after an appeal by the Catholic Church, although the ban remains in place pending further appeal. Numerous attacks on religious venues, most of them minor incidents, followed the court ruling, and in response the government quickly condemned all violence and dispatched police to guard religious sites. The Hindu community continued to express concern about the demolition of Hindu temples.

North Korea: Although the constitution provides for "freedom of religious belief," genuine religious freedom does not exist, and there was no change in the extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. The government severely restricted religious freedom, including organized religious activity, except that which officially recognized groups linked to the government supervised tightly. Some foreign visitors to the country stated that services at state-authorized churches appeared staged and contained political content supportive of the regime. The 2009 Korean Institute for National Unification White Paper indicated the regime used authorized religious entities for external propaganda and political purposes, and strictly barred citizens from entering places of worship. Defectors reported the regime increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of members of unauthorized religious groups in recent years. 

These few examples hardly begin to detail the struggle of people around the world to practice what they believe to be true and holy. And, yes, it might not be what you believe to be true and holy. The embracing of pluralism pushes forth the idea of "one God" in a way that can't be true, if all religions were honest about their tenets. The struggles for religious freedom in the United States are not detailed, presumably because we are optimistic about the level of religious freedom we have here. In my lifetime, I have been targeted for attack, personally, because of my Jewish heritage. Not being a practicing Jew or a person of color, I don't think I can even estimate the way religious freedom is viewed here. 

Still, each year we are bombarded with messages about the "War on Christmas" and the removal of Christ from the public square. Until you have to buy religious Christmas cards on the black market and exchange them, furtively, in dark alleys- there is no war on Christmas. Until the name of the holiday is changed to Mid-Winter Festival or Saturnalia or Day of Giving, there is no War on Christmas. Until your creche is confiscated, your neighbors calling the police because you displayed a manger in a window- there is no War on Christmas. Until each church is locked and Christians gather in little rooms, daring to defiantly light a candle to celebrate- there is no War on Christmas. 

I heard Christmas carols in a store today. I heard people talking about Christmas shopping. I saw decorations for "Christmas trees". I saw Christ's name EVERYWHERE, even if people weren't using it specifically to refer to Him. 

You may not like it when people say "Happy Holidays". You can smile and say, "My family celebrates Christmas. I hope you enjoy your celebration." You could smile and say, "Thank you and you too." You could just smile. 

Despite the loud protestations of the AFA, in the United States, we have amazing, embarrassingly abundant religious freedom- especially those of us who are Christian and vaguely mainstream, even with some level of standard deviation to the right or left. 

How about we thank God for that freedom and we pray for our brothers and sisters around the world, loved by God, struggling in darkness? How about we pray for an end to oppressive regimes? For the courage to fight for freedom? For wisdom to know how to support educational, medical, and spiritual missions around the world? 

Why should you do that?

It's what Christ would do. 

You remember Christ. 

The reason for the season? 

I just wonder if the AFA remembers Him. 


Cookie said...

Fantastic post. I love reading your blog. You are an excellent writer and I learn a lot from your posts. I'm still at the beginning of my path to Christ, so it is refreshing to hear from someone that is firm in her beliefs, yet so tolerant of the beliefs of others.

Rev. Elsa A. Peters said...

Brilliant. Wise. And thank you.

Crimson Rambler said...

thank you my dear! I too am weary of the scare-propaganda -- "Look Out Whitey! Gonna steal your Christmas!" that is so rife. I have never, never experienced anything of the sort firsthand -- except inside Christian (?) churches...go figure!