Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously said that President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech was a turning point for him and other prisoners in the Soviet gulag.
“For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us,” recalled Sharansky in a 2004 interview.
He and fellow prisoners communicated the news between cells with taps on walls and toilets. They understood immediately that the truth about the Soviet Union would resound around the world: Reagan’s moral condemnation made indifference toward Soviet oppression unthinkable.
Pope Francis on Feb. 16 denounced the brutal slayings of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by militants linked to the Islamic State, saying “they were assassinated just for being Christian.”
“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out,” Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks during an audience with an ecumenical delegation from the Church of Scotland.
The pope, switching to his native Spanish, noted that those killed only said “Jesus help me.”
“Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian! The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ,” Francis said.
He said their deaths bore witness to “an ecumenism of blood” that should unite Christians, a phrase he has used repeatedly as the Islamic State continues its bloody march.
Police cars have been repainted to say “Islamic police.” Women are forbidden from wearing bright colors and prints. The homes of Shiites and others have signs stating they are property of the Islamic State. And everyone walks in fear amid a new reign of terror.
That’s what life is like in Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities in northern and western Iraq under the control of Islamic extremists after their lightning-fast military campaign that overwhelmed the Iraqi army in June.
The new normal for these residents means daily decrees about attire and raids to root out religious minorities in a campaign to impose strict Islamic rule in cities that tolerated multiple religions for centuries.
Video courtesy of USA Today.
I cherish Christian friends and friends who practice other religions. With both groups I share the struggle to love God wholeheartedly, love my neighbors, hear and obey the Spirit’s promptings. In both groups I encounter some distrust of members of the other group. Some of my conservative Christian friends say non-Christians in the United States today are persecuting Christians. Some of my non-Christian friends say American Christians are privileged and are persecuting non-Christians. Both groups get outraged.
I don’t see American Christians being persecuted. American Muslims (and, to some extent, Sikhs) sometimes suffer surveillance, police harassment, and violence at the hands of angry and ignorant people. Some attackers may be Christians, though I think — and hope — that they’re motivated by fear and xenophobia more than religion. American Christians are in a majority. We can claim our faith publicly without risking surveillance, violence or imprisonment.
That doesn’t mean we always have it easy. According to the standard privilege checklist I’m privileged as a Christian, underprivileged as a woman, but I’ve encountered more hostility and dismissal for being Christian than for being female. People tell me Christians are ignorant irrational anti-Semitic homophobic misogynist bigots. People assume these things about me when I say I’m Christian. People tell me jokes based on those assumptions. I think this says less about our culture’s specific anti-Christianity than about its general tendency to polarization.
I fear that arguments over religious privilege and persecution may blind us to the real challenge our culture poses to our attempts to live in faithful community.