Christians can have hope, joy amid trials

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India is a large and remarkable country, but she is at the crossroads culturally, politically and economically, as her population moves to the 1 billion mark.

Some want India to become an economic powerhouse, but others want less contact with the West.

Those who want to be part of a global economy want their children to learn English, which is the language that unifies the law courts of India.

Others say English should not even be taught in the schools.

My concern is for religious freedom. India already has laws protecting religious freedom at the constitutional level, as well as additional laws passed by legislatures.

But social groups take action locally to restrict religious liberty. When violence against Christians breaks out, there are political parties quietly sanction it, particularly the Bhartiya Janata Party.

In 1999, an Australian mission and health worker, Graham Staines, was the target of a viscious and deadly attack.

What was his crime? He cared for the Dalits (the “untouchables”), the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system.

In India, any conversion of Dalits to Christianity is unacceptable. They must remain servants who cannot read or write. They must not learn better sanitary practices or home economic management skills. They must not do too much to better themselves.

More than anything, they must not convert to a new worldview or personal belief in Jesus. Radical Hindus seek to imprison and violently punish Christian evangelists and pastors who “convert” Hindus to Christianity. The free exchange of ideas is not welcome. Freedom of thought and personal belief is not valued.

No adult should be able to change his or her mind once it has been formed by parents, family and the society at large. No adult should be able to find something beyond that instruction that is wiser, truer or more life-enhancing.

But there is a double-standard. The offense of evangelism and conversion only works in one direction. Great efforts are made today by Hindus to convert the animist tribal peoples to Hinduism. It is OK to convert to Hinduism, but not to Christianity or Islam.

People with this attitude can endorse, organize, and carry out violence. In 2008 at least 118 Christians were killed in Odisha (Orissa), and 4,640 homes were burned down. The mobs attacked on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In this context, remember Graham Staines.

On Jan. 22, 1999, Staines was sleeping in his car with his sons, Timothy, 6, and Philip, 10. Radicals chained the doors shut, poured petrol over the car, and lit it on fire. Staines and his two young sons burned to death.

The original jury trial sentenced the men who led the mob to death, but a higher court overturned the sentence. The case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the High Court’s judgment.

My purpose is not to discuss the question of appropriate punishment, but to call attention to the reasoning of two justices on India’s Supreme Court.

According to Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice B.S. Chauhan, “In the case on hand, though Graham Staines and his two minor sons were burnt alive to death while they were sleeping inside a station wagon at Manoharpur, the intention was to teach a lesson to Graham Staines about his religious activities, namely, converting poor tribals to Christianity.”

The logic of this reasoning is unacceptable on both moral and legal grounds. The great nation of India deserves better. The question these justices need to reflect on is: what clear lesson did the mob intend to teach the two little boys who were also burned to death?

No one in Christian leadership in India wants forced conversions. But where freedom of conscience is not permitted, then other freedoms are in jeopardy as well.

Does India seem far away? No nation of a billion people should be unimportant to us. Christians in North America need to uphold the people of India in prayer, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Animist.

We need to remember that Christians who serve people less fortunate often do so in extremely dangerous conditions. Pray for those who risk their lives to share the love of Jesus around the world.

In our own increasingly secular country, hostility to Christianity has not reached deadly proportions (may it never come!).

Yet hostility is real, nonetheless, and growing bolder, becoming more aggressive in media presentations. In movies, ministers are portrayed as fiends or inept bumblers.

At higher educational institutions, Christians face restrictions and legal challenges. For example, Vanderbilt University recently expelled Christian student groups. Slowly, but in telling ways, societal attitudes are changing.

Although we cannot turn the clock back, we can face this situation by loving our neighbors in practical ways as opportunities come to us, by praying for them, and by not losing our joy.

That is a lesson I learn when I visit Christians in India and other difficult places. Their singing indicates that neither persecution nor poverty can rob them of their inner joy.

At Christmas, let us remember that God still has the power to give marvelous gifts, including the gift of hope and joy.

The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872.

Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at catherinehicks@wwub.com.

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