Mass readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 58.6-10 Psalm 112.4-9 1 Corinthians 2.1-5 Matthew 5.13-16
Let your light shine… that’s a lovely sentiment, and as we read this, hear it proclaimed in close proximity to Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord which we celebrated Thursday night with a blessing of candles and a candlelight procession, how apt it is. As disciples of Christ we are to be a light to the world.
Jesus gives us a further interesting image in terms of who we are as a community: a city on a hill; and we imagine it as a splendid sight – not some sterile agglomeration of concrete condominium towers and office buildings, but rather something charming, with some grand buildings, a church to be sure, but every built structure more on a human scale and showing craftsmanship. That is, it is an attractive, inviting community, a place people are drawn to, a spiritual place one wants to live in.
However, as much as we can think of this imagery in positive terms, our Lord hints that there is a downside to being a beacon in the night, to being that city on a hill: we can’t hide from the forces of darkness, and when the invading armies of cultural orcs and goblins comes marching, they see their target quite clearly.
I mention this in light of the release of the Open Doors annual report on the religious persecution of Christians globally.
Open Doors has been around since the 1950s; it was then a small organization that had a mandate of supporting Christians behind what we knew as the “Iron Curtain” those nations of eastern Europe caught within the Soviet Empire during the Cold War.
Today their mandate is worldwide, and through their thousands of ministers working abroad, and with government reports, publicly available information from the media, the courts and so on, they compile a report on what is, in their reasonable estimation, the most persecuted religion in the world in history: Christianity.
Now, I know that if we were to look at the mainstream media today, if we were to look at the policies of Western governments, Canada included, we would have no indication of this as true. Indeed, we would be aware of religious violence; but it would be focussed curiously away from anything to do with the world’s besieged Christian communities.
Open Doors estimates that some 380 million Christians live in situations of extreme religious persecution; they experience this in three ways, often in combination. First, there is government persecution through discriminatory laws, unequal treatment under the law, making the faith illegal and punishing converts through imprisonment and even execution – a good example of this is Pakistan where the blasphemy law imposes penalties of imprisonment and in over a third of cases, the death penalty. While Christians are around 25 percent of cases, they make up less than two percent of the population. There is terrorism, and this from time to time does make it into the media because it often involves gruesome massacres of Christians at worship. So, for example, Open Doors has documented the killing last year of 5621 people because of their Christian faith. 90 percent of those murders took place in Nigeria, and most of those in the context of terrorist attacks. Then there is persecution through a hostile public culture, what we might call “the mob”; and we can look to nations like Egypt where riots break out over supposed insults to the majority faith that lead to mobs entering Christian neighborhoods, burning and looting, killing Christians, abducting Christian children, sometimes to ransom them back to their parents, in other instances to forcibly have them convert to the majority religion, and more cruelly, to sell them into slavery, turn them into prostitutes, etc.
Now, we don’t hear about this very often. Our attention here is directed toward other issues, our sympathies toward other tragedies. This should not be about competing states of misery, but it is troubling that the Christian communities in the affluent West are dissuaded from doing anything substantial to help.
Indeed, we are discouraged. Our own diocesan refugee office confirms that persecuted Christians are the least likely to receive UNHCR refugee status, or to be successful as direct refugee applicants to western countries like Canada. Why? I don’t know beyond this not being a government priority.
We might take some small comfort from the fact that we don’t suffer this sort of thing for our faith here. I would caution us all against the assumption that we are safe.
That image of light that we have in the scriptures speaks of our enlightenment. In the baptism rite of the Church we say that the baptized person has been enlightened, and that is a spiritual and intellectual effect that continues as, to paraphrase St. Anselm, we live our lives through a faith that seeks understanding; an understanding of the essential dynamics of this world, and the truth of it is setting us free. However, this happens with an unsettling effect: once free, you cannot return to the chains of the world, its lies and deceptions, you can’t look upon its feeble illusions and be convinced anymore – at least you can’t do it without effectively renouncing the faith, denying the Holy Spirit, and wounding your soul unto death.
As you grow less and less capable of playing along with the falsehoods, the distortions, the evil propagated around you, that makes you stand out. You can try to hide your enlightenment, put this light under a bushel basket, but then you’ll find there are people in this world who are looking specifically for that light; and not because they want it. Rather, they are looking to snuff it out. They fear the light and what it exposes, they don’t want you around, at least not until they’ve extinguished your light.
Here in the post-Christendom world of the west we are just as much under attack, but usually not in conventional terms as mentioned above, although we have seen churches torched, we do have incidents of vandalism in Canada.
The truly effective attack on the Church here isn’t one of physical violence against people and property. It is more insidious, it destroys by division, and by snuffing out the light within us, leaving us in the dark, confused and anxious as to what to do, no longer able to find the way to God. Unthinking we throw away the lantern of scripture and the light of sound teaching.
Our Christian sensibilities ironically are preyed upon to get us to abandon the core of our faith. One way is to accuse us of hypocrisy – that’s alarming to a Christian.
The buzzword marginalized is used by many who demand that the Church recognize and celebrate them on the basis of identity; that is, an identity other than the one Christians celebrate in Christ where there is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free, and so on. We’re told that Jesus reached out to the marginalized, those who felt ignored, excluded, those who had none of the social, cultural and financial supports of ancient Judean society. And what is expected is that the Church hand the keys, as it were, over to them as proof our compassion – under the new rules the only way to show respect, compassion, and sensitivity is by acquiescing to every demand and affirming every assertion – failure to do is proof we are not good Christians. The tortured (and adolescent) logic is that if we really listened, we would agree; failing to agree shows we didn’t really listen, that we aren’t compassionate, we’re just hypocrites.
The consequence of such unconditional affirmation and acquiescence will be to transform the church from a universal body of believers into a political body divided into identity groups with grievances and often incompatible political causes. These identities based on skin colour, sexual desire, even political opinions about such diverse issues as climate change and community policing bear no relation to the imago Dei – the image of God that we believe we all partake of as the true basis of our identity.
The work that is done in overt persecution in other countries will be accomplished here by fracturing the community from within; there will be no need to burn down churches, they will fall down as they empty and are abandoned. The local parish church will cease to be a place of communion and true compassion, but just another manifestation of the fallen world with its divisions, its illusions, and its despair.
Yes, we are a city on a hill, but one that must maintain strong walls, that must be well built. Indeed, we must be a light to the world for all the difficulties that will bring us; we must be protectors of that light, and to keep it shining before humanity, illuminating our good work and giving glory to our Father in heaven.