"Christians are experiencing an unprecedented level of persecution around the world," said a sermon posted on the Internet by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

It began with this example: "An elementary school girl in Denver, Colorado, is told by a teacher that she cannot bring her Bible to school or tell her friends about Jesus."

Following this horrific account of persecution came a few others, including one about a nine year boy in Sudan kidnapped by police, brought to a concentration camp, and beaten until he renounced Christ, and one about a Chinese pastor murdered by the authorities for his faith.

This sermon reminds me of Andres Serrano's photograph of Christ immersed in a vat of urine: both are shocking juxtapositions of the sacred and the profane, except that the sermon juxtaposition-which links the "persecution" of Christians in America to the persecution of Christians overseas-is the worse of the two because when you equate an ethnic slur with genocide, or a sexual innuendo with gang rape, you diminish the seriousness of both, exactly what Christians do when they compare the suffering of Christians overseas with their own "sufferings" here.

And the last thing that needs to be diminished is the plight of Christians overseas, especially with a White House fighting more for gay and lesbian rights than for the millions of Christians persecuted for their faith in countries like the Sudan or China. In fact, the Clinton administration seems to have more to say about the spotted owl than about religious oppression in the People's Republic. "But the larger reason," wrote Jacob Heilbrun in the New Republic, "for the administration's unwillingness to act, or even speak, on the subject would appear to be simply its profound reluctance to permit any human rights issue to gum up trade. The business of the Clinton administration has been business."

But while the government, and even many traditional human rights groups, seem deaf to the cries of the persecuted church, others are speaking out. In the past few years an onslaught of publicity has been organized by a small group of conservative Christian and Jewish social activists. Among them are Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom; Gary Bauer, of the Family Research Council; Michael Horowitz, of the Hudson Institute; Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Solidarity International; Joseph Assad of the Religious Persecution Task Force, and Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center. Last year an organization called the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church appointed November 16 as a day of prayer, in which an estimated 60,000 churches participated. The theme was "Shattering the Silence."

It seems to be working, too. Last year the State Department, shattering its silence on this issue, released an 83-page report on the status of religious freedom in 78 countries, and the verdict wasn't positive. Right now the Wolf-Specter bill in Congress would establish an Office of Religious Persecution right in the White House itself, and could administer economic sanctions on the worst offenders. Of course, the bill is not law yet, and might never be (and there are questions about how equitably this office would work), but the fact that it's even been proposed shows that when enough people speak out, our government does listen.

More needs to be done, but never will until believers in this country get their priorities straight. If Christians in America could get half as exercised over the thousands of fellow believers in Sudan being killed or sold in slavery as they have over a recent court decision ordering an Alabama judge to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall-then, perhaps, our government would be more inclined to use its clout to help the millions systematically oppressed for their belief. But as long as American Christians equate Establishment Clause protections (including the occasional case of some overzealous school official who doesn't understand the nuances of separationism) with the cold brutality of overseas persecution, then however much the silence might be shattered, what replaces it will be, like that sermon on the Internet, no better than Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ."

--Clifford Goldstein

Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.