Should we Engage in Advocacy at Home and Abroad?

In this article from the recent Bulletin of the Affinity Social Issues Team, Hendrik Storm of Barnabas Fund traces looks at the question of whether we should seek to influence foreign governments regarding their treatment of Christians:

Should Christians engage in advocacy on behalf of their Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world facing persecution or should we only be concerned in advocating to protect freedom to practice our faith in our own country?

It is not wrong for us to desire to practise our faith in full freedom. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul urges his young disciple that he should teach people to pray for ‘all those in authority’ so that i) ‘we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ and ii) because God ‘wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’. This is then described as ‘good and pleasing to God’.

In other words, we are urged to pray for those in authority that the church should be free to live out and preach the gospel – and that the authorities do not interfere with them in doing so.

In 1 Timothy Paul urges prayer for this freedom. However, in his own ministry he was also happy to argue before the Jewish Council (Acts 22:30-23:10) and to the Roman authorities. To the latter he argues that as a Roman citizen he cannot simply be imprisoned for preaching the gospel but has a civic right to a judicial process and ultimately to be set free (Acts 22:25-29; 24:10-21; 25:10-12). In other words, Paul’s response to persecution involves both prayer and advocacy to the governing authorities, making full use of his civic rights.

This should encourage us to engage in advocacy in our own country. But what about advocating on behalf of other Christians elsewhere in the world facing persecution?

Two biblical principles can help us address this:

a)     God’s concern for justice for both OT Israel and the gentile nations

When OT Israel entered the Promised Land they were able to worship YHWH and live according to his law freely. The OT law they received on Sinai was a paradigm of social justice not simply for Israel but wisdom that other OT nations could learn from (Deut. 4:5-8). The OT prophets also assumed that the law expressed God’s standards that, at least in broad outline, gentile nations would be judged against (e.g. Amos 1-2). In other words, in the OT God is concerned for justice BOTH for his covenant people Israel AND for the gentile nations.

b)     The principle of relational responsibility

In both the OT and NT there is a clear principle of relational responsibility, that one’s first responsibility is to those one is in closest relationship with, and then to others. In Galatians 6:10 Paul says that this means Christians have a particular responsibility to care for the needs of other Christians. And in 1 Timothy 5:8 he says that even among Christians we have a particular responsibility to care for those we are in closest relationship with.

These verses point to the need for Christians to engage in advocacy BOTH on behalf of their Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world AND especially for freedom to preach and live out their faith in their own country.

However, the world is complex, and there are certain political realities one has to be aware of. If we do not seek to protect all aspects of freedom of religion in the UK, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue for it overseas. For example, in many Islamic countries freedom of religion is restricted to freedom to worship and does not include other important aspects such as freedom to preach and seek to convince others of the truth of one’s beliefs. It is this aspect of freedom of religion that is currently under threat in the UK. Since 1999 there have been numerous arrests of street preachers, although prior to that there had been almost no such arrests since Victorian times.

Meanwhile, if we are concerned for our brothers and sisters abroad and wish to advocate on their behalf, we have to ensure that we have their blessing to do so. This is paramount. Some minority Christians in contexts of persecution do engage with the authorities, and subsequently in many cases receive some protection from them. There might be a substantial majority persecuting the Christians within the country, but the authorities do what they can politically in that context. If we then also advocate on their behalf, and ask our own government to pressure the government of that country, those authorities might perceive that the minority Christians are going behind their back to lobby foreign governments, and could subsequently remove their protection. This could then lead to an increase of persecution and suffering.

For example, Christianity thrived in Syria under Baathist rule. Syrian Christians, who numbered about two million before the civil war of 2011 onwards, were not only treated as equal under the law with Muslims but also respected by society at large, especially Christian clergy in their robes – an almost unique situation in Muslim-majority countries. Church buildings could be established with ease and the government provided them with free electricity just as for mosques. Again, in an almost unique situation, Syrian Muslims often visited churches for devotional reasons. Even during the war years, President Assad has used his personal powers to provide land and building permissions for new churches, Christian schools and other Christian institutions. A Christian university was opened last year. In the words of a Christian mother from Damascus: ‘Our government was not perfect, but given our context of living in the Middle East (and compared to the Gulf States) we really had a lot to be thankful for.’

Even with the best intentions, let us engage with our brothers and sisters first, before acting on their behalf and/or encouraging our government to intervene overseas. Let us not be hypocritical, and seek to ensure that full freedom of religion continues to be upheld in the West too.

Hendrik Storm

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for July 2019. The whole edition can be found here. A PDF of this article is available to download here.)

The Social Issues Team publishes The Bulletin three times each year, containing information about current issues relevant to churches and Christians.


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