The ministry to the oppressed

Oppression is closer than you think. What can pastors and their congregations do about it?

Jonathan Gallagher, Ph.D., at the time of this writing, was the liaison of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the United Nations.

Half the world—three billion people— live on less than two dollars a day. Almost a billion people entered the twenty-first century illiterate. One hundred twelve million children receive no education. Eleven million children die every year from malnutrition and disease, deaths that could have been prevented.

The statistics are harsh, and they’re getting worse because besides these tragic economic and social indicators, one can add the impact of war, violence, and persecution. Over a billion people live under regimes that deny fundamental freedoms, especially religious freedom. About one hundred seventy thousand people, it has been estimated, are killed each year because of their faith (some would argue that the number is higher because much of the religion-inspired killing is done in secret).

One thing is sure: This world is descending into even greater violence and oppression against religious minorities. What, then, of our ministry to these oppressed people?

Given the immensity of the problem, how easy to ask, What can I do? But if we are to be true to our calling, to the mission Jesus has given us, especially as pastors, we cannot ignore the issues or try to remain unmoved by them.

Jesus’ mission statement—and ours

Read again Jesus’ mission statement: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (Luke 4:18–21, NIV).

Jesus, quoting Isaiah, gives a five-point plan. The issues are poverty, freedom, healing, and oppression—all set in the context of the fifth point: the revelation of God’s graciousness.

As He addressed—and we address—these issues, we must reflect on the fundamental aspects of God’s kingdom. This is not merely some kind of “social gospel.” Rather, it is placing the gospel in society, as Jesus did.

Addressing poverty and providing healing— whether through medical programs or lifestyle improvements—and of course the sharing of the gospel of God’s grace, are, perhaps, more obvious aspects of the Christian life and are surely on the pastoral radar screen. Churches run soup kitchens and clinics and thrift stores and food banks—and rightly so. We wish to follow the mission program as stated by Jesus, helping the poor and underprivileged and the victims of prejudice, whoever they may be.

Recognizing oppression—the missing factor

What seems to be more frequently missed is the pastor’s role in identifying the major attacks on freedom and in helping those who are oppressed because of their faith. Perhaps it is the perception that politics needs to be kept out of the pulpit or that churches should not be seen as meddling in foreign affairs. Or maybe it is just that we are not aware of the scale of the problem and that once we begin to understand it, we feel so inadequate to deal with it. What difference does it make if I, a pastor of even a large church, speak about the problems faced by millions of Christians in one country? Or the total repression of all religions in another? Or yet in another country, the total ban on any worship other than the form of worship approved by the government? To this we could add interreligious warfare in other places.

Then pastors may wonder, Are we meant to go beyond our faith community in trying to defend faith? Are we supposed to defend other faiths, even non-Christian ones?

Here, concepts of possessing truth can lead to some warped perspectives. “I cannot defend Xbelievers because they are wrong in their beliefs.” Or “If I support the cause of Y faith, people will think I have apostatized and joined them.” Or even (mis-?) quoting Scripture regarding “what fellowship can light have with darkness?”

Here, the essential point is freedom, as Jesus articulated and demonstrated so clearly. Freedom to prisoners who are imprisoned because of their beliefs. To seek the release of the oppressed from their bondage of persecution, violence, and threat of death. Not just the ones we know and like, the ones we identify with, but everyone who suffers for their faith. Our support must be for the right of all human beings to choose their beliefs.

Dealing with dictators

When the former dictator of an Asian country incarcerated the local Baptist pastor, closed the Hare Krishna temple, and bulldozed the only Adventist church in the country, we took up the challenge. Our delegation protested to the United Nations (UN). Our representative lobbied legislators on Capitol Hill. Our director wrote to the ambassador of that nation. All to no avail, or so it would seem.

We organized a letter-writing campaign—first to the president of that nation and to the country’s ambassadors in the various nations. We estimate at least ten thousand letters of protest were sent. We received no response. Not one. A hopeless task, perhaps? But still fulfilling the ministry to the oppressed. We saw the video of the church members as they watched their church being destroyed before their eyes, and we wept with them.

Others took up the cause—from diplomats to politicians to leaders of other faiths. We presented the case to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, Austria; to the United Nations Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland; to numerous committees and hearings in Washington, D.C.

And, eventually, things happened. In fact, the pastor of the Adventist church was allowed to come to the United States as a guest of the United States State Department. Harassment of church members decreased. And the Adventist church in the country gained official recognition by the government.

That’s not to say that persecution of believers is over in that nation, or that the government leaders have been converted! On the contrary, human rights abuses and religious freedom violations continue. But confronted with the spectacle of massive oppression, we celebrate these small victories.

Objecting to oppression

Through conversations with ambassadors and diplomats, we can bring change. A church closed in a certain nation by the authorities was reopened after an intervention at the UN. A government representative in another nation promised that churches will be reopened after our discussions with the ambassador. Responding to a statement made at the UN Commission on Human Rights, the representative of a third nation agreed that the death penalty for conversion is not part of Islamic sharia law and called on Muslim countries to abandon the practice.

All of these results transpired because of the direct action of those who object to oppression, who want to call governments to account, and who want to end violence in the name of religion.

Yet this can work only if those at the local level give their full support. Church pastors and members often ask what they can do. They often feel powerless—after all, they cannot go to the UN or meet with national leaders or organize a countrywide protest.

But they can help—and the help is multiplied by numbers. That is what gets attention. A senator told us that if he gets one hundred letters on a subject, that gets his attention. Imagine the impact of a few thousand letters. Or a petition carrying a million names.

Most of all, what Christian leaders who speak up against oppression are looking for is commitment at the local level. Contributions, maybe, but more importantly, the knowledge that the issue is on the local church agenda, and that Christians are praying, very specifically, for those who are persecuted.

National organizations such as the North American Religious Liberty Association (NARLA) are committed to protesting faith-based oppression, along with the global umbrella organization the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). Other organizations and news services such as Voice of the Martyrs and Compass Direct provide reports and analysis of reported persecution. These are very practical ways for individuals to get involved, and pastors can be informed and challenged by highly relevant cases and examples.

For how do you preach and demonstrate a ministry to the oppressed? Not by words alone but by transforming ideas into action and taking a stand against oppression and persecution. By being part of Jesus’ mission on behalf of the oppressed—the poor and vulnerable, the beaten and the tortured, wherever we find them.

Each one of us is called to carry one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), to remember those who are imprisoned as our fellow prisoners, and to consider those who are mistreated as if we ourselves were suffering (Heb. 13:3). Most significantly, Paul, in Galatians, tells us, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10, NIV). The oppressed are our family!

Facing oppression

In one Middle Eastern country, there is no religious freedom. There is only one state-sanctioned faith, and all other religions are expressly forbidden. No churches are permitted—not one. It is even a crime against the state to read a Bible in the privacy of your own home.

Persecution by religious police awaits anyone foolhardy enough to disobey the laws against Christian worship, which is even forbidden in the United States embassy there. Many thousands of Christians have been imprisoned and tortured, some losing limbs and lives, especially the “guest workers” from other countries.

In one Asian nation, the dictatorship has tried to destroy every Christian element there. Christians remain, but under difficult circumstances. The “religion” is worship of the country’s leader, and variance is not permitted. Attacks on Christians in some countries comprise part of the strategy of containment—to prevent Christian growth and development and to enforce the dominant religion.

Even in such countries traditionally known for tolerance and liberty, challenges have now surfaced. The “antisect” law proposed in France provoked much criticism because it can be used against any religious group, and the punishments are severe. Added to this is the prohibition of displaying religious symbols in the public arena, a clear denial of the freedom to practice religion. It is disturbing to see antireligious discrimination and hostility in the country known for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Persecution continues against religious minorities in another nation, and the new requirements for the registration of religious groups have provided an opportunity for regional leaders to intimidate and repress Christians who do not belong to the majority church. The media has also mounted a hostile campaign against what they describe as “foreign religions.” For example, sensationalist media reports have described Seventh-day Adventist Christians as practicing child sacrifice and cannibalism.

The list of serious problems is long— forbidding the construction of Christian churches, outright banning of Christianity, or jailing converts to another faith. It seems as if the oppressors of religious freedom continue to find new ways to limit or eliminate freedom of religion.

Persecution against protestant Christians in another country has included mob violence during which Christians have been beaten and abused and thrown out of town, and their houses have been looted and burned. Excluded from town affairs, denied employment, refused permission to build churches, these Christians— including Adventists and other Protestants—hold to their faith. In another location, a machetewielding mob drove out all the Protestants from town—just another in a long series of violent acts repressing religious freedom. This is just another statistic to add to the more than thirty thousand people who have been made refugees in their own country in the past thirty years.

When they eventually thought it safe to return, these oppressed Christians found their houses burned and torn down in a rage of destruction.

Yet they continue. After being unable to worship together for two months, the Adventists in town held their service in the ruins of one of their homes—a witness to true faith and convictions, a proof of dedication to a higher authority, a declaration that demonstrates that religious freedom is no grant of government but a gift of God. A tribute to faith that values faithfulness to God above all.

What do you say? Will you ignore their plight? Or are you ready to commit, to do something and pledge to commit yourself to the ministry to the oppressed?

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Jonathan Gallagher, Ph.D., at the time of this writing, was the liaison of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the United Nations.

June 2006

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