An editorial in Christianity Today raises a question that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Is sharing Christ with others a "hate crime" that deserves punishment? In the changing religious landscape in America and around the world, the answer from some people would seem to be yes.
After missionary Bonnie Penner Witherall was murdered in Lebanon in November 2002, there was a loud public outcry. But the outcry was not against her killers, but against the missionary mandate that sent her and her husband to Lebanon in the first place.
It's no secret that evangelism in Muslim countries is enormously difficult. Missionaries often work for years with only a handful of Christian converts to show for their efforts. The reasons are partly spiritual, partly historical, and partly cultural. In a post-9/11 world, the challenge has been kicked up a notch by the rising tensions between nations and also between sincere followers of Islam and Christianity.
In the United States many people adopt the secular viewpoint that rejects any notion of absolute truth in favor of the idea that since we all worship the same God, it's arrogant to attempt to "convert" others to your faith. The CT editorial points out that in 1999 the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago said that an evangelistic campaign in this city "could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes."
How should we respond to this changed (and highly-charged) climate of bubbling hostility to evangelism? For one thing, we all need to be careful about what we say and how we say it. In an Internet age, what you innocently write in an e-mail to a friend can be twisted out of context and sent around the world in a matter of seconds. Second, this would be a good time for all of us to take a refresher course in what the Bible says and what Christians really believe. In times like these, we need to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks what we believe and why we believe it. Third, prayer opens doors (and hearts) that otherwise would remain closed. Instead of giving in to despair (or to anger, which is even worse), let's give ourselves to fervent prayer, knowing that God can do far more than we can ask or imagine.
But the biggest point is this. The day may indeed come when evangelism is a "hate crime." Already it is against the law in some countries to preach the gospel openly. I don't think the Bible promises that today's freedoms are always guaranteed to us. Let us follow the example of Jesus who said, "I must be about my Father's business." We are called to share Christ with everyone everywhere. The true crime would be to withhold the Good News from those who need it most.
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