Seventy years ago, Hitler's Nazi regime was in full force. Among its goals was the elimination of those believed to be inferior to the Aryan race. Hitler wanted to control the world, which included the Christian church. The Christian church in America didn't feel the undercurrent, but the Christian church in Germany did.

Once in power Hitler brought the church under Nazi control by organizing the provinces of Lutheran churches under a single Reich-bishop. Ludwig Muller, a fervent Nazi, was elected to head the church. He quickly placed two restrictions on the clergy: 1) a clergyman must be politically reliable and 2) must accept the superiority of the Aryan race. (Christian History Institute: "January 3, 1934, Muzzled but Protesting at Barmen.")

On Jan. 4, 1934, Reich-bishop Muller issued a decree ordering pastors not to say anything in their sermons in opposition to the orders handed down to them. But on the same day he issued his decree, 320 elders and ministers gathered at Barmen to go on record in opposition to these restrictions. They formed a body that became known as the Confessing Church because they clung to the Church's great historical Confessions of faith. Some paid dearly for their presence at that meeting by imprisonment or execution. (Ibid)

Oh, how we take our religious freedom for granted! Oh, how we take our church freedom for granted! The freedoms you and I enjoy today are not freedoms the church has enjoyed throughout its history and they are not freedoms that people in many parts of the world enjoy today.

According to Christian Solidarity International, more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than at any other time in history. Global reports indicate that more than 150,000 Christians were martyred last year, chiefly outside the United States.

Just two months ago, four Southern Baptist missionaries were murdered in Iraq. Associated Baptist Press reported that the attack was the most deadly tragedy in 157 years of Southern Baptist mission history. The news agency also reported that eight International Mission Board missionaries have been killed by terrorists in the past 14 months.

Christians must be greatly concerned with religious persecution wherever it occurs. We cannot and must not sit around with our hands folded and our eyes closed when we see religious freedom denied or when we see persecution of people because of their religious beliefs. If we wait to cry out only when our rights and freedoms are being trampled, it will be too late to make a difference.

Our country was established, in part, by people who sought relief from persecution because of their religion, making the dangerous journey to these shores to worship as they chose. However, no sooner were colonies established than these people were setting up their own exclusionary religious rules.

It took a man named Roger Williams to cut a path of religious freedom in the new land which still has implications for religious freedom in America and still has theological implications for many Christians.

Unlike most settlers, Williams befriended the Indians and defended their property rights. As a man of faith, Williams had a deep desire to share with the Indians the gospel about Christ. He learned their language and their culture. While his relationship with the Indians grew stronger, his relationship with his own colony grew weaker. He was eventually banished from the English colony.

Through Christ, God stepped into our world, into the Greek culture, as a Jewish man with strong religious beliefs and claims about the kingdom of God. In the pages of the New Testament, we read of several confrontations between Jesus and the established religious leaders of his day. He challenged their understanding of God. In return, they picked up stones to kill him on more than one occasion.

We should have a passion to preserve religious freedom for ourselves and others because religious freedom was a right that Jesus claimed for himself. Others tried to take it from him but they could not.

When Pilate was trying to determine what to do with Jesus he asked, "Where do you come from?" but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above." (John 19:9-11) NIV

Jesus' life was taken, but only for a short while. Neither the religious authorities nor the Romans ever took his right to challenge their understandings of God. They never took away his power. While Jesus challenged the religious authorities he never denied their right to believe differently than he. He clearly laid out the consequences for their wrong understanding of God and practices of God's law, but he never sought to eliminate them, harm them, or do any kind of evil against them.

Though we enjoy religious freedom in America, a large percentage of the earth's population does not. Christians must be concerned about the suffering and oppression of people everywhere. We must fight for basic human rights and religious liberty for all people.

While we take up such noble causes, ancient history and modern history alike show that we will continue to go through a great tribulation on this earth. As long as people are being oppressed, people need to be pointed to hope and salvation.

Through two millenniums, oppressed people have found hope in John's Revelation. The last book of the Bible was written during a time the church was being persecuted. Revelation was written to a church that had gone underground in order to survive. Many Christians were arrested, beaten and killed because they professed to be disciples of Jesus.

As the Christian movement was in danger of being eliminated, hope came through the words of John the Apostle, who had been arrested and exiled to the island of Patmos. From that island, John could see across the Jordan River. I don't mean in a literal sense. I mean he could see a new day when God's people would no longer have to worry about the evil from without or the evil from within.

In the midst of persecution, John could see a day when the trials and tribulations of this world would be over. John could see across the Jordan and what he saw was inviting: no more hunger, no more thirst, no more tears. John could see a day when the rulers of the land would no longer oppress the people; no more underground churches; no more persecution of Christians; no more Third Reichs; no more genocides; no more injustice; no more war; no more prejudice; no more greed; no more murder.

On this side of the Jordan, the banks are stormy, as Samuel Stennet wrote in1787. In the third verse of that great hymn, "On Jordan's Stormy Banks," he penned: "No chilling winds nor pois'nous breath/ Can reach that healthful shore/ Sickness and sorrow, pain and death/ Are felt and feared no more."

How's the weather where you stand? I hope the sun is shining but I know that some of you stand on stormy banks. You may not have personally experienced the kind of pain the Lutheran church felt under Nazi control, or the pain that the Apostle John felt as he wrote Revelation from the island of Patmos, but your suffering is no less real.

The stormier the banks of our lives become, the more the words of John's Revelation mean to us. We yearn for what's on the other side of the Jordan, not only for ourselves, but for people whose lives are lived without the basic freedoms and rights we enjoy, people who endure great suffering. We need to continue to work to make things better here. But as long as we are here, the banks will be stormy. The longer people stand on stormy banks, the greater will be our desire to sing about a promised land: a place where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more weeping. By God's grace, I am bound for that Promised Land. How about you?

(The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.)

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