Published March 1, 1999
Michael Horowitz is turning Christians’ heads to the reality of religious persecution world-wide.
Why do many governments around the world see Christians as a threat that needs to be suppressed?
By their very existence, Christian communities are forces for democracy and modernity and thus great threats to tyrants. Christian communities may not think of their prayers as “political” acts of opposition to the state. Nonetheless, the inherent message of Christianity is so clear a call for dignity and freedom and human autonomy as to make is necessarily subversive to tyrants. Our Judeo-Christian faith has taught the most radical political message of all times: the equality of all in the eyes of god. Thug regimes around the world know this and fear Christian communities for being powerful deliverers and exemplars of that divine heresy.
A line in Handel’s oratorio Solomon describes the God we worship as one who seeks “love unbought by price or fear.” What a subversive notion that is! If you are a regime that relies on bribes and threats to stay in power, brave believing communities prepared to risk all to worship Christ cannot be permitted to remain free.
There is a further reason for today’s anti-Christian persecutions. If Christian communities can be wantonly persecuted—if there is a free hunting license on them—their persecutors can control everyone else by saying, “Look, the so-called Christian West doesn’t care that we pull fingernails our of bishops. Who do you think will care if we turn on you?” If the West is silent while Christians are persecuted, repressive tyrants are given an easy go at intimidating the rest of their populations.
You have said that Christians are becoming “the Jews of the next century.” What do you mean by that?
Throughout much of Europe’s history, you could tell a country’s level of democratic commitment by looking at how Jews were treated. Jews were the canaries in the coal mine, and the manner in which they were treated showed how comfortable ostensibly Christian societies were with Christian values and teachings.
Too many Jews, my people, have by now been killed to be useful targets of evil, repressive regimes. But there are millions of vulnerable Third World Christians who are just right for that purpose, and they have become the scapegoats of choice for today’s thugs. The manner in which Christians are treated in many parts of the world is a litmus indicator of whether freedom exists not only for them—but for all others in their societies. Christian villages and churches have become the medium on which battles for freedom in much of the Third World are waged. And, as was true with the fight against Hitler’s reign of terror against Jews, appeasing the persecutors of Christians condemns millions of others to dark-age lives.
Happily, the reverse is also true, as was shown by the successful campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism. When seemingly all-powerful Soviet Communists had to bow to worldwide pressure to permit Jews to freely migrate, walls that the Communists had built around churches and political dissidents began to crumble. They no longer seemed 10 feet tall when they couldn’t even gang up on a few Jews! Nor will the radical Islamists and Communist apparatchiks when they aren’t even able to burn down a few churches.
What is true today in the battle against anti-Christian pogroms in Asia and Africa was true in the battle against anti-Semitism during much of Europe’s history. Appease it, and thugs find the power to oppress all; stop it, and the same thugs lose much of their power to oppress anyone.
Some argue that victims of religious persecution are caught up in the web of political and social forces as well as religious ones, and therefore, there is more going on here than simple persecution of Christians.
Life is complex, but it is equally true that calling evil by its name when one confronts it is something that all of us are morally obligated to do. I also regard it as a simple proposition that God doesn’t want for us to sit out the mass persecution of believers.
There is also a bias at work here. The idea of Christians as brave, persecuted heroes is difficult for many elites to come to terms with. It’s why they find reasons to find moral and political “complexity” even when systematic torture, enslavement, starvation, and murder of Christian communities stares them in the face. What’s ironic and in the end bigoted is that many of the same people find “simple” moral imperatives in the fight against apartheid or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. With a staff of hundreds and a multimillion-dollar budget, Human Rights Watch publishes an annual report on human-rights violations around the world. The report’s country analyses occasionally describe persecutions of religious—and occasionally of Christian—communities. When you turn to the report’s last chapter, however, you see Human Rights Watch’s manifest bias. That last chapter lists the organization’s special, high-priority initiatives—each with dedicated, full-time staffs. There are special initiatives to protect children’s rights and women’s rights, to protect the rights of victims of multinational corporations and arms manufacturers, to protect the rights of prisoners, gays and lesbians, academics, and members of the press. Guess whose rights don’t merit special concern? Human Rights Watch’s skewed priorities—its relative indifference to the almost 200 million Christians confronting hard-core persecution—perfectly capture a twentieth-century mindset of elites toward people of faith.
What’s striking about all this is that the persecuting regimes themselves have a quite “simple” insight into what many establishment groups regard as “complex.” Noting that churches played a central role in the collapse of East European communism, a leading Chinese Communist newspaper looked at China’s house-church movement and said of it: “We must strangle this baby while it is still in the manger.” But for an establishment that thinks of Christians as persecutors-in-waiting, they can’t imagine how the growth of Christianity will make for a better, freer world. So they find reasons to think that genocidal raids against Sudanese Christian villagers pose “complex” problems created by a long-term civil war. An establishment that fights hard for the rights of Chinese political dissidents but thinks of Christians as probable “zealots” has little difficulty identifying the house-church movement as an undue threat to China’s stability. I find such thinking blind to truth and history, and often an exercise in straightforward, odious bigotry.
Some say that this growing concern for Christian persecution is just “an excuse for Muslim bashing.”
Testimony given in 1996 by the legal scholar David Forte to the House Human Rights subcommittee is, for me, definitive on this question. Forte first pointed out that when the West ignores what the radical Muslims are doing to Christians, it not only sells out Christian victims but also sells out the hundreds of millions of Muslims living under reigns of terror led by know-nothing mullahs who seek to establish anti-intellectual, xenophobic regimes.
Next, Forte noted that Western willingness to appease radical Islamist attacks on Christians causes the radicals to think of us as a bankrupt, materialist culture willing to subordinate the protection of believers for commercial advantage and peace at any price. Such appeasement only breeds contempt for the West and, with it, escalated persecutions of Christians.
And finally, says Forte, such conduct treats a sister faith in dangerous and patronizing fashion. We in effect say: “These are Muslims, and you know those people. They’re taught to kill people they disagree with.” Anwar Sadat wasn’t such a Muslim, nor are many Muslim intellectuals now being assaulted by radicals, nor was Islam such a faith during most of its history. Today’s hijack of Islam by the Islamist radicals succeeds in part because our “how-dare-we-judge-it,” “we-can’t-be-cultural-imperialists” responses to anti-Christian persecutions are ignorant of Islam’s history and potential.
One of the most poignant aspects of our movement has been the powerful expressions of support we have received—often at great risk of life—from religious and political leaders of Muslim communities. They say, “We may have to denounce you in public, but for God’s sake, please keep it up because you are our only hope of not being the next victims of the radicals and of trumping their effort to seize and capture our faith.”
Are you pleased with the version of legislation on religious persecution that finally passed the U.S. Congress?
Very much so. In fact, the final version passed by the Senate is considerably stronger than the original House bill. What we cared about was making the President accountable for appeasing systematic murder, torture, rape, enslavement, starvation, and crucifixion of Christian and other religious communities. The Senate bill was softer on the so-called sanctions side, but infinitely tougher on the fact-finding side of the equation. It provides for an independent commission of nine people, three appointed by the President, two appointed by the Democratic congressional leaders, and four by the Republican congressional leaders. The commission will have a $3 million annual budget, will be free to hire its own staff. It has the power to hold public hearings and the duty to produce at least one annual report on worldwide religious persecution, with recommendations for action, that the President is under statutory obligation to consider before making decisions about foreign aid.
If we can get the right people appointed—and from the first four appointees we’re well on our way—the commission will speak truth to power, will not bow before State Department pressures to fudge inconvenient facts. I expect the commission to put the issue of religious persecution squarely before the American people every year, and to cause politicians to pay a political price if they fail to act on its findings.
The real battle we fought from the get-go was to stop the powers-that-be from sweeping anti-Christian persecutions under the rug, to stop them from burying the facts in turgid human-rights reports. We’ve always understood that if the facts are told openly, the goodness of the American people and the magic of democracy—a democracy where, last time I looked, there were more churches than chamber of commerce chapters in every congressional district—will ensure serious action against persecuting governments. The reason why no action had been taken was not because the American people didn’t care, but because there had been an effective conspiracy of silence.
Have you found Jews and Christians will cooperate on this issue?
The cooperation has been stunning. Jewish groups at first were uneasy about working with evangelical groups, often viewing them as caricatured elements of the so-called Christian Right. After that initial reluctance, however, the American Jewish community became stalwart. The Anti-Defamation League, the National Jewish Coalition, representatives of Reform and Orthodox Judaism, and other Jewish groups worked side by side with the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptists, the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The success of that effort, and the fellowship it produced, offers a real prospect for further cooperation between Jewish and Christian groups on a wide range of other issues.
Ironically, many mainline Protestant denominations—almost all of whom had been active in the campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism—sat out the campaign against the even more vicious contemporary persecutions of Christians. In many cases, their antipathy to evangelicals was so strong that they literally couldn’t bring themselves to participate in our coalition. I was puzzled and often angry that many mainline Protestant churches failed to show the moral passion on behalf of persecuted Christians displayed by the American Jewish community. I came to feel a special concern about the National Council of Churches for its steadfast opposition to the coalition’s efforts.
You are fighting for the rights of all persecuted people of faith, but particularly those of Christians. Why?
First, because they are today’s worst victims, and are—or at least were—victims about whose fates the world was at best indifferent. But there’s another reason that moved me, and it relates to what gets said at the Washington dinner parties I used to get invited to. Christians, went the dinner-party buzz, are the people who “bring it on themselves,” the ones “we wouldn’t want as neighbors,” are “clannish” types who never “fit in” with “host” cultures.
I got aroused by those words because 60 years ago, as Hitler was rising to power, before Jews became so much a part of the American cultural and political establishment, those were the very words used to justify indifference to my people’s fate. The heart of the problem, I came to see, was the smug, bigoted, and historically inaccurate view of Christianity taken by wary establishment elites—one that defined Christianity in terms of the sins that had been committed in its name. American elites were often blind to the contributions of Christianity to Western art, music, and culture, to what Christianity had meant to our economic productivity, democracy, and freedom. What thug regimes around the world knew and feared about the relationship of Christian witness to human dignity was what many powerful elites either didn’t know or wanted to keep buried.
Also, sadly, there were Christian leaders who thought it futile to fight against the caricatures of who they were and what their faith had meant to the world. There were many times I would hear American Christian leaders go on and on with apologies for Christianity’s sins and failings—acting as if they lacked the moral standing to ask others to take action on behalf of persecuted Christians. Having learned of Polish Easter Sunday pogroms from my grandfather, having been beaten up as I came home from yeshiva by kids who said, “You killed our Christ,” I would tell apologizing Christian leaders that I knew of “their” sins. Then I’d ask them to describe the asset side of the ledger—the fact that America’s Christian rootedness was much the source of our decency as a country, much the reason why, as a Jew, I hadn’t become a lampshade, a bar of soap.
One of the greatest offshoots of the campaign against Third World anti-Christian persecutions has been the growing willingness of many American church leaders to break out of the quarantine our culture had penned them in, to stop apologizing for themselves and to feel free to describe the good that Christianity has done for the world.
That’s what you mean by the saying Christianity “is a force for modernity.”
Yes. The twenty-first century will be defined by computers and market economies, and by the emancipation of Third World women. Most of us know this, but what most of us—including most Christians—don’t know is that the world is witnessing the largest explosion of Christianity in all of its reported history. Christianity is thus doing for the Third World—in Africa and Asia and Latin America—exactly what it did in the West. It is spreading the radical message of the equality of all before God and our accountability to him for what we do. This is one of the truly hopeful signs for the next century, because it will help make the world’s culture and politics far more caring, far less bloody than the twentieth century has been—not perfect, to be sure, but a far, far better place.
Writing in 1886, Nietzsche saw how “[t]he greatest event of recent times…the belief that ‘God is dead’ [and that] the Christian God is no longer tenable” would definitively shape the twentieth century. He made this chilling prediction: It’s not that the world will stop worshiping, but that it would worship a different kind of God. And Nietzsche described the kind of God that the twentieth century would produce and predicted the coming of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.
Many sins have been committed in the name of Christianity, but the rivers of blood that flowed during a century when the world worshiped the God of politics more than the God of faith make it clear to me, as a Jew, that Christianity’s present growth offers great protection against repressive, dark-age twenty-first century forces. One of the great books of the twentieth century, Julian Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals, spoke on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power of the dangers posed to a world led by men primarily concerned with “the game of political passions.” Writing of a world previously led by people who held the conviction that “my kingdom is not of this world,” Benda wrote of how “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good…[a] contradiction [that] was an honor to the human species and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.” The brave Christians who now risk all to attend a house-church service are re-forming that rift, and we owe it to them, and to our children, to help them continue to shape the twenty-first century.
At one time you were puzzled by the evangelical prayer phenomenon embodied in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. What have you learned as you have watched that effort grow?
I am a believer in prayer combined with the responsibility to act. In interactions with evangelicals, I have seen some who would first engage in prayer and then, having prayed, act as if they were somehow excused from doing what they knew needed to be done. Prayer was a substitute for moral engagement with the world. On the other hand, I’ve seen Christians confronted with difficult decisions tell me, “I can’t tell you yet what I’ll do. I need to pray about it first.” And, before my eyes, these men and women dropped to their knees, then got up and said, “I have no alternative. I must act.”
I’ve thus seen prayer as a source of bravery and personal accountability and moral action. I have seen people whose prayerful Christian witness led them to take enormous risks with their personal and financial well-being—doing so in order to do right as Christians by their fellow Christians and all others. I’ve been awed as I’ve seen this, and am privileged to know such men and women and to count many of them as friends.
What specific actions do you hope to see taken in the coming year?
Four things. First, I look forward to increasing coverage of anti-Christian persecution in the mainstream media. Stories about anti-Christian terrorism that would have been unimaginable a year ago have increasingly come to be seen as events that merit, indeed demand, coverage. If, as I expect, the commission established under the International Religious Freedom Act does its job, world press attention to religious persecution will significantly increase—and with it, massive pressure on persecuting regimes.
Next, I look for a student-led Campaign of Conscience for Sudan to end the genocidal practices of the world’s most evil regime—doing so every bit as much as prior generations of students helped end South African apartheid. Recently, more than 300 Christian student leaders from 65 colleges came to a Washington conference to organize that effort—with attendees coming from Wheaton and Harvard, from Stanford and Samford, from Nazarene colleges and Big Ten universities. I believe that those students have the commitment and competence to focus the country’s attention on Sudan’s systematic anti-Christian pogroms, and expect them to make history this year against the genocide, starvation, and slave trade now being visited upon the largely Christian communities of Southern Sudan.
Third, I expect the interfaith coalition that produced the International Religious Freedom Act to move on another front—putting a stop to the unspeakable annual trafficking of more than 2 million women and children into lives of sexual bondage. I expect that our coalition, working with others, will expand women’s rights issues to include the protection of sold and abducted sexual victims every bit as much as it redefined the human-rights agenda to include the rights of religious believers. Led by such figures as Bob Watson of the Salvation Army and, as ever, Chuck Colson, I’m confident that the coalition will have as much an impact on protecting sexually enslaved women and children as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious abolitionists had in the fight against slave trafficking and slavery.
Finally, I look forward to an interfaith effort, headed by historians and other scholars, to generate a long-needed outcry against the film on the history of anti-Semitism now being shown at the Holocaust Museum. The film is a 14-minute screed promoting the idea that Martin Luther, a few popes, and Christian doctrine were the prime if not singular causes of Auschwitz. Libel of Christianity though it is, Christians have found it difficult to criticize the film—partly out of fear of being charged with being “soft” on anti-Semitism or the Holocaust. As a Jew, I have an easier time taking on the film and, along with a number of Jewish leaders, have begun to do so.
In challenging the film, we’ll probably need to take on such people as the National Council of Churches General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell—she was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “[I]f you look at the Nazi regime, you see in it the philosophy of Christian superiority.” But, armed in part with an extraordinary analysis of the film done by Christianity Today‘s editor David Neff, I look forward to a serious effort to insist on a film that understands Nazism’s direct links to such anti-Christian movements as German romanticism and the Enlightenment-based, Darwinian notion that put race at the center of all. With the Jewish scholar Marc Saperstein, I believe that “historical accuracy and fundamental fairness” make it profoundly wrong to condemn Christianity for the acts of “a regime that was fundamentally anti-Christian.” Says Saperstein: the “error and evil of ascribing guilt for the Crucifixion to the Jewish religion in the past and Jews in the present” is one that “most Christians…have recognized,” and that “Jews should be careful about doing the same in reverse with regard to the Holocaust.” The Holocaust Museum film fails that test.
How has working on behalf of Christians affected your own faith?
It has deepened my faith. Particularly at the beginning of our movement, fellow Jews would call and ask: “Why are you consorting with the enemy?” There were also calls from evangelicals wondering when I would become a “completed Jew.” I had to explain to both that it was my rootedness as a Jew that engaged me so deeply in the battle against anti-Christian persecution.
I’ve always been a deeply self-identified Jew. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew, backslid some in terms of observance, clearly backslid in terms of regular synagogue attendance, and for many years found too many reasons to spend Saturday mornings in other ways. But—and I’m so grateful for this—the antipersecution movement has brought me much more deeply in touch with my own faith. It has made synagogue attendance a joy and a regular exercise. And while I may be a pretty tough guy to be in partnership with because I still pound tables and want things to happen yesterday, I think it has made me a better person.
I suppose there have been moments of awkwardness, like when you were named one of the top ten Christians of the year!
Oh, don’t take things too far [laughs]! The Southern Baptist magazine Home Life listed me along with Mother Teresa and Billy Graham and seven others as one of the top ten Christians of 1997. The editor called me with some embarrassment. But I took it as the highest possible compliment. When people have tried to move me to share their vision of Christ or to become a “completed Jew,” I tell them that I’m flattered that they care enough to try, but that there are souls far easier to capture than mine will ever be.
Having been around evangelicals so much, I’m more inclined to think of important turns of events as providential. However much this may or may not be so, I’m grateful to have been in the right place at the right time and grateful that, as a Jew, I’ve been able to add special strengths to a great struggle.
Copyright ? 1999 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christianity Today magazine.
March 1, 1999 Vol. 43, No. 3, Page 50