The politico-religious conflict once again came crashing onto our shores when two naturalized Americans from the Muslim Caucasus region of Russia allegedly set off bombs in the crowded homestretch of the Boston Marathon.
The elder brother, more than the younger, had developed a radical devotion to his religion, Islam, not only above any political allegiance, but even turning him in mortal opposition to the politics of his adopted country. He protested loudly in his Cambridge, Mass., mosque when the imam suggested Muslims in America could freely celebrate the Fourth of July and when the same cleric offered Martin Luther King Jr. as a positive example for Muslims. When he and his brother carjacked the Mercedes-Benz SUV prior to the shootout with police, they told the driver they would have killed him if he had been American.
Most American Muslims, of course, are nothing like this. The older brother, Tamerlan Tsaraev, was a rarity. But he is what happens when devotion to heaven over earth requires bringing heaven down to earth by forceful means. The cold-blooded, indiscriminate slaughter of 9/11 and Patriots’ Day anticipates the cruel oppression of Taliban rule in Afghanistan before 2001.
But when equally devoted people trust in the sovereignty of God and the grace of Christ for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, religion can conflict peacefully with earthly politics, or even live peacefully under it, despite what is at times government’s tyrannical imperfection.
I know a man in Eritrea who serves Christ. He loves his country, but he loves Christ first. But this is not good enough for the Eritrean government. Though it is communist, it is nationalist first. In fact, it is so fiercely nationalist that it regards any Christian whose church the government cannot control as seditious and subversive.
As a consequence, churches have been closed, leaving Eritrean believers worshipping secretly in homes without the pleasure of singing God’s praise for fear the army will descend upon them and imprison them. Christians arrested for their faith can spend years locked in metal shipping containers. My friend knows of 23 people who have died from being denied medical treatment while under detention. Voice of the Martyrs confirms the nature of this persecution, estimating possibly up to 3,000 Christians in Eritrean prisons: “Believers face deplorable conditions, including torture. Many are held in metal shipping containers with no ventilation or toilet facilities.” They suffer this because, though they otherwise obey the law and honor the government, they do not place President Isaias Afewerki above Jesus in their hearts.
Religion can be a problem for free and civil societies. But the problem is not religion itself. Strife comes from politicized religion, religion that wants not only to transform the world, but to do it in a hurry by human strength. Such religion is impatient with both God and men, and will scorch and enslave the world to save it. By contrast, a religion of grace “is patient and kind … hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7).