Monday, March 30, 2015

Religious Freedom

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In light of what’s been going on in Indiana recently (hint: some bill that’s just signed), I’d like to piggyback on this hot topic to talk about something that my friend has just brought up to me lately. My friend, who lives in Taiwan, is a new convert. After her father’s passing, being the oldest sister, she became the pillar to her mother and her 3 younger siblings. And yet, they are all Buddhists except her.

After my friend’s conversion, a very practical question came up to her, that is, should she still be eating with her family? Because what her mother cooks for the family are often from food sacrificed to idols. This is a common issue that troubled many Christians in Taiwan. People from her church warned her about eating food that are defiled by the idols, and so she tried to prevent from eating food sacrificed to idols for a while. But soon, she began to see problems with it.

First, it’s causing her mother extra time to cook – now her mother has to cook the same thing twice: one from food that is sacrificed to idols (which is a necessary part of her Buddhist practice), and one from food that is not sacrificed to idols (for my friend). Second, it’s hurting my friend’s relationship with her mother and the rest of her family. It’s making her mother feel segregated. One solution to her dilemma might be that she could cook for herself. But it’s not gonna solve the problem on account of the second problem – doing so may hurt her mother even more.

Yes, Jesus did say, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35, ESV) and “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). So maybe my friend should choose her Christian conviction over her relationship with her mother and her family.

However, by saying these words, Jesus is warning his disciples about the coming persecution, and the persecution did come. In New Testament times, the Jews who chose to follow Christ were often disowned by their families. By way of how Jewish culture works in that era, you may not even be able to do business, to trade, to buy and sell stuff if you are kicked out from the Jewish kinship networks. Later, there were also persecutions by the Roman emperors, who tortured and killed both Jewish and Gentile Christians in gruesome ways.

Christians under persecution are made to face the choice between Christ and their family, ethnicity, nation and livelihood. And by choosing Christ, these Christians have, in a sense, made themselves enemy to their family and to their nation. In our day and age, religious persecution still exists in many countries, such as China, North Korean, and some Middle Eastern countries. But that’s not the case in Taiwan and with my friend’s family. First, religions are pretty free in Taiwan. Second, my friend’s mother is actually supportive of her choice of religion.

This whole situation reminded me of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8, in which he talks about food sacrificed to idols. Paul says that we know idols are nothing, and thus it doesn’t really matter whether the food is sacrificed to idols or not. “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7). “Therefore,” Paul concludes, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13).

What Paul is saying is that idols, though being called “gods,” are but wood or stone statues. They could not sanctify food, neither could they defile it. The point is not if we COULD eat food that is sacrificed to idols; the point is if we SHOULD. True Christian freedom is that we are freed from the bondage of these taboos, so that our principle of what we do and not do is no longer what we could or could not do, but what is loving, and what builds people up. That is why Paul says, “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).

To apply Paul’s teaching to my friend’s situation, we have to keep in mind that my friend’s mother and her family are not “weaker” brothers and sisters. They are not Christians. To segregate them through food would be an insult to their religious belief, and it would be very hurtful to especially her mother. By staying in relationship with them, and focusing on cultivating her own Christlikeness so that she may learn to love and serve them like Christ, my friend may have a better chance to bring Christ into their lives, and to allow Christ to touch their hearts through her love for them. For my friend, then, it would be “if not eating the food makes my family stumble, I will eat meat, lest I make my family stumble.”

From my friend’s situation we can see that what makes people stumble is not always the same, but when considering what we should and should not do, the principle remains – what is loving and what builds people up. It’s not so much about us as it’s about others. It takes wisdom and whole lot of compassion to discern the right things to do in various different situations. At any rate, what really is “religious freedom” to Christians? Maybe it is the question that we need to ask ourselves first.

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