A new movement: International religious freedom for all

July 21, 2014

Religious freedom is under attack internationally. Recent studies indicate 75 percent of the global population lives in countries restricting the free and peaceful practice of religion. In this context, Christians of all denominations suffer from repression and violent persecution. But they are not alone – persons of different faiths and no faith are also targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Every day, millions of people around the world face repression, violence, and possibly even death.

Responding to attacks on freedom of religion will be the defining challenge of the 21st century. Situations of religious repression breed instability and foster extremism, while threatening other fundamental rights like expression and association. Past advocacy methods are not enough anymore, as abusive governments and extremist groups increasingly prevent individuals from practicing their faith through violence or repression. Lives are on the line. Time is not a luxury.

In response, Christians should lead a new movement, one bringing an urgent focus on international religious freedom for all, both for members of our own faith and those of other religions. Religious freedom for everyone everywhere needs to be a top priority for the global church.

At its core, religious freedom is freedom of thought – the freedom to question; the freedom to search for ultimate truth as one sees fit; the freedom to believe or not believe in God or a higher power. And religious freedom is a core part of the Christian experience.

The international standards protecting freedom of religion or belief arose after World War II, when the international community established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Arising on the ashes of the Holocaust, the Universal Declaration was a landmark achievement for the global community. It marked the first time in human history that the intrinsic rights of each individual were recognized to trump the power of the state.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration is the key text for religious freedom. While not using America’s First Amendment language of free exercise and establishment clause, Article 18 provides an expansive definition. The Declaration is a standard by which all nations can be measured. It declares:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Under Article 18, the right of an individual to hold any belief is protected, be it theistic, deistic, polytheistic, or atheistic. It recognizes the freedom to believe in God or not, as well as the ability to worship, preach a sermon, share the word, and educate children. It shows how religious freedom is unique among human rights, as to be fully respected other fundamental freedoms must also be protected – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement.

So why should Christians care about religious freedom for others? If the church is under attack, shouldn’t we first take care of our own?

Certainly Christians need a greater awareness about our persecuted brothers and sisters abroad. Too often their suffering goes unnoticed. A hopeful development was the recent signing of a pledge by 175 Christian religious leaders across denominational lines about persecuted Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The situation for Christians is dire in those places and deserving of attention. But these are not the only places where the body of Christ suffers – just look at Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and China to name a few.

In addition to looking inwardly, we should look outwardly. Christ-followers are called to love our neighbor as our selves, so the suffering of persons from a different faith should matter just as much. The Bible overflows with calls to help our fellow man. And while not using contemporary human rights terms, the Bible speaks to these in the context of justice and mercy, as well as love of neighbor.

For instance Micah 6:8. It declares, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To seek justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The call to “seek justice” is a universal call.

In the New Testament, particularly instructive in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. As Jesus speaks to a crowd, a lawyer tests him by asking how can one inherent eternal life. Not easily stumped, Jesus turns the question around and asks the teacher in the law for his answer. The teacher responds with the admonition of “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “love neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he answered correctly.

Yet the lawyer (like lawyers today) just couldn’t stop. He asked a second question – “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the well-known passage a traveler is beset upon by robbers and left for dead. The next two who travelled the same route, both priests, “passed by on the other side” and did not help.

As we know, the hero is the third person coming down the road, the Samaritan. Jesus says he “went to [the wounded traveler] and bandaged his wounds.” For the listeners of the day, it was an astonishing twist as Samaritans were the ultimate “other.” They were considered religiously and ethnically different. Jews and Samaritans hated each other and would walk miles out of their way to avoid each other’s communities.

Jesus concludes the parable by asking, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him (and all of us) to “Go and do likewise.”

From these and other passages, there is a clear call for Christians to serve alongside the oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people, regardless of their beliefs. Based on this admonition, we should work for religious freedom – work for the persecuted – be they Christians or atheists or Muslims or anyone else.

There is a community of suffering, and one not limited to fellow believers. In many places where the church is experiencing incredible pressures, Christians are not alone. Authoritarian governments and extremists are equal opportunity oppressors, meaning that when Christians are persecuted, so are other groups. And sometimes it is the other groups who suffer more.

For instance, look at Iran. The regime is especially hard on religious minorities, such as Christians, Baha’is, and Sufi Muslims. There has been much attention paid to Pastor Saeed Abedini, and with good reason. Yet the Baha’i community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, long has been subject to particularly severe religious freedom violations. The government views Baha’is as “heretics” and consequently they face repression on the grounds of apostasy. There are over 100 Baha’is in jail.

The global church should speak out for them and others in this community of suffering.

So working for religious freedom for all is responsive to the Biblical call, but also addresses a practical necessity for the future of the church. Christians will struggle where religious freedom for all does not exist, especially in countries where they are a minority. When governments or societies establish narrow lanes of permissible thought, the church might survive, but it will not flourish. Environments where people of whatever persuasion are free to seek ultimate truth are environments where Christianity can thrive.

In other words, to truly help Christians enjoy religious freedom and a secure future, everyone in a country must enjoy freedom of religion and belief.

So what to do?

Heroes of the Christian faith have set a high bar, risking their lives to help our brothers and sisters. This should continue. Yet in light of increasing violations of religious freedom, we need an expanded approach, one where the church leads a new movement advocating for all. As we heard in the Good Samaritan parable, Christians are called to help our neighbors, regardless of faith or creed. Working for religious freedom for everyone will demonstrate Christians are not just concerned about ourselves, but rather are living out Christ’s call to love our neighbor.

The global church is working holistically in other contexts. The church has an admirable track record of assisting individuals in need, regardless of faith, through relief and development work. In a similar way, the church needs to act on these Biblical principles and promote religious freedom for all. Christians should be at the forefront of helping individuals in their time of need; lack of food or lack of freedom for their beliefs.

In addition, fighting for individuals to freely believe may be the strongest testimony of God’s love the church can show. It’s not equating beliefs, but rather tangibly living out our faith by demonstrating that Christians will help anyone in need. This is not saying all paths lead to heaven, but acting confidently out of our own convictions by showing Christ’s love to the oppressed in their time of need and standing with them.

In conclusion, the global church needs a new strategy to successfully push back against the rising tide of restrictions on religious freedom and increasing violence. To meet this expanding challenge, an expansive response is needed, one standing up for religious freedom for all. Let us lead by serving alongside the oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people.

Knox Thames

Knox Thames currently serves as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South / Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. The first to serve in this capacity, he received a civil service appointment in September 2015 and leads State Department efforts … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24