Two high profile Christians fell foul of their critics this week. For one it meant the loss of his career as an international rugby player. For the other, it means up to seven years in a Chinese prison.
One has been fired for continuing to post provocative messages about homosexuality on social media, even after being warned not to. The other may be imprisoned because of his work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchized.
In both cases, commentators are referring to them as evidence of persecution against the Christian faith. Let’s look at each one separately:
CASE ONE: CHU YIU-MING
For some years now, I’ve been telling the inspirational story of Rev Chu Yiu-ming, leader of Chai Wan Baptist Church in Hong Kong.
Chu’s social conscience was pricked in 1989 when he was in a position to help ferry Chinese student protesters out of the country during the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Since then he has preached a gospel that includes a commitment to human rights, dignity, and care for the poor.
In 2013, Chu was one of several Hong Kong leaders who launched Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a mass movement of nonviolent civil disobedience on the streets of the city to protest the anti-democratic incursions of the Chinese government.
Occupy Central brought the city to a standstill. Many of the protesters huddled under yellow umbrellas in the tropical rain, which lead to the pro-democracy movement being called the Umbrella Movement
This week, Chu and two other Umbrella Movement leaders, Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man, were found guilty of “conspiracy to commit public nuisance.” It carries up to seven years imprisonment. The trio are awaiting sentencing.
When invited to address the court, the 75-year-old pastor reiterated his commitment to democracy:
“We strive for democracy, because democracy strives for freedom, equality, and universal love. Political freedom is more than loyalty to the state. It professes human dignity. Every single person living in a community possesses unique potentials and powers, capable of making a contribution to society. Human right is a God-given gift, never to be arbitrarily taken away by any political regime.”
Chu’s courageous defiance has galvanized the pro-democracy movement in the city. But more than that, his public testimony to his faith in Christ, and his belief that his imprisonment is religious persecution, rang out around the world.
“In the words of Jesus, ‘Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; The Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!’,” he declared.
CASE TWO: ISRAEL FOLAU
Meanwhile in Australia, international rugby sensation, Israel Folau was fired by his employer, Rugby Australia, for tweeting a meme that says that all homosexuals are bound for hell.
Folau grew up Mormon, but was converted to the Assemblies of God in 2011. He has been in trouble on a number of occasions for posting comments on social media that have been considered homophobic and bigoted.
His post this week, based he said on Galatians 5:19-21, declared that “Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters, Hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus saves.”
In 2018, he had posted something similar about God’s plan for homosexuals being hell. This week, Rugby Australia had had enough and tore up his contract, saying he had contravened the values of the organization.
Folau hasn’t commented on the abrupt termination of his contract, but when in hot water with Rugby Australia about similar tweets and posts last year, he wrote, “At times, you can feel alone and down. But Jesus told us that when you stand up for Him in this world, you can expect backlash. I find peace in that.”
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
In a sense, neither Chu nor Folau are being persecuted for their faith directly. They haven’t been silenced for declaring their allegiance to Christ. Both men have been outspoken about the implications of their faith, rather than their faith itself. For Chu, the gospel compels him to champion human rights and social justice.
Likewise, Israel Folau believes the gospel compels him to warn homosexuals that they will suffer in hell unless they repent of their lifestyle and follow Christ.
Even if we think Israel Folau is misguided, or that his interpretation of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality is wrong, we have to concede he is not alone in that interpretation. Like Chu Yiu-ming, he is following the courage of his conviction and he is willing to pay a heavy price for it.
I see three points of difference between what these men did.
Firstly, Rev Chu’s message is clear and unequivocal — human dignity should be granted to all people because God loves all people. Folau’s meme is confusing. It suggests homosexuality is a choice, like lying or getting drunk. It suggests that there is no escape from hell for LGBTQI people. It is contrary to his own statements that he believes in inclusion and holds no hatred toward anyone in his heart.
If you’re going to endure persecution for your beliefs, you’d better make sure your expression of them is as clear as it could be.
Secondly, Chu Yiu-ming’s campaign is life-giving. It seeks to minimize suffering, to enfranchize the oppressed, to feed the poor, and to build the kingdom of God in the streets of Hong Kong. While Israel Folau could argue that his message is life-giving too, it won’t be heard that way by the people it is addressed to. It comes across as soul-crushing, condemnatory, hateful.
And thirdly, Chu has been working and serving in Hong Kong for over 40 years. He is loved and trusted by the people of the city. His message of peace and justice is heard in the context of loyal service and friendship.
Israel Folau just posted a confusing, hurtful tweet to people he doesn’t know. Even if his motives were pure, compelled as he was by his interpretation of the gospel, it was ham-fisted and counter-productive. But it was also non-relational.
If your faith compels you to speak out, make sure your message has clarity, that it’s heard as being life-giving, and that it is backed by a relational integrity that gives your message real power.
And then be willing to accept whatever persecution might come your way.