“Nothing begins, and nothing ends, that is not paid with moan for we are born in other’s pain And perish in our own.” — Francis Thompson.
1997 was the year of the moan. It was the year of cultists lying dead in California, and septuplets entering the world in Iowa. It was a year that brought death to a beautiful princess and to a revered nun. The sorrow of death and the joyful pain of birth formed opposite poles in a year that gave us a new appreciation for life, and a new awareness of death.
The year’s most celebrated death was that of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died in an Aug. 31 car wreck when a drunken limo driver took a Mercedes through a tunnel at high speeds in an effort to escape tabloid photographers.
The death of Diana stunned the world. She was so young, so beautiful — so alive. She inhabited a world whose perks included the best medical care, the best security. If she could die, we realized with a start, perhaps we could too. Together, mankind mourned a lost vision of immortality.
Diana was remembered as a genuinely kind person whose compassion didn’t stop on those too-rare occasions when there were no cameras around. After her death many people shared stories of her meaningful, incognito visits to homeless shelters and charities. One such Diana story came from a shelter where a 23-year-old man had just made loud and disparaging remarks about charitable visits by the rich and famous. “I don’t know about these royals,” he had said. “She comes in here, we can give her a good one.” Then Diana walked in from a bitter winter night, and walked up to the young man. “It’s Ricky isn’t it?” she asked. “Didn’t I meet you when you were sleeping down in the Strand?” The stunned young man quietly greeted her, and offered, “I’m getting myself together now.”
Such a personal connection with the outcasts of society is both rare and admirable in a woman born to privilege and status, and endeared her to hundreds of millions around the world. Diana’s funeral was broadcast globally, and mourners from around the world inundated her home with mountains of flowers. The outpouring of grief caused some to wonder, “If they do this for Diana, what will they do when someone like Mother Teresa dies?”
A week later, that question had an answer. Mother Teresa, whose work among India’s poorest in Calcutta earned her a Nobel Peace Prize as well as the name “Saint of the Gutters,” died Sept. 5 of cardiac arrest. The 87-year-old nun had been in failing health for years, having suffered two heart attacks and received a pacemaker. Still, she joked, “No one is willing to say that Mother Teresa has a bad heart.”
Mother Teresa took on the evils of the world armed with the love of God and a sense of personal responsibility. She urged Christians to take seriously their role as Christ’s ambassadors to a needy world, saying, “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.” She was also a tireless crusader against abortion, ending forever the myth of “unwanted children” when she told a Washington prayer breakfast, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child.”
Evangelist Billy Graham said, “Few people in our time exemplified so powerfully and yet simply the love and compassion of Christ as Mother Teresa. She was one of the most humble and sweetest of God’s servants that I have ever known. Her life has taught Christians of all persuasions many lessons of humble sacrifice, vision and dedication to the person of Christ. She has taught us the true meaning of love. The whole world, regardless of religious background, admired Mother Teresa and will miss her. She had a moral and spiritual impact on the world that we rarely see. Her legacy of love and hope will live on throughout history.”
But it wasn’t just the rich and the famous whose deaths touched us in 1997. Three students at Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky were killed and others injured when a disturbed and heavily armed 14-year-old opened fire on their morning prayer group. The assailant, a self-described atheist who had often mocked the group, could give no reason for his attack.
The Dec. 2 attack filled the town with sorrow, but also brought about an unexpected reaction: forgiveness. “I know it’s God that they can forgive him,” said the Rev. Robert Strong, an Assemblies of God pastor in Paducah. “It’s definitely God, because we couldn’t do it on our own.”
Strong’s son Ben, who was the prayer group leader and who finally persuaded the attacker to stop firing, spoke at a Dec. 5 funeral for the three girls who died, saying, “In a sense, they died for what they believed in. It hurts to see them go, but to them, there was no better way. They were praying. As soon as they said, ‘Amen,’ they saw the face of God.”
Others died for what they believed in during 1997, but unfortunately what the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult believed in was aliens in a spaceship traveling through the solar system with the Hale-Bopp comet. The bodies of 39 cult members were found in a rented mansion March 26. Investigators said the cult members took a drug overdose, then put plastic bags over their heads and laid down to die.
The Christian community said some other goodbyes in 1997 as well.
Gospel singer Rich Mullins, best known for his son “Our God is an Awesome God,” was killed in a traffic accident on his way to a concert. He was remembered as a songwriter and also for his work with Native Americans.
Charismatic leader John Wimber, who founded what is now the Association of Vineyard Churches, died of a brain hemorrhage after undergoing triple bypass surgery. A colorful charismatic leader, Wimber was also known as a writer of worship songs.
Chaplain Raymond Hoekstra, known simply as “Chaplain Ray” to the many men he reached through International Prison Ministries, died of a heart attack.
Fundamentalist leader Bob Jones Jr., chancellor and chairman of the school his father founded, Bob Jones University, died after being diagnosed with cancer. He was remembered as a pioneer in the use of media for evangelism, and for an uncompromising commitment to fundamentalist beliefs that fed a split with evangelicals.
Other notable deaths included: National Council of Churches religious liberty expert the Rev. Dean Kelley Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society head Rufus Jones author W. Phillip Keller, best-known for A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 S. Maxwell Coder, former editor-in-chief at Moody Press Congregationalist theologian and author the Rev. John Seldon Whale Charles “Kip” Jordan, executive vice president of Word Publishing and Samuel Habib, president of the Protestant Churches in Egypt.
But it wasn’t only death that got our attention in 1997. We were amazed by birth as well Nov. 19, when an Iowa woman delivered the world’s only surviving set of septuplets.
In a sense, this birth was a triumph over death, for the parents rejected advice that they abort some of the children to increase survival odds for others. The parents, Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey, spoke openly about their Christian faith, and Bobbi explained, “Any child is a gift from God no matter whether it’s one at a time or seven at a time.” She added, “How can you decide that you’re going to have this one and you’re not going to have that one? How can you choose which one?”
Kenny added, “God could have given us one, but God’s entitled to give us seven, and that is my commission as a father to raise them and to try to raise them in a normal Christian home.”
Christians around the world joined in praying for the tiny, premature infants, who are thriving. People also chipped in with offers of help, ranging from a lifetime supply of diapers (about 32,000) to a new home. Though Bobbi admitted to experiencing “sheer terror” at the thought of raising seven children, she added, “When God gives you something it may not be what you’ve chosen … but there’s a purpose behind it.”
Is there a purpose behind religious persecution? While 1997 saw continued persecution of Christians around the globe, primarily in Islamic and Communist nations, it also saw a growing interest in the plight of the persecuted church.
More than 50,000 congregations participated in the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church Nov. 16, an event that drew support from a wide range of Christian churches, from Catholic to Southern Baptist, and from evangelical and Pentecostal to mainline Protestant. All joined together to remember those who moan beneath the burden of religious persecution.
Christians were urged to continue their prayers for the estimated 200 million Christians in 60 countries around the globe who live under persecution. Terry Madison, president of Open Doors with Brother Andrew, said, “Praying once a year for those who suffer for their Christian faith every day isn’t going to do it. The Bible speaks of ‘praying without ceasing.’ Persecution doesn’t take place only on Nov. 16 — it’s a constant reality for an estimated 200 million Christians worldwide. Every morning, our brothers and sisters in faith have to decide to follow Jesus all over again, regardless of cost.”
What is that cost?
In Sudan, more than three million casualties have resulted from the central government’s attempt to wipe out Christianity and other religious minorities in the name of Islam. In Egypt, police closed a Protestant church, arrested Christians in another, and subjected a convert from Islam to repeated arrest and torture. House church leaders in Vietnam braced themselves for another round of attacks. And in Iraq a stone-throwing mob attacked an evangelical church under construction, forcing the pastor and his family into hiding.
There was religious oppression in Afghanistan as well, but at least there it was “intra-mural,” with the Taliban government imposing its extremist views of Islamic law on the nation’s Islamic people. While people of other faiths are reportedly relatively unmolested, Moslem men in Afghanistan can be given haircuts at gunpoint if their hair is too long, and arrested or beaten for shaving their beards. Moslem women are forbidden to work, and can be beaten in the street for dressing immodestly (i.e., for letting virtually any part of their body be seen). Afghanistan’s Moslems are forbidden to have pictures of any living beings, and may not use paper bags — because the recycled paper may once have contained verses from the Koran.
In Russia, President Boris Yeltsin bucked pressure from the Communist-backed Russian Orthodox Church and vetoed a bill to restrict religious freedom — but only once. The second time the bill was presented to Yeltsin, he buckled rather than bucked, and signed it. The law gives official recognition to the Russian Orthodox Church and imposes burdensome registration requirements for many other religious groups, including most evangelical groups. The law, which may violate international human rights agreements signed by Russia, met with condemnation around the world, but was praised by Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Alexiy II, who had urged his countrymen to reject such “North American standards” as religious freedom. The Russian Orthodox Church had found itself losing ground to fast-growing evangelical churches, causing Alexiy to turn to that old Russian saying, “If you can’t beat ’em — have the government close ’em down.”
China began a new crackdown on house churches, closing at least 200, and raiding Bible schools as part of the “strike hard” policy instituted for the anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre. China’s acts of religious persecution were closely watched in Hong Kong, which ended 150 years of British Colonial rule and reverted to Chinese control July 1, breathing new life into the saying, “Out of the frying pan, and into the fire.” Chinese President Jiang Zemin promised, “Hong Kong residents will enjoy their rights and freedoms in accordance with law.” China’s less-than-stellar record on human rights, however, led many to question Jiang’s sincerity.
Among those raising questions was the U.S. State Department, where the newly created religious freedom task force issued its first report on religious persecution around the world. The report singled out China for its sharp restrictions on religious liberty, including beatings of believers and raids on private homes to break up religious meetings. The report also pointed to religious persecution in Russia, Cuba, Germany, Iran, Mexico, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and elsewhere.
Donald Hodel, president of the Christian Coalition, lobbied hard for U.S. legislation still under consideration that would impose sanctions on nations which practice religious persecution. “More than 160,000 Christians were martyred in 1996 in a monumental escalation of religious persecution while the United States has stood by or looked the other say,” Hodel said. “Today millions of people of faith around the world are being killed, tortured, raped, maimed, sold as slaves and more for no reason other than that they are Christians, Muslims, Jews or something else — in Sudan, 1.5 million Christians. More Christians have been killed in this century than in the 1,900 years preceding it.”
Religious freedom here?
But while American Christians were being asked to protect religious freedom abroad, religious freedom was slipping away at home. In its most significant decision of the year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), decreeing that the Supreme Court — and not Congress — would be the final arbiter of the limits of the freedom to worship.
Congress immediately began work on a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would strengthen protections for religious freedom, including rights to public expression of religious belief. A prickly religious freedom case is bubbling up in Alabama, where one judge has ordered another to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom wall. Still unsettled is the question of whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” can triumph over the opinions of unelected justices.
Other Supreme Court action was mixed. The High Court struck down “floating bubble zones” that kept pro-life activists from communicating with abortion clinic patients, but also rejected challenges to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law, which singles out abortion mills for special protection from critics. The Court permitted public school teachers to enter private schools to conduct remedial classes, but declined to save a landmark cross in San Francisco. The Court upheld a law banning physician-assisted suicide, but banned a decency law designed to protect children from Internet pornography.
One issue the Court didn’t decide yet is the constitutionality of laws banning partial-birth abortions. Challenges to such laws are making their way through lower courts, but haven’t yet made it to the top. The U.S. Congress passed a new ban on partial-birth abortions in 1997, but once again President Bill Clinton vetoed it.
FREEDMOM TO GATHER
Even with the loss of RFRA, America’s Christians are still free to assemble for worship, and in 1997 they exercised that freedom fully.
An estimated three million students in every U.S. state and at least 20 other countries on five continents gathered at their school flagpoles to prayer Sept. 17 during the eighth annual observance of “See You At The Pole,” a day of student prayer.
Undoubtedly the most memorable Christian event of 1997 was the “Stand in the Gap” rally held by Promise Keepers in Washington, D.C. The six-hour “Sacred Assembly” was one of the largest religious events in the history of the U.S. Although neither Promise Keepers nor the U.S. Park Service released crowd figures, media estimates placed the crowd at well over one million.
Though much of the media coverage before the event focused on the alleged “political agenda” of the gathering, the purpose of the event was made clear early on. “We come not as protesters to this city to declare our rights. We come as sinners to declare our wrongs,” explained Jack Hayford of Church in the Way in Van Nuys, California, who served as master of ceremonies.
Dour Trouten is director of the E.P. News Service.