Pitfalls in combatting persecution

Sep 15, 2021 by

from The Jubilee Centre:


A great number of Western Christians have laudably invested their time, money, and energy to confront the massive global challenge of religious persecution. Sadly, their effectiveness has too often been limited or undermined by several common mistakes. This paper explores seven of these pitfalls and points to Christian principles that enable us to more effectively advance religious freedom for all. My goal in pointing out these dangers is not to condemn any particular organisation or tactical approach, but rather to commend a more considered, capacious, and constructive promotion of religious freedom.


While out for a walk on a recent visit to Basel, Switzerland I happened across a memorial plaque to the sixteenth-century French Protestant theologian Sebastian Castellio. Etched on the plaque I saw Castellio’s famously succinct denunciation of religious persecution: ‘to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but is to kill a man.’[1]

I sat down on a bench next to the memorial to reflect on Castellio’s life and legacy. In many ways he had a tragic existence. He had a falling out with John Calvin and lost his position as Rector of the College of Geneva. Despite being one of Europe’s most promising intellectuals, Castellio was at times reduced to dire poverty, even resorting to begging to feed his family. For his defence of toleration he was slandered by his critics and censored by municipal authorities. After he died in Basel, his enemies exhumed and burned his body and scattered his ashes so as to leave no trace of him. Even in death he was persecuted!

His body may have been destroyed but Castellio’s ideas – principally his plea for toleration and limited government – lived on and have largely won the day. His once controversial claim that civil authorities should not punish persons with dissenting theological beliefs is now more or less taken for granted throughout the West. As if to underscore the long-term victory of Castellio’s commitment to religious tolerance and freedom in Europe, his memorial plaque faces an old Protestant church which today is leased to the Serbian Orthodox community in Basel.

But when we consider ongoing religious persecution outside the community of liberal democracies – and the rise, within the West, of both right-wing populism that stigmatises ethno-religious minorities and of left-wing ideologies that ‘phobiaise’ traditional beliefs – we are reminded that we still have much progress to make before we live in a world in which Castellio’s vision is fully actualised.

We can see Castellio as a Christian model of how to continue the fight for religious freedom. Castellio lived and wrote in a socio-political context far removed from ours. Our contemporary challenge is not the treatment of Christian heretics but rather how to live peaceably amid a great diversity of ethnicities, nationalities, ideologies, and moralities. And yet, in Castellio we find many timeless arguments and principles we can apply to Christian efforts to advance pluralism and respect.

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