Little Päivi Räsänen was on her way to Sunday school one day when she saw the deputy director of the local prison riding his bicycle to work. The 5-year-old stopped him.
“Do you love Jesus?” she asked. “You cannot get to Heaven if you do not believe in Jesus.”
Looking confused, the man continued on his way. Later, he contacted Päivi’s mother—everyone knew everyone in the small village of Konnunsuo, Finland—and asked her to consider taking Päivi out of Sunday school “so she will not totally lose her mind.”
Päivi’s mother was not particularly devout, but she allowed Päivi to continue attending Sunday school, where her faith in Jesus Christ would grow under the teaching of two faithful men—a pig farm caretaker and a construction manager—who led the class, smelly pig-farm boots and all. During those years, Päivi asked Jesus to enter her heart and take her as His own.
“Jesus heard my prayer and has been faithful,” says Räsänen, now a 62-year-old grandmother who has served in Finland’s Parliament for 26 years but is facing the possibility of prison because of her Biblical beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
Räsänen’s father worked as a steward at the Konnunsuo prison. “Themes of right and wrong, crime and punishment, law and mercy, were part of my everyday life,” Räsänen recalls. During her childhood, she took to heart some advice she had heard, to start each day with God’s Word. She has been reading the Bible faithfully ever since.
Throughout her growing-up years, Räsänen hoped to become a researcher, having been inspired by the autobiography of French scientist Marie Curie. When she began her university studies in 1978, she chose medicine over mathematics and technical physics.
At the Faculty of Medicine in Helsinki, she struggled with feelings of condemnation over her inability to live up to God’s standards in the Bible. But she found comfort in Romans 3:10: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” She realized that everyone is hopeless without Christ and that salvation only comes by God’s grace. She went on to lead missionary work among students as they would go door to door to tell people about Jesus, and she participated in mission trips abroad.
As a medical student, Räsänen decided that she would never be a part of ending lives through abortion, and after beginning her medical practice in 1984, her convictions only strengthened. She took part in public debates about abortion, wrote books, gave lectures and organized panels.
Eventually, she came to believe that she could make a bigger difference in politics than in medicine. In 1995, she was elected to the Parliament of Finland.
“Defending the life of unborn children has been my top priority as an MP,” she told Decision. “It was the reason I went into politics. I also wanted to influence the reasons behind social problems. In the 1990s, mental disorders and divorces were increasing or becoming more evident because of high rates of unemployment and economic distress.”
She served as Finland’s minister of the interior from 2011 to 2015 and as chair of the Christian Democrats party from 2004 to 2015, always being open about her Christian faith and values. But although she had faced much criticism because of her faith throughout her career in Parliament, she didn’t foresee what would happen in June 2019.
“I posted a tweet addressing a question to the leadership of my church, which had signed up to support Pride,” she said. “The essential content of the tweet was a photo from the Bible, Romans 1:24-27.”
The prosecutor general responded by charging Räsänen with three counts of “ethnic agitation” against a minority group. In addition to the tweet, the government pointed to a pamphlet she had written in 2004 titled “Male and Female He Created Them” and a radio interview discussing what Jesus would think about homosexuals. Each charge could result in either a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years if she is convicted.
“I was very surprised, even shocked, by the prosecutor general’s decision to file charges against me,” Räsänen says. “Being criminally charged for voicing my deeply held beliefs, in a country that has such deep roots in freedom of speech and religion, feels unreal.
“I have sat for hours in police interrogations,” Räsänen says, “in which, astonishingly, many questions have focused on the Bible and its interpretation. I was asked what the message of the Letter to the Romans is and what its first chapter is about. What do I mean by the words sin and shame?
“The police asked if I would agree to delete my writings from my social media accounts and my home pages within two weeks. I answered that I stand behind these teachings of the Bible, whatever the consequences are.”
The extent to which the government of Finland might be willing to go in prosecuting Christian belief was exposed when the prosecutor general publicly stated that if Räsänen is convicted, it will not mean that libraries will need to remove Bibles or that people cannot have discussions about it. The crucial point, she said, is whether or not people agree with the Bible.
“This is an absurd statement,” Räsänen says. “For Christians, the Bible is the Word of God, and we must have the possibility to agree with it. Otherwise, we will eliminate all freedom of religion.”
Räsänen is not about to give in. The woman who as a 5-year-old tried to lead a prison official to Christ is unflinching in her resolve, and her overriding motivation is still to see people come to salvation.
“I await the court proceedings with a quite calm mind, confident that Finland will respect the freedom of expression and religion enshrined in fundamental rights and international conventions,” she says. “I will not back down from my conviction based on the Bible, and I am ready to defend freedom of speech and religion in all necessary courts. But even if I do not win, I think this whole chain of events is part of my calling as a Christian influencer.
“My motivation to defend Christian values comes from the Bible and from my will to have an impact on the society. A conviction based on the Christian faith is more than a superficial opinion. The early Christians did not renounce their faith in lions’ dens; why should I renounce my faith in a courtroom?”
As she awaits a Jan. 24 trial, she has found Matthew 10:19-20 particularly comforting: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Christians around the world have sent messages of encouragement, and Räsänen reports that many Christians in Finland have awakened to the need to defend faith and religious freedom. Her husband, Niilo, who is principal of the Finnish Lutheran Mission Bible College; and the couple’s five grown children, have been supportive throughout. “It has been comforting to pray together, and I am thankful that all my children have encouraged me to stay strong and not to give up when facing opposition,” Räsänen says.
She asks Christians to pray that righteousness and justice will prevail in Finland, that Christians will not be afraid of speaking up during these challenging times and that her case will set a positive precedent for the future regarding Christians and their right to express their faith in public.
“I myself pray that I would have the ability to answer wisely to the court and to the media,” she adds, “because this case sparks a lot of public interest. I also pray the case would open up opportunities to spread the Gospel and the message of Jesus, the atoner of our sins.”
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Photo: Ilkka Kontturi