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The Powerless Power of Faith

Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona of Mosul, Iraq, whose predecessor was assassinated and so many of whose faithful have been murdered or have fled, has written a letter to Christians in the West. He says:

From the moment when we are waiting for death, under threat from someone who may shoot us at any time, we need to know how to live well. The greatest challenge in facing death because of our faith is to continue to know this faith in such a way as to live it constantly and fully — even in that very brief moment that separates us from death.

My goal in all this is to reinforce the fact that the Christian faith is not an abstract, rational theory, remote from actual, everyday life but a means of discovering its deepest meaning, its highest expression as revealed by the Incarnation. When the individual discovers this possibility, he or she will be willing to endure absolutely anything and will do everything to safeguard this discovery — even if this means having to die in its cause.

Many people living in freedom from persecution, in countries without problems like ours, ask me what they can do for us, how they can help us in our situation. First of all, anyone who wants to do something for us should make an effort to live out his or her own faith in a more profound manner, embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity.

John Allen's new book, The Global War on Christians, is must reading to appreciate the extent and virulence of the attacks. And I also strongly recommend the recent Erasmus Lecture delivered by the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks. It may be viewed here.

Sacks speaks insightfully of "creative minorities" in history, taking issue with the understanding promoted by Arnold Toynbee in his twelve volume Study of History, and contrasting a Jewish and Hellenistic understanding of "creative minority."

But at the 43 minute mark of his  lecture, Sacks speaks movingly of Christians today being "under attack," calling it "the crime against humanity of our time." He finds the attacks to be "deliberate, brutal, and systematic," and says that he is "appalled that the world is silent."

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I am a member of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation which meets twice a year, once at a Catholic and once at an Orthodox venue, and every five years we meet in Canada. Last week we met in Toronto and discussed two topics: celibacy in the western Church and the place and role of the laity in the Church. Several of our members, both Catholic and Orthodox, represent Churches in the Middle East, and we regularly hear reports on the situation of Catholics in that area. At this meeting we adopted a statement on the perilous conditions under which Christians must live there.  You can find it at:

 http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/north-american-orthodox-catholic-statem...

I continue to find it very puzzling that there seems to be such silence here in the US on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.  I'm also really distressed that the unvierse I identify with most closely- people on the political left- are most especially silent. I don't want to open the door here to broad negative critiques about "the left" and "the right"; but we're not silent about other suffering peoples around the world (we may not do much to help them, but we're not silent), so why this zone of silence about persecuted Christians?

Is there some kind of political minefield I'm missing? Or am I incorrect in thinking that we seem even more indifferent to Christian minorities than we are to other persecuted peoples?

 

John Allen writes: 

      "If a female catechist is killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, because she’s persuading young people to stay out of militias and criminal gangs, one might say that’s a tragedy but not martyrdom, because her assailants weren’t driven by hatred of the Christian faith. Yet the crucial point isn’t just what was in the mind of her killers, but what was in the heart of that catechist, who knowingly put her life on the line to serve the gospel. To make her attackers’ motives the only test, rather than her own, is to distort reality."

John Allen seems to distort reality. A martyr is someone who is killed for her faith.   A husband who kills his wife does not make her a martry because she is Christian. In Islam they are killing each other because of tribal identities---far more numerous than they are killing Christians. I know this is going around in some circles. But this is a sign of insular thinking. This kind of thought is saying that we have more martyrs than we ever had. Not true.

Certainly, we should be concerned about Christians who are being persecuted and people are. As well as all who are deprived of their rights throughout the world. 

I think that for people to really get a grip on and do something about this terrible crisis, they will need to find a way to disassociate it from expectations surrounding the normative role of Christianity in the West, especially the United States. People need to be able to advocate for Christians suffering in other parts of the world without trying to claim a piece of that suffering for Christians in places like America. What I mean is that there has been a lot of rhetoric in the air recently coming from certain Christian sectors in the States about how Christianity is being hounded in the West (and with it comes the wholly insensitive and insulting notion that Christians in the West shoudl be looking to places like Nigeria or Syria with the expectation that a similar fate awaits them). Likewise, people need to be able to deal with the fact that acknowledging that Christians are being horribly persecuted in other parts of the world does not mean that one is lending credance to the aforementioned claims to persecuted status being laid by American Christians--that is just stupid. The fact that Christians are oppressive in the States does not mean that they are not being oppressed elsewhere!!!

I have to say, though, that I thought Sacks' bit about Hellenism vs Hebraism was pretty much crap.

There may be a desire to be "fair" that makes us hesitate before siding with those among conflict victims who are most like us. We naturally identify with their plight because they and we are both Christians, but we are reluctant to have favorites in our defense of victims, so we are overcompensating. We are asking ourselves: "Am I distressed by this drama because the victims are Christians like me? How would I react if they were, say, Moslem?". If the answer to the second question is: "Very differently. I would not be so upset by half", then we might chastise ourselves for our lack of fairness, and in the end we may remain silent.

I think there's a lot of persecution of religions other than Christianity that we don't pay attention to, like the Buddhists in Tibet (by the Chinese).  There's a Pew Forum page on this ... Harassment of Particular Religious Groups ...  http://www.pewforum.org/2011/08/09/rising-restrictions-on-religion5/

But maybe too some people are uncomfortable about discussing the persecution of Christians because for much of history it has been Christianity/Catholicism that has been the persecutor of other faiths.

Crystal,

Neither you nor I were there "for much of its history." We're here now.

And the Lord won't ask us about "them," but about "us."

My goodness, Robert, history is a bit more than a somewhat esoteric jaunt into the past.  It contains facts, some of which have had profound consequences for the us in the present.  I was not present at the moment my parents shared their first embrace but it was a fact that led to my being here and writing as I am now.   Sharing notions here is a big deal for me.

All religions have a history and to assume God would have us be ignorant of that history suggest a remarkably myopic God.  I feel more than a bit comfortable in my conviction God is fully aware of our humanity and the seemingly endless limitations it entails.

Surely anyone worth knowing would sincerely wish any individual or group suffering persecution will soon, very soon, see the end of it.  I know of no reasons to suggest a particular religious affiliation is required to place a person in the "other" category.  It can and is just as easily identified by race, native country, or even a thing as seemingly innocuous as choice of music, e.g., rap or country/western.

I believe things will get better when we are consistenly taught religion is a set of notions for which ones lives.  One dies for those notions only as a last, a very last, resort.  In my opinion even Christ felt that way.

To respond to Irene's valid concerns, I suppose most Christians and non-Christians alike wonder why so many Christians so often find themselves without adequate support when the fact is there are somewhere between 2 to 3 billion individuals in this world claiming to be Christians.

 

 

The good bishop's statement,

"I realized that, above all — in the face of suffering and persecution — a true knowledge of our own faith and the cause of our persecution is of fundamental importance."

Is as elegant and clear as a mountain spring, and whenever I read the Koran's and hadith's statements about how Jews and Christians ought to be delt with, I know exactly what is the cause.

Bob Schwartz, you are generally worth ignoring on a "don't feed the trolls" basis, but here there is actually a very practical point to make, which has nothing to do with trying to score points against your inanity and crankhood: The terrible behavior of American Christians, perhaps especially when it comes to Muslims, distracts from the terrible plight of Christians elsewhere. You could probably do much by saying less.

I agree that we behave terribly towards Muslims here. And I agree with Abe's earlier comment. I also wonder if we feel  that supporting one group must mean we're anti another; like supporting Christians in Iraq would somehow imply we're anti Iraqi Muslim.

 

Abe,

re. your first comment (yesterday @4:25 p.m.); I too find Sacks' disjunction a bit facile (not to use your more colorful epithet);

re. your recent comment: (though I may soon regret this) you could probably do much by saying more; such as, SOME American Christians, and clarifying WHOM does it distract?

MB,

of course we are the products of history, and the past does have consequences; but Ezekiel long ago saw that the fathers eating bitter grapes does not entail their childrens' responsibility. Rather, we stand responsible in the today of faith with its present demands: "If today you hear God's voice, harden not your hearts."

A followup to MightBe's comments:

We are all both the inheritors of and the ongoing participants in a long history of violence and persecution that we don't know how to bring to a peaceful conclusion.

The Christian response to this predicament is, I am convinced, is one of UNCONDITIONAL forgiveness. We all need forgiveness and we all have reason to offer it to everyone, whatever their conduct is or has been. This forgiveness is fully compatible with punishing inflictors of violence, provided that (1) we acknowledge our own failures and the harms they do, and (2) that the recognizable objective of the punishments are both the prevention of future wrongdoing and the rehabilitation of the peerpetrators into community. So far as I know, this Christian response to the perpetration of evils is also the response that many, if not all, major religions espouse.

I would also argue that the practice of universal and unconditional forgiveness is warranted by sensible political prudence. For example, whatever the flaws of Hobbes' Leviathan, one of the laws of nature that he proposes is that we always "endeavor peace." There is no prospect that we can construct and enforce a system of justice that would deal adequately with our history of violence. Hence, for the sake of our future together, universal unconditional forgiveness is called for.

Of course,I realize that this claim will not readily find acceptance. Part of the political justification for it is that there is no better alternative in sight. The Christian justification for it, I believe, is fully embodied in the traditions and best practices of the saints. So too, I take it, is the case with the adherents of other major religions faiths.

I continue to find it very puzzling that there seems to be such silence here in the US on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

I expect there are various reasons, some of which have been touched on here already.

One reason surely is that there is not a lot of pan-Christian solidarity even within the West itself.  Most of us, particularly of a certain age, have denominational identities that are stronger than our identity as Christians.

Somewhat related to this is that Middle Eastern Christians, even when they're Roman Catholic, don't quite seem like Roman Catholics we know.  Most of us don't have ancestral roots in the Middle East (at least not as ancestry.com would track it).  There aren't many Middle Eastern Catholic parishes around the US, nor Middle Eastern foreign priests.  Most of us don't have that kind of a family or community connection.  

As an add-on to the previous point: many Catholics in the Middle East are not Roman Catholics, yet they are still in communion with the Catholic Church.  But we American Roman Catholics don't understand these histories and relationships very well (just was we don't understand religion in the Middle East very well in general).  Are the Maronites Catholic?  Are the Chaldeans Catholic?  I'd need Google to tell me.

Related to the lack of pan-Christian solidarity, I believe that Roman Catholics, Orthodox and (at least some) Evangelicals in the US view the Middle East differently.  I've already mentioned the Roman Catholic general confusion; the Orthodox , who tend to know the histories and realities of inter-church conflicts better than we Roman Catholics do, sometimes don't give the Catholic Church the benefit of the doubt that we naturally we assume we're entitled to; and some Evangelicals view anyone at all who isn't an Evangelical Christian, including Catholic or Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, as a candidate for conversion and/or proselytizing.

As has been mentioned by others here, the American Left in particular is rightly concerned with saying anything that would tend to give encouragement to the wacko's and haters here in the US who aim wacky hatred at American Muslims.  The American Right should share that concern, but has a lot of work to do in that respect.  Thus, both ideological sides have an excuse to stay silent: the Left because they are afraid it will inflame American crazies; the Right because American crazies are political allies.  Both sides have to figure out how to speak out, the Left without inflaming American crazies, the Right at the risk of alienating political allies.  So the Left and Right face different conundrums, but the net effect is the same: silence about Christian persecution in the Middle East.

For the American Left in particular, Christians in the Middle East being persecuted is hard to square with their critique of historical colonial Western oppression and hegemony.  In the simplistic version of that story, Christians (and now Israeli Jews) are the oppressors, while Muslims are the victims.  

 

 

Bernard,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you have articulated in a very personal way what Bernard Lonergan speaks of as "the law of the cross." Certainly we Christians have consistently found it a scandal; but I am not sure it is even affirmed by "adherents of other faiths," though some, of course, may live it out in practice.

Jim,

You may be familiar with the magazine "One," published by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. I think it is an excellent way of keeping abreast of the situation in the Middle East, and the activities and sufferings of Christians there. Moreover, CNEWA provides assistance to refugees in the region and deserves our prayer and financial support.

Richard Dawkins has been known to say things like:  religious faith is as evil as small pox but even harder to eradicate.  Given that his brand of atheism is socially acceptable in some liberal circles, it would seem to follow that  the eradication of Middle Eastern Catholics would not be such a bad thing.

 No, I'm not saying that Dwkins et al would approve of the killing -- I'm only saying that for them the fewer the people of faith the better, and this belief can  leads to a sort of indifference though not  tolerance of such murders.  We all seem to defend out own, and take the attitude that "the other" can fend for himself.  Not a happy human trait, but there it is.  

If there were a very vocal religious left then I suspect that the non-religious left might start to take it more seriously about religious freedom matters.

When I mentioned the church's past acts against other religions, I didn't mean that justified violence against Christians i the Middle East, just that it might be part of why some people haven't spoken strongly against it.  Another example:  violence agains the Jews in the Middle East is also wrong, but many don't speak out against it, including many of the Christians who now are upset against violence against Christian in the Middle East.  Why is that?

I did not read or hear in the Bishop's comments any kind of universalizing of persecution of Christians such as is occurring in Iraq. 

I like his idea around what Christians CAN do in their sphere to help; namely living out faith more profoundly in daily practice. That, I think will be quite effective.

Obviously broadsides in the west against Islam is not helpful at all. The reality is that the persecutions of Christians is relatively new. Christian communities in Iraq and Egypt lived for centuries with their Muslim neighbors in peace even though the society was predominantly Muslim.

What has and is occurring seems to be a rise of a particular kind of Islamism that reads texts in particular ways. I have read that many of these movements in Iraq are comprised of people from other areas who have been radicalized and in turn come to these countries to harass Christians. Whether this is due to associating (wrongly) Christianity with the West or because of tribalism, I don't know.

A political solution is required and inasmuch as the US and UK were largely responsible for the war int h first place, they need to continue to engage with Iraq in particular around constructive solutions and assistance with security and intelligence capabilities (assuming that these are wanted by the government leaders and I assume that they are).

As an aside, and maybe related to the whole question of mid-east security, I still wonder what the REAL reason was for Saudi Arabia declining a seat on the UN Security Council.

Does not forgiveness … unconditional or otherwise … presuppose repentance?  Is not the Sacrament of Reconciliation based upon that premise? 

Not sure if forgiveness, as far as Christ is concerned , presupposes repentance....

 

.Father forgive them for they know not what they do.....

Jim McCrea, For the Christian, each of us always needs God's forgiveness and so we ought to repent. But we also believe that God is always ready top forgive, indeed that He offers forgiveness regardless of whether we ask for it or not. Of course, we ought to accept it and repent, but the offer is never conditioned on our prior repentence.

Similarly, we as Christians are called, or so I believe, to hold out forgiveness to those who have harmed us, regardless of whether they accept it or not.

There is a philosophical argument based on Kant that supports this view of our offeringunconditional forgiveness, but whether we find that argument persuasive or not, I do believe that our faith does call us constantly to offer forgiveness, regardles of the circumstances.

Obviously. it's not easy to practice this kind of Christian forgiveness. i know that I regulaly fain to do so. But that's something for which I ought to ackn olwldege toat I need to accept the forgiveness that God constantly offers me.

I think doing nothing makes us complicit.

Abe:

I'm very grateful to you for pointing out mt inanity and crankhood.  So where in the word of Christ are the words equivalent to those in the Koran?

I will not be feeding you any troll snacks, troll. Go be a bigot in heavy traffic.

First of all, anyone who wants to do something for us should make an effort to live out his or her own faith in a more profound manner, embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity.

 

Really?  If someone is under threat of destruction from hostile neighbors, my advice would be to get out.  

Joseph took his wife and child to safety in Egypt instead of waiting around to be killed.  

 

-------

 

Another example:  violence agains the Jews in the Middle East is also wrong, but many don't speak out against it, including many of the Christians who now are upset against violence against Christian in the Middle East.  Why is that?

 

I wondered if today's article in the NYT about Hamas textbooks would be mentioned here, but no one found it important enough to blog about.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/04/world/middleeast/to-shape-young-palest...

 

 

 

Gerelyn and Crystal Watson:

 

Thanks for mentioning the hatred being heaped on Jews in the Middle East.  Fortunately, there are only handful of Jews left in Arab countries.  From a population of over 800,000 at the end of WWII, there are probably not more than 25,000 remaining, and the last I heard, only about 100 in Egypt.  Most of them, either expelled or hounded out by persecution, with all of their property expropriated, fled to Israel, where they and their children and grandchildren now constitute a significant percentage of the Jews in Israel.

 

The sort of persecution of Christians now being witnessed has been occurring against Christians and Jews periodically in the Middle East and across North Africa for a thousand years and more, with periodic outbreaks here and there and now and then throughout the whole region.

 

I am not surprised by the hate-filled textbook, mentioned in the NYT article, with which Hamas is seeking to indoctrinate the youngsters of Gaza.  Hamas is probably the most virulent anti-Semitic party to govern anywhere since the Nazis ruled Germany.  Though Iran might give them a run for their money.

 

In article 7 of Hamas’ charter, you will find that the only good Jew is a dead Jew, a belief Hamas attributes, falsely I presume, to Mohammad himself.

 

And in article 32, you will find that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – the infamous czarist secret police forgery purporting to be the plan of the Jews to control the world – is actually a real document setting forth the Jews’ plan of world conquest.

 

And in article 22, you will find that “the enemies” were behind WWI and WWII. That they were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and almost every other revolution in the world.  That they formed the League of Nations in order to control the world.  That with their money, they have taken control of the world media.   And founded the Rotary clubs, Lions clubs and Freemasons for the purpose of sabotaging the societies they live in and achieving “Zionist” interests.  That “[w]ith their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.” And that they instigated the United Nations and the Security Council “to enable them to rule the world through them.” 

 

You can find Hamas’ charter here: avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp

Strangely, Irene Baldwin, out of compassionate concern, turns the conversation to politics, faulting the silence of the liberal left. In fact, it has been the right-wing Republicans like the administration of George Bush and currently the insistent Senator McCain who have destabilized the Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan and contributed to the plight of Christians there.

There are many oligarchic and dictatorial regimes in the world but instead of using "soft power" and diplomatic/economic pressures to effect gradual change, the US has relied on poorly thought-out brutal miltary adventures against selected targets, many of whom it had supported and propped up in the past. 

Because of domestic pressure groups, both Jewish and right-wing fundamentalist Christians, the US has selectively targeted Islamic countries in the Near East and Africa for regime change, without consideration of the unintended consequences fo Christians. The American public generally supports human rights and freedom of conscience, and thanks to corporate media, has largely supported these selective adventures until war fatigue has settled in.

The result of the overthrow of the secularist Sadaam Hussein, whose regime engaged in horrific violations of human rights but gave women access to participation in public life and protected Christian worshipers (but persecuted other Islamic sects), resulted in the threats of martyrdom expressed by The Archbishop of Mosul and exclusion of women from public life. The secularist regime of Bashar Al-Assad also ruled for the interests of a repressive Alawite Islamic sect, guilty of horrrific violations of human rights, but a regime that gave women access to education and particpation in public life and protected Christian religious monorities. Western weapons to the Sunni rebels, which includes a significant group of Al-Queda, has resulted in Islamist attacks on Christian towns and neighborhoods in Damascus and assassination of priests and lay people. US support of the overtrhow of Hosni Mabarack, our one-time ally, has resulted in assassination of Coptic priests, burning of their churches and the exodus of a large number of Coptic Christians. Our longest war in Afghanistan has resulted in persecution of Christians in neighboring Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the US is concerned to protect its relationship with the oligarchs of Saudi Arabia, despite their suppression of women and refusal to allow public Christian worship. The Saudis support of male madrasas around the world teaching the Wahhabi doctrines of intolerance and repression of women, a fertile recruiting ground for young terrorists and suicide bombers. The US has been silent at the brutal suppression of dissent in Bahrain and the violations of human rights in Kuwait. Many of the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, based on some unique theological understanding of the Second Coming and the "Rapture", suppport Israel's suppression of the Palestinians, who have the same human rights to freedom as Near Eastern Christians.

When one sect of Islam targets another, Sunni vs. Shiite, it is not tribalism, but theological certainty, absolutism, intolerance and the use of the state to enforce theological positions, which Pope Francis warned against in the Catholic Church.

George McGuire says, "Because of domestic pressure groups, both Jewish and right-wing fundamentalist Christians, the US has selectively targeted Islamic countries in the Near East and Africa for regime change, without consideration of the unintended consequences fo Christians."

I don't know of a basis for such a claim, at least in so far as it concerns Jews, whose activities I'm most familiar with.  What regimes are you talking about?  And what is your basis for claiming the U.S. acted because of pressure from Jews?

Jeff and George,

you're getting into another conversation; why don't you pursue it in another forum.

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.