I’ve not had the time lately to post in as timely fashion as I would like, mostly because of the semester-by-semester crapshoot which is my PhD pursuit. But there’s a long-term issue that deserves some comment, and that concerns a long-overdue attitude adjustment that Evangelicals need to make because of events in the Middle East.
And I’m not talking about Israel either. There’s a drumbeat amongst Evangelicals who can’t bear to see the latest bandwagon roll down the street without them to change Evangelical support towards Israel. Leaving aside the theological changes, they need to consider two things: do they want another Holocaust, and would the land (and its inhabitants) be better off under the rule of the likes of Hamas? (They also need to consider that, these days, Israel has better friends in Cairo and Riyadh than Washington and Brussels).
Eluding them in the search for answers is the simple fact that, in the Middle East, people play for keeps. We see that plainly with the other news-gathering force in the region: ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever. ISIS has made itself a stench in people’s nostrils for their wanton destruction of ancient artefacts, but in destroying the remains they carry on the tradition of warfare that has been the region’s hallmark for millennia. As John McKenzie observed in his Dictionary Of The Bible:
The ancient war was a candid war of conquest or looting. Both of these ends were sanctified by the religious character of war, which was fought on behalf of the gods of the people and under the leadership and protection of the gods. The cruelty and barbarism of ancient war were equally candid; ancient war is shocking only because it involved the primitive means of personal effort, and could not achieve the vast mechanical horrors of modern warfare. Prisoners of war had no rights whatsoever; the entire population could be enslaved, unless the defeated enemy were regarded as a menace to the victor; if it were, the male population could be exterminated or mutilated. Destruction of conquered towns was a normal act of the victor.
Today ISIS has social media, fast vehicles, religious motivation and personal weaponry (but not so much air power) and they’ve brought back the personal, brutal tradition of warfare with a vengeance. It’s almost as if the spirits of the Assyrians, the core of whose empire they’ve conquered, have come back and entered into these people.
Most mentions of the Assyrians these days, however, centre in two places: the artefacts ISIS is destroying and the Christian communities they’re butchering. Before the Kurds were supplied well enough to stop this advance, the world’s attention was riveted on Christian (and Yazidi) communities being tortured and massacred by ISIS. Floating to the top in Evangelical circles was this question: where are the Christians to help? Fortunately Evangelical organisations rose to the occasion and have done what they’re supposed to, and things are better. But the blind spot that Evangelicals have revealed towards Christianity in the Middle East doesn’t need to be passed over in silence.
In my work My Lord and My God, when introducing the church fathers I made the following observation:
Most evangelicals look at church history in a very specific way; there were first New Testament times, then there was the Reformation, and now there’s us. This results in a gap of about a millennium and a half between significant events; surely something happened in that length of time!
Part of the “something” was Middle Eastern Christianity, in its array of Orthodox (Chalcedoninan and non-Chalcedonian), Nestorian, Monophysite and other manifestations. All of these eventually came under a rotation of one Islāmic state after another.
The switch of populations from Christianity to Islam varied from place to place. In North Africa, it was complete, which explains why Evangelical (largely Pentecostal) Christianity pretty much dominates the Christian population in Algeria. At the other extreme is Lebanon, with its sizeable Maronite population, legendary on both sides of the Atlantic. Then there are those populations which were driven out or destroyed by massacre such as the Armenians, although the driving force behind that was the incorporation of Western ideas of nationalism into an Islāmic framework, which drives much more of Islamicism these days than either the Islamicists or their Western analysts care to admit.
Evangelicals marched into the Middle East with the same attitude towards whatever Christianity was there with the same attitude they did in Latin America: these people are lost as a goose unless we do something about it and they join our church. And experience teaches that underestimating the ability of very old churches to engage in lacklustre inculcation of the faith is a dangerous proposition.
Events in the Middle East, however, showed that, for all the deficiencies of these churches, their ability to drill scriptures such as Mt 10:32-33 into their parishioners worked: by and large Middle Eastern Christians were ready to die for their faith. The contrast with the lachrymose approach we see to the subject of martyrdom in the U.S., to say nothing of the knock-kneed approach we’re seeing with regard to the challenges against the Christian sexual ethic, is striking.
Christianity is first about transformation:
Therefore, if any one is in union with Christ, he is a new being! His old life has passed away; a new life has begun! But all this is the work of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation– To proclaim that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning men’s offences against them, and that he had entrusted us with the Message of this reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 TCNT)
In looking at other people, we tend to look at the process by which their lives were transformed by Jesus Christ and not the transformation itself. (And that goes for ourselves, too). If we do this, we are no better than those who say that, without Church __________, heaven is difficult if not impossible to attain. And that’s inconsistent with what Evangelical Christianity is all about. We need to see real Christians in places we haven’t before and act accordingly, and if our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters have made this point stick with their own blood, that blood is a seed in more ways than one.