Philip Jenkins wrote a short piece for Real Clear Religion earlier this week entitled “Death Warrant of Ancient Christianity” in which he argues that the fall of the al-Assad regime in Syria could lead to a campaign of religious persecution that would threaten the existence of one of the few remaining Christian communities in the Middle East. A professor of history at Penn State, Jenkins is one of the world’s leading scholars on Christianity’s geographic history and development, and his brief take on the situation in Syria is rather startling. Amidst the energy and excitement of the so-called “Arab Spring,” as the Western world whole-heartedly celebrates (and actively intervenes in) the unfolding of what it takes to be a “new birth of freedom” in the Middle East, Jenkins contends that, in the case of Syria, we are all overlooking one foreseeable consequence: “the likely religious catastrophe that would follow the overthrow of [this] admittedly dictatorial government.”
Now I would have no problem dismissing Jenkins’ prognostication as a scare tactic if he didn’t then go on to substantiate it with a very detailed and cogent argument. Perhaps the strongest part of that argument was the clear political and demographic parallel he drew between present-day Syria and pre-2003 Iraq. Both were ruled by dictators who belonged to a minority demographic and who identified themselves with the Ba’ath party and its relatively secular political philosophy. Both countries also had sizeable Christian populations who relied upon and operated within the space of religious freedom which Ba’athist secularism allowed, underwritten of course by the dictator’s brutality. These parallels suggest that the downfall of Syria’s totalitarian regime would have the same effect on Christians and other religious minorities as the downfall of Iraq’s totalitarian regime: intense and often violent persecution of Church communities followed in time by mass exile. Jenkins therefore warns that
any Western intervention in Syria would likely supply the death warrant for the ancient Christianity of the Middle East. For anyone concerned about Christians worldwide — even if you believe firmly in democracy and human rights — it’s hard to avoid this prayer: Lord, bring democracy to Syria, but not in my lifetime.
I found this verdict to be a cold bucket of water, to say the least. Yet I think the reason I can’t get it out of my head is that it seems to bring to light a question that has been floating around my Catholic Social Thought class this entire semester, namely “to what degree, if any, does the actual concrete existence of Christian communities and the actual concrete practice of the Christian faith facilitate the attainment of the political ideals espoused by Catholic social teaching? And what does the tradition of Catholic social teaching have to say, if anything, about situations such as these where the achievement of democratic political change seems to come into direct conflict with the concrete well-being of local Church communities?
How should the Catholic community, informed by its social teaching, respond to this dilemma? What does “integral human development” look like in this situation? The toppling of a tyrannical regime and democratization certainly sound like “development”, but would it really be “integral” if it led to the same decimation of the Christian community which we witnessed in Iraq? Can Christians really consider the persecution and forcible exile of their local churches necessary “collateral damage” in the larger political process of “development” toward a “free society”? Or should we view it through a pentitential or martyrological lens? After all, it seems as if Christians have benefitted from tyranny in this case; perhaps it is now time to pay the price for the unjust privileges they have enjoyed?
In the latest social encyclical of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI takes “charity in truth” as his guiding theme. Building upon his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he argues that “charity,” conceived as the love of God in Christ, can and should directly impact the social and political realm:
Charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development.
Yet to what extent can we separate “the values of Christianity” from the actual concrete well-being of practicing Christian communities? To what extent is increased political freedom itself a sufficient embodiment of those values? Or again, is the sacrifice of the well-being of concrete Christian communities itself a reflection of the “Christian values” that are bound up with the Church’s unwavering commitment to democritization?
While of course there is no question of condoning or actively collaborating with the brutal crack-down now underway in Syria, I cannot help but sympathize with Jenkins’ call to pray for a delayed democritization of Syria, for the sake of the concrete Christian communities there and the ancient traditions surrounding their particular practice of the faith. It was in Syria that the followers of our Lord were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Perhaps we should start praying that those who have borne that name there ever since will still be able to do so in the years to come.
I think a very helpful bibliographical reference for dealing with this question might be Charles Mathewes new book “The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times.” While not addressing CST directly, Mathewes tries to lay out a comprehensive Augustinian political theology to address the post-9/11 political context, especially dealing with the Arab world, grounded in the theological virtues of hope, faith, and love. Mathewes’ stuff on hope especially has been formative for my own grappling with this Arab spring. “All hope,” he says, “has a kind of terror attached to it.”
Part of the terror of hope is that in the Augustinian framework, it allows for the possibility of violence, force, and coercion: “A true realism recognizes both the power of love and the inescapability of force, and insists on the reality of both, angainst the too-confident coherence of a bitter cynicism or a naive idealism” (167).
After reading Mathewes book and your post, I get the impression that Augustine at the very least would support the crack-down in Syria, though mournfully, and in the recognition that a Syria under a tyrant is not a good Syria, but at least it is not the worse Syria possible. And I think an Augustinian perspective would say that the “integral human development” at work here is something like forceful action done out of love, with a healthy dose of mercy and humility for those behind the force, for the sake of “opening up the path towards reciprocity of consciences and liberties” as Benedict says in Caritas in Veritate. It’s not a solution Christians should sit easy with, but that is why we need a social ethic which draws its strength from the theological virtues, especially hope.
Somehow I find it hard to believe that only under tyranny can Christians in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East be safe. Christians have been there since Jesus lived there and would not have lasted over one thousand years if persecution by Muslims was the norm.Though I’m not a historrian,there’s something skewed in presenting the murder of Christians in Iraq as something apart from the murders of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds by opposing factions in a war instigated by the U.S.A. [throw into the mix the fact that the American agressors are perceived rightly or wrongly as Christian].Groups vying for power or seen as collaborators by opposing sides will be targeted by those opposing sides.If anything it seems to me that whatever tensions between Muslims and Christians exist in Muslim countries is the result of either colonialism [[again by perceived Christian countries], the Mid East Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the West support of dictators. In all these events, Christians have benefitted socially and politically while the Muslim polulations suffered more severly.In lebanon,my understanding is that hezbollah is a Shiite organization that seeks to defend the oppressed growing majority Shias from Christian and Sunni oppression. The Shias there are second class citizens.It’s not that they are anti-Christian they are anti- Christian privelige which has existed in Lebanon. The backlash in Egypt against Christian Coptics again was economic because there was a time they too were priveleged. To just see Christians as apart from the culture and politics of the Mid East or as a continuosly oppressed minority is I believe untrue, unjust and serves to justify the false narrative of Islam being instigators in a war against the Christian West.. That Syrians and other people in the Mid East are rising up to overthrow oppressive regimes is so tentatively welcomed by too many people in the west ,is distrrubing. You would think this is a dream come true. This is what we say we wanted to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan and was one justification for invading them. The lack of enthusiasm now tells me that our wars were more about revenge then wanting to “liberate” Arabs. That cracking down on Muslims rising to overthrow an oppressor is preferable because of the fear of what might happen to another group is completely unethical. If all people are equally human, we can’t say that out of fear of what might happen to Christians cracking down on people who are under a tyrant is preferable then overtrowing a tyrant..To believe it is all right to “crack down” on people fighting a dictator is to deny their full humanity on par with Christians.For the sake of what we here think may happen to Christians they should be oppressed?.And what does cracking down mean? Killing people, torturing them, imprisoning them? For not wanting to live under tyranny. If we believe the lesser of two evils is to “crack down” on people out of fear of what may happen if they overthrow a tyrant [when dealing with Muslims-this was never said about other people under tyranny] then no wonder “they hate us'”It’s this dismissal of the full humanity of Muslims [the disregard of their reality on the ground in their own homelands ] they gave rise to “terrorism”and that supports the contention of groups like Alquada that we are at war with Islam.Offering them” hope” that the future improves for them when they rise up and are terrorized by their oppressors while justifying the crack down instead of offering them prefential solidaity and even help in their just objective because we fear what may follow for for Christians [are not Christians protesting too?] not only maakes mockery of the concept”hope’,, but also says we love Christians more then Muslims and because we do even just the idea that if their oppressors are overthrown the people we truly love might suffer justifes the oppression of Muslims, is anti-Christian at its core. There is no inherent political,social or religious hierarchy of love of neighbor [empathy] for a Christian.The least of our brethren is the one who, in the here and now, is being oppressed and for whom we owe our preferencial solidaity and obligation to support and help if possible .To see it any other way is to politicize suffering and as Christians ALL people are brothers.
My father was born in Alexandria Egypt of Syrian descent [from Aleppo]. He was a practicing Catholic. He never compllaned of anti-Christian oppression by Muslims in Egypt or in Syria -where he also lived. He and other family members in Lebannon and Syria were indeed in possitions of economic and social priveleges. We go back to the early Christians and had we been so opressed I wouldn’t be here . My father left Egypt during the Suez war between Egypt and Israel.because he was married to a European and that fact was causing political problems [perceived as pro-israeli during that conflict] for the family and so he came here..
Wow. These are two very different responses, but I am very grateful for both of them and I actually find both of them very helpful. Mathewes’ thoughts on hope are indeed very germane to this situation, particularly his distinction between hope and optimism. There certainly is a kind of indeterminacy about hope that can give rise to apprehension (I wonder if “terror” is ultimately compatible with hope) but can also serve as an occasion for the exercise of FAITH. So I take the point that any judgment formed SOLELY in response to a “visualization” of how states of affairs will play out on the ground (regardless of its justification) bears more resemblance to optimism than hope. So hope is the key virtue in play here. At the same time, though, I wonder if Augustinian realism does not cross the line into “real politik” when it endorses the kind of crackdown going on in Syria. I wonder if an essential dimension of “the arduous good” for which hope sustains us is not forfeited by that kind of violence. As for Rose-Ellen’s comments, I want to express my agreement with much of what you said, and to acknowledge that precisely what makes this situation so difficult is that Christians HAVE benefitted from the political injustice of tyrannical governments. It is also true that in Iraq there was no truly distinctive persecution of Christians apart from other minorities. Nevertheless, how can we consider it to be a good thing, or even a preferable evil, that the Christian communities in Iraq have been almost completely wiped out? Is it a “Christian value” or a principle of Catholic social teaching that democritization is a higher good than the concrete well-being of the Church? If so, then it would seem that the political aspirations of Catholic social teaching are only contingently related to the existence and mission of the Church in the world. It very well may be that in this case the course of action most in line with Christian hope and Christian charity is to support the uprising in Syria and the overthrow of the tyrannical al-Assad regime. Yet if as a result the Body of Christ is to suffer in Syria the way it did in Iraq, we should not view it as one of the necessary costs of democritization, but rather as the suffering of Christ himself, who by his sacrifice on the cross establishes justice in its deepest and truest sense, and gives us a hope that surpasses every worldly hardship and setback. My point is simply that Christians should feel a special concern for the concrete welfare of the Church around the world. That concern does not stem from “sectarianism” so much as the doctrinal belief that God continues to remain among us within that community which bears the Spirit and administer the holy sacraments. God IS present in the Church in a special way, just as God was present in Christ in a special way; that is just a basic inference of Christian belief. That does not mean that Christians should not be grieved and outraged by injustice and tyranny wherever they find it; they should. What I worry about, though, is whether and how Catholic social teaching can retain a commitment to that universal scope of justice without at the same time abandoning the doctrinal claim that justice comes to its ultimate fulfillment in the cross of Jesus Christ (and in the sacrifice of the Holy Mass through which it is perpetuated). To be indifferent to the concrete welfare of the community that professes and embodies that sacrifice is to admit that justice is more about democritization than it is about the love of God revealed through Jesus Christ, insofar as the ACTUAL Church is part and parcel of the love of God revealed through Jesus Christ. Of course, CST does not OPPOSE democritization and the life and welfare of the Church; far from it. And hopefully the two will not be opposed in the case of Syria. But Jenkins makes a good case that one has reason to suspect that they MIGHT be at odds at the present moment; hence why I suggest the possibility of a TENSION (not an obvious and outright conflict). Let us HOPE for an outcome worthy of the dignity of the human person– AND her eternal calling to loving beatitude in God.
I agree with you when you say that we should not view the suffering of iraqi Christians as a necessary cost of “democratization”but neither is the suffering of any other group justified simply by invoking the word Democracy.[No “just war ” there. .The iraqi’s did nor ask to be “democratized’ wheras the people in the Mid east apparently now are.And though as a Christian I also agree with you that the Body of Christ is most fully present in His Church, that cannot ethically mean that faith trumps justice. This is what we accuse the “terrorists” of believing. The Christian community is a congregation of the baptized, it is not an ethnic group or linguistic group or cultural group, though the temptation seems to be to succumb to that mundane view of ourselves. There is no us or them. As Christians we are called to be a spiritual people, people who both follow Christ and trust in Him. Our home is not any particular place on earth but “whereever two or more are gather in His name”.Thou it would be ironic if there were no Christians in the greater Holy Land, its not the only irony of history.And if they were driven out it would be unjust and should be stopped .If Christians choose to leave Syria [or any where else] in a post dictatorship Middle East, out of fear of possible persecution that cannot mean that ethically it is just that Muslims should remain under brutal tyranies to insure there are Christian communities there. To assent to the victimizatiion of Muslims for the sake of the God[the Church], is to make Muslims into sacrifical victims . Christ is the last pleasing sacrificfical victim and after Him no more sacrifices [victimization of the sake of God]. Jesus shows us that what is truly pleasing to God is to do God’s will.God’s will is written in our hearts. And as Jesus tells us “Not all who say Lord Lord are pleasing to God but those who do God’s will.” Christ reminds us that to be just , to care about other human beings is to do His will.The suffering of one group cannot be assented to for the sake of another group even if and especially if that group are baptized Christians who partake in the manifestation of God’s love for all people [the Church].That would be to use the Holiness of the Church as a rationale to support evil.[the oppression of others] That perverts the purpose of the Church here on earth and turns it into an instrument of evil [assenting to the suffering of Muslims}.it’s anti-Christ . It also reveals a lack of faith in the promise Jesus made to His Church.Jesus promised us that His Church would remain forever so it is our duty as Christians to be ethical and not let the fear of there not being Chrristians in iraq or Syria or elsewhere make us complicit with the evil oppression of dictatorship. That is anti- human and what is anti- human is anti-Christ. “oh Yeah of little fath'”if Christians are persecuted in a post dictatorship Syria we can cross that bridge when we get there and we should for Christians as for any oppressed people but the lesser of two evils [fear of there not being Christians in Syria-though ironic there is nothing inherently necessary to there being Christians in Syria though it is inherently wrong if they were to be forced out or persecuted] can not ethically allow us to assent to the tyranical subjugation of Muslims.The two do not equate.Religious beliefs cannot trump ethics and nothing is of more value or worth before God than a human being and in our reponse to injustice and suffering of human beings is where God most lives in usIf we acquiese in the suffering of Muslims by tyranical regimes for the benefit of the Church we are selves are tyranical. A tyranical Church is not in conformity with Jesus. Muslims are not sacrifical victims .There are no more acceptable sacrifical victims for the sake of God. Jesus was the last. We are called to be spiritual”.What have we if we gain the whole world and lose our soul?” We lose our souls if we assent to evil for the sake of there being a Christian comminity in Syria. We are a spiritual people, not an ethnic group. Our home is heaven and we trust in the Lord.He promised us He would remain with us here on eath forever.Jesus tells us to give to God what is God’s .What is God’s is a concern for justice-the suffering of others-the stranger among us ,the least among us,[the Muslims under dictatorship] and we should not be turning over to the state[Syria] what belongs to God- our concern for oppressed people. As Christians we know there is no us or them. Our faith in Jesus Christ and His gift of Himself in the Church is a promise he made to us. Our obligation is to follow Him through the sacrifice of the mass and the sacraments and as people who in the world are secure in His promise that our true home is not Syria or iraq or anywhere but in heaven and therefore we are free to side with the oppressed [as Jesus sided with us-mankind] with out fear that He will abandon us as individuals or as His Chuch.To view the necessecity of there being a Christian community in Syria as a good that outweighs the evil of people suffering under dictatorship is a fallacy because it reveals a lack of faith in Christ;s promise to us-that his Church will be here on earth for all till he retuns and because it puts the community of the baptized on par with mundane ethnic groups.The Church is universal and not tied to any locale and Chriastian identity has to be rooted in faith that Jesus will not abandon us so we should not abandon Him by acquieseing in evil..
Rose-Ellen: I find your last comment both beautiful and deeply convincing. We have no abiding city here below. To disown justice is to disown our true citizenship, which binds us to a homeland transcending the finite identities and boundaries of this world. Responsive to the universal hunger for freedom, for “integral human development,” and in solidarity with the oppressed, we should support the democratization in the Middle East with our prayers and (where possible) our actions. At the same, though, our prayers and actions should be guided by a sharp-eyed prudence that can help us foresee the potential for future injustice, especially concerning those in the Church, with whom our baptism has established a special bond. That bond should not and must not supercede our obligation to justice, but it is still a part of that obligation- and I would say a particularly pronounced part. So Christians should be concerned and “on the alert” about the potential for persecution of fellow Christians in a “democratized” Syria, but that concern should not lead us to hope that things simply stay as they are. Our apprehension for the future should not stop us from embracing the change that could lead to greater justice, even if that change could involve danger. So I think you have convinced me, Rose-Ellen. Thank you for the dialogue!