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.