A blood-spattered poster of Jesus inside the Coptic Christian Saints Church in Alexandria, Egypt, after a car exploded in front of the building in 2011, sparking clashes between Christians and Muslims. (Ben Curtis, Associated Press)
This essay by David Pence appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune, July 19, 2015. Pence is a physician and teacher. He writes about religion and politics at:
Christian martyrs around the world are looking in vain for a champion to protect them.
American foreign policy seems awfully confused. When a student is deeply confused, what’s needed is not another fact but a better ordering of the categories being used to organize and understand the subject matter at hand.
Americans usually discuss foreign affairs in terms of nations. That’s no longer adequate. We cannot explain today’s Mideast without understanding that certain religious communal loyalties transcend nations.
Consider the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Take out a map and notice that ISIL is holding the parts of Iraq and Syria where populations are dominated by Sunni Muslims. Those regions may never again be ruled by those two countries’ Shia Muslim governments. The battle now is over whether ISIL or a civilized Arab Sunni regime will govern that newly separated Sunni territory.
Similarly, the next time you hear that the Saudis are bombing the Iranian-backed Houthis of Yemen, look past the smoke screen about the link to the nation of Iran. The Wahhabi Sunnis of Saudi Arabia are trying to suppress Shia infidels in Yemen who have successfully armed themselves.
More broadly, whenever you hear that some violence is “senseless” look for a battle over religion or ethnicity. More often than not, that will make sense of it.
Today’s world is torn by a religious war, but we in the West are trying to interpret events as if God doesn’t exist. We have made a strange bargain with ourselves not to think as religious beings, especially in connection with politics and foreign policy. We think that would not be “realism.” It would be “sectarian.” Religion talk is not for public life — keep it in the closet, or better still, the cloister.
So we agree to talk in public as if God and the human soul and the spiritual destiny of nations don’t matter. We act as if our identity and character as Americans have nothing to do with the nation’s Christian heritage. We talk instead about the individual — his dignity, her desires, his rights, her choices. Everyone knows what an individual looks like; nobody has seen God. Democrats and Republicans alike consecrate individualism. They identify with “the West” that idolizes autonomy. They patronize religious cultures that subordinate personal liberty to a higher power.
This self-imposed poverty of thought has caused our confusion. In early May of this year, an Associated Press story carried by the Star Tribune reported that “last month’s massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University College killed 148 people, mostly students.”
That massacre occurred on Holy Thursday. The killers singled out not students but Christians for slaughter. Muslim students were spared.
In February 2015, President Obama’s press secretary declared: “The United States condemns the despicable and cowardly murder of 21 Egyptian citizens in Libya by ISIL-affiliated terrorists.” The murdered were all Coptic Christians, separated by ISIL from a larger Libyan workforce of “Egyptian citizens,” most of whom were Sunni.
This religious whitewashing is not new with the Obama presidency. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (during the George W. Bush presidency) was equally reticent when Sunni extremists drove Christians out of the Dora neighborhood in southern Baghdad in May 2007. Rice explained that protective action would have appeared “sectarian.”
There would be no American knights riding to protect Christian families on Rice’s watch.
Today, around the world, Christians are suffering from three major sources of persecution. First is the clash with Islamist governance and identity in the Middle East and northern Africa. Second, in Asia, ethnic and religious nationalisms depict Christianity as a betrayal of the communal solidarity of Hindus in Nepal and India and Buddhists in Burma. The third strain of persecution comes from the remnant Communist Party dictatorships of China, North Korea and Vietnam. Christianity’s deeper and wider loyalties to God and the brotherhood of man are always threats to the jealous demands of totalitarian states.
So there are plenty of Christian martyrs on the public stage in today’s world. The missing figure is the Christian statesman — the Christian protector. There is of course the pope. But his priestly role is for all of humanity. He must keep before us the truth that only Satan is our permanent enemy and that all sons of Adam are meant to be brothers under God. His mission is to baptize the nations, not to take sides.
But where, besieged Christians cry out, are the public orators calling the men of their countries into the brotherly love of shared civic protection?
Organizing social life as if God does not exist is always a disaster. It replaces the primal human struggle against the evil one with exaggerated fights among men. Class and ideological conflicts, the favored struggles of the new elite, have morphed into the even deeper battles of the sexual revolution. Basic obligations to God, country and marriage are not proclaimed, and the crimes of blasphemy, treason and adultery no longer shame.
America’s baby-boomer presidents have not known how to mobilize the Christian brotherhood under which our fathers and forefathers fought and won the wars that gave today’s Americans our great inheritance. Christian brotherly love is not erotic but political. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Christ. So Christian men formed police departments and national armies and navies — because peace comes from ordered agreement and protection in the face of evil.
Christian brotherhood is not pacifism but the core of proper patriotism. Christ sheathed Peter’s sword the night before he died because Christ was not at war with Roman soldiers and Jewish high priests. He was at war with death itself, declaring the Kingdom of God on earth. It is a Christian duty, and especially a duty of Christian men, to defend that kingdom.
The cities, states and nations that formed inside the Christian agreement are our instruments of protection. We in the West, and especially in America, have played the Great Satan for too long. Let us reintroduce ourselves as a largely Christian people, especially Christian men, seeking to do the will of God. Americans should unite as brothers with black Christian nations and the Christians of Lebanon, with the Jews of Israel, and with the Shiites of Iraq and Iran and the Hashemites of Jordan, before accepting an identity as the “godless West.”
Secular Europeans marched for the murdered martyrs of atheism — the antireligious pornographers at Charlie Hebdo. But American Christian men are inspired by the martyrdom of our Ethiopian and Egyptian brothers who died for our Lord. We saw their blood and their faith and we could not help but say, “They look a lot like us.” We can only pray that we will look like them in displaying the courage needed to perform the protective and diplomatic roles assigned to us in God’s plan.
Muslims have a term for a religious community that supersedes nations. It is the Ummah. We Christians, too, have our Ummah. Our mighty armed national brotherhoods are embedded inside the wider Christian calling to love one another. We are one with those men who were marched out on a beach to die looking across the Mediterranean toward Rome.
The religious awakening that has swept Africa and the Middle East is sweeping the Americas as well. It was a religious awakening that consecrated the beginning of racial reconciliation in America in the 1960s (before that movement for Christian brotherhood was hijacked by pretender radicalisms). It will be a religious movement that wakes us to the brotherhood of citizenship we have with the brown-skinned neighbors who have been growing our food and roofing our houses for the last half century.
Fifty years ago, Christian America responded to a bombing in which four little black girls were murdered going to Sunday school in Alabama. First we sent clergymen to march — and then we sent federal troops to protect. Those girls may not have been our relatives or neighbors, but they were our girls.
Today Christian men are beheaded and Christian women are enslaved around the world, and they, too, look for the Christian brother who will wield a sword of protection against the sword of pillage. The sword is never our ultimate weapon, but Christ told his apostles to have one on hand.
Prayer, diplomacy and the word are our primary and ultimate ways of ordering relations among nations. But we cannot know who to befriend and who to oppose in the world if we do not understand the religious nature of our enemies and the religious character of our own nation. The late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore understood the enemy: “In killing the terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees. The queen bees are the preachers, who teach a deviant form of Islam in the schools and Islamic centers, who capture and twist the minds of the young … .”
Meanwhile, President John Kennedy understood the spiritual nature of America. He knew the soul of America had to be awakened and the fraternity of duty mobilized. Let the words he was to speak on the day he was killed (by an atheist) remind us that America is not a playground of boundless choices but a city bound by sacred obligations:
We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore … that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.’
Psalm 127:1 — Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
Luke 2:14 — Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Revelation 20:4a — I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God.
Genesis 4:9 — Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Almighty God, who has taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted; strengthen, comfort and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment and even death for being followers of Jesus. We pray for those who persecute your people; may their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute. Protect members of the families and church communities of those who are persecuted and bless the work and ministry of the organizations that support those who are suffering and seek to be a voice of persecuted Christians. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.