Many of my friends on social media have changed their profile pictures to the Arabic N to indicate their support for and solidarity with Christians who are currently being persecuted in the Middle East. A White House petition calling for the United States Government to offer support to Christians in Iraq has over 41,000 signatures at the time that I am writing this, and is quickly adding more. Even before the current outbreak of abuses against Christians, whole publications have been dedicated to charting the persecution of Christians around the globe.
How should Christians feel about all of this?
First, let me say that I also stand in solidarity with those Christians who suffer under persecution around the world. The atrocities that have been suffered, for instance, by Christian populations in Iraq are horrifying, and I believe that they are proper subjects for advocacy and on-the-ground support from all sorts of agencies, including governments and Churches.
I am, however, deeply concerned about the tendency of Christian favoritism when reacting to these current atrocities. One blogger recently posted an argument for special Christian concern for other Christians. Drawing upon the metaphor of the Church as “family” (Gal. 6:10) and citing Stanley Hauerwas’ request that Christians try first to stop killing one another, Drew McIntyre argues that, “Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own.” Just as we are more protective of our own family, so we should be more protective of our brothers and sisters in the faith.
I appreciate McIntyre’s argument inasmuch as it locates the Church within the scheme of what Protestants have often called “common grace.” The institutions of the world (family, labor, etc.) function to bring us out of the citadel of the self inasmuch as these require us to put our own interests aside for a broader circle of people. Common grace requires a first step beyond the self into the World.
But, here, let me suggest something that may seem counterintuitive. Favoritism for the Church reflects too low an ecclesiology.
Like all Christian doctrines, the doctrine of ecclesiology must be caught up in the paradox of Christ’s activity in the World. Christ came to bring abundant life, and that life was only brought through death. Christ is the glorified Son of God, and this is manifest primarily in Christ’s humiliating crucifixion. Christ is fully God – immortal, invulnerable, infallible, all powerful – and yet Christ is fully human – vulnerable, frightened, unsure, and penultimately killed.
The Church is not only a family, but also the body of Christ. When the metaphor of “body” is deployed, the problem of favoritism for members of the Church becomes clear. If the Church is called to be Christ in and for the world, it hardly makes sense to make protection of the body a primary concern. Such is certainly not Christ’s example. Christ places sacrifice before glory. Christ places concern for the other before concern for his own body. The Christian life, both individually and communally, aspires to carrying this cross. The Church has failed in its mission if it allows Christians to favor its own members.
Another way to approach the role of the Church is to say that the true glory of the Church is never threatened, and can not be defended in the World. This is because the glory of the Church as the body of Christ is ultimately secured not by its members but by the activity of Christ who is the head of the Church and the source of its life. Though Christ’s body was broken, Christ returned it to life. The Church within the world is always subject to violation and abuse, fallibalism and failure, and will only be fully glorified in the resurrection. To identify the Church with the body of Christ is to identify it with both the strength and the weakness of Christ’s body. To identify the Church with the body of Christ is also to raise it up as a subject of abuse in the world.
To be clear, I do not mean to say here that Christians should have no concern for their persecuted brothers and sisters, or that they should turn a blind eye to the persecution of Christians. This is because the Church still does function within the scheme of common grace. As a Worldly institution, the Church is an imperfect structure which requires us to move beyond ourselves. This is certainly not the fullness of the life of the Church, but the Church is at least this – an imperfect institution doing relative good in an imperfect world. In this way, the Church is a part of the World, and deserves support and defense as much as any other good of the World. Commenting on Augustine’s theology, Rowan Williams writes that: “insofar as [the commonwealth] is imperfectly just and orderly, it justifies defensive action. True justice and orderliness cannot be defended by such means, because they participate in the City of God, which depends upon defenseless trust in the continuance of God’s ordo.”
My point is that the Christian is justified in calling for attention to the suffering of the Church only to the extent that the Church is the same as any other institution in the World, and never because the Church is distinct from those institutions. For the Christian, the distinctiveness of the Church is exactly its ultimate perfection in Christ, which is also what makes it impossible to defend by human effort.
So, today as my fellow Christians call for support for Iraqi Church members, I pray that they also advocate for the Yazidis, the Shi’a, the Kurds, and the many others who suffer under the tyranny of the rogue militants who call themselves ISIS. And I pray that in the future we shed as much light on every instance of persecution, no matter who is suffering, as we are shedding on these occurrences. It is the World that Christ came to save, and as the body of Christ we must live in and for the World. Only to that extent will we never be of the World.