Christian Favoritism in a Time of Persecution (Kevin Carnahan)

Current Events

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. . . . How should Christians feel about all of this?

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.”[1]

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.

11 thoughts on “Christian Favoritism in a Time of Persecution (Kevin Carnahan)

  1. The point this article smacks of gnostic notion of the separation of the material and the divine worlds. Orthodox historic Christian theology has always insisted that the holy can be located in the flesh. Not just in Christ, but in his body, the church. When we resurrect, it is a bodily resurrection. Likewise, when we receive the Holy Ghost in this life, in this world, our bodies are remade into holy vessels (Ephesians 4:22-24 or 1 Corinthians 6:19). To say that we should not bemoan the destruction of holy bodies in this world because they do not carry the true nature of the true church is to participate in a separation that does not exist. This separation is what enables Christians today to indifferently tolerate our factionalism. It is also what allowed gnostics to look at the cross and shrug. Christians are to bemoan the bodily destruction of the church in this world because the holy is being desecrated. To treat the persecution and destruction of the church on the same level as destruction of all other religious bodies is akin to treating Christ’s crucifixion with the same weight as all other crucifixions. If there is no notion of the ontological privilege of Christianity in the world, and if the notion of Christ’s bride really being embodied in the world is lost, then what is proposed here is perhaps the weakest ecclesiology I can comprehend.

    Yes, Christians are supposed to die for our faith. Yes, we should fully expect persecution and death until the coming of the Kingdom. However, we do not seek death and destruction of Christians, nor do we shrug at it. It is Satan’s job to destroy and profane the holy (1 Peter 5:8). It is our job to decry it, to work against it, and to hold up the cross for all to see. That’s what folks are doing. The only purpose this article could serve is to confuse folks into feeling as though their witness is somehow misguided or faithless. The suffering of Christ was of a different nature than worldly suffering. Likewise, the suffering of the church has to be acknowledged as of a different, and more holy, nature than worldly suffering. God does show privilege for his family, not just in the next life, but in this one. That is why the martyrs of our faith, and no other faith, are welcomed into his altar in heaven today (Revelation 6:9-11).

  2. Kevin there are Christians who posted the Arabic N and asked for God’s mercy towards the Yazidi, Christians, and all other minorities and religious groups who are being persecuted and suffering under the tyranny of ISIS. I just want to acknowledge that fact.

  3. Let’s completely leave aside notions of religious solidarity, which for some reason don’t seem so objectionable to many of our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. (Out of curiosity, are such people mistaken in expressing “favoritism” for their co-religionists, in your view? Or, as Peter Singer might begin by asking, are you and I mistaken in expressing “favoritism” for our children?)

    Does it make any difference at all to the author that what are being eradicated here are some of the oldest communities, institutions, languages, manuscripts, monasteries of Christian heritage, and that similar devastation is occurring to the same across the region? (Yes, the Yazidis also deserve special attention in this regard, esp. from a humanitarian perspective.)

    When the smoke clears, there will still be Arabic, Islamic, Palestinian communities and institutions in Gaza, ditto for Sunnis/Kurds/Shi`a in Iraq, and so on, mutatis mutandis. I find it surprising (myopic? philistine?) that your article completely overlooks the dimension of cultural heritage, if I can put the matter very blandly.

  4. I understand that we should also stand against actions which persecute other groups of people. We are called to pray for ALL peoples, BUT especially for those of the faith: Galatians 6:10 – So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
    Also, we should be more focussed on situations in which Gospel opportunities are being radically reduced and be praying especially for them if our desire is for everyone to come to know Christ.

  5. Thanks for all of the responses to my post. I hope that I am able to clarify some things in response to your queries.

    David,

    In this post I am making an argument from Christian presuppositions. Jewish and Muslim traditions do not share all of these presuppositions, so I would not expect this argument to be convincing to them in that way. And certainly Peter Singer does not share these presuppositions, so what he and I am doing are quite distinct. In saying this, I do not mean to say that these traditions lack resources for making arguments with similar conclusions, but it is hardly up to a Christian arguing as a Christian to tell members of other faiths what is required of them. I could, of course, produce such an account in the mode of Jeffrey Stout, but that was not my purpose here.

    Does my conclusion come to the same place as Peter Singer’s argument for equality? No. Protestant theological notions such as common grace, orders of creation or preservation, or divine mandates provide enough room to provide many more moral distinctions than Singer would allow. My point here is that inasmuch as the Church is called to transcend common grace, creation, and preservation the uniqueness of its divine mandate calls it to orient its care at least as much outwardly as inwardly.

    As to the rest of your question … I am not entirely sure how to respond. I am not, in the above post, suggesting that Christians ought not advocate for Christians under conditions of persecution. I find the persecution of Christians (and all other groups) to be atrocious. I would not find the eradication of any group to be an acceptable conclusion. That said, I do want to suggest that Christians should not in the abstract play one group of persecuted persons against another. The favoritism I am concerned with is exactly the advocacy for “our” group over against some group of “others.”

    Peter,

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. I am not critiquing any of the activities listed at the beginning in themselves. If those activities are practiced with other activities advocating for others, I think they are absolutely appropriate as signs of solidarity and calls for support. I am critiquing the favoritism which may or may not drive such activities.

    I am happy that we have had the opportunity to discuss this in another forum, and I agree entirely with your claim that: “As Christians, we desire no one to suffer such inhumane treatment. We stand for the humanity of all.”

    Jeffrey,

    As we have discussed in other forums, I believe that you have read Gnosticism into the above post where I was suggesting an already/not yet eschatological tension.

    Ultimately, however, I suspect our ecclesiologies differ too much to be reconciled. Deploying the metaphor of “tribe” to discuss the church, in another forum you wrote that “Tribes focus inward and outward. Favorably inward, unfavorably outward. This is the mentality that the scriptures produce in their dualistic good vs. bad, light vs. dark, worldly vs. heavenly constructs. There is nothing to object to here, is there?”

    As I responded there, I take John 3:16 “For God so loved the World that he gave his only begotten son” to be at the kerigmatic core of the Gospel message. And I conclude that the notion of an inwardly focused Church is as confused as the idea that Christ himself was selfishly focused.

    Again, I appreciate the exchange and the opportunity to clarify my position. Thanks to all.

    Kevin Carnahan

    1. Thank you for your response, Dr. Carnahan. I think you’ve sidestepped the loss of e.g. Syriac Christianity’s cultural heritage, but we simply differ in how important we think those resources are. I wonder if there is a place in your reflections for loyalty, what the Protestant, and eminently modern, Josiah Royce described as the most fundamental virtue?

      1. Thanks David,

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to sidestep. My position there is simply that for the Christian Syriac Christian cultural heritage should be valued and defended just as the cultural heritage of any other persecuted group. Again, my concerns is not with valuing and defending such things, it is with favoring Christian worldly goods over non-Christian worldly goods.

        On your second question, I would rather speak in terms of “faithfulness” than loyalty, but I suspect both terms carry much of the same weight.

        Faithfulness is central to Christianity, but this would work out for me differently than it does for Royce. This is because Royce comes from a background of idealistic philosophy (esp. the Hegelian tradition). This tradition tends to immanentize God in worldly institutions and social roles. Here, I would tend to side with H. Richard Niebuhr’s concept of “radical monotheism.” Faithfulness is first to God, and this relativizes faithfulness to any worldly institution or social role.

        1. You’re conflating ‘should be valued’ with ‘should be valued by a member of x group,’ without argument. Why should these be precisely the same thing? Yours is a very odd move here, coming right after you claim agnosticism about the morality of other confessional positions on solidarity, on the grounds that these start from “other premises.” (Punt!) You can’t have it both ways: either adopting the premise-outlook of a given (subset of a) confession affects one’s obligations, or it doesn’t.

          To come back to the issue at hand, perhaps to you in particular many of Christianity’s oldest manuscripts and monasteries, the language Christ spoke, etc. are just “worldly goods,” on a par with a house or a book or a language somewhere else? Yours is a very special kind of Christianity.

          In the abstract, we can say all human lives, cultures, etc. are equal, and this is true in several important senses. In practice, however, we–particular, finitely capable moral agents–can’t realize our responsibilities toward all human beings equally, the more so if we assume these obligations are as fantastically broad and even as you make them out to be. No matter how narrowly or broadly you wish to construe our obligations to others, we have to choose where to focus our limited capacities. And here, if anywhere, loyalty clearly must play a role of some sort, the more so in the particular case you proposed to discuss. The case of Iraq’s disappearing minorities, concerning which you criticize (a particular subset of) people for merely proposing (without actually doing anything?) to help their coreligionists.

          I wonder, why do you think that groups disappear if they can’t articulate and defend why /this particular/ people, group, belief, language should be defended, should continue to exist? Why do they become irrelevant and ultimately disappear, especially when they can’t persuade their own people to defend them? Why do you think their children respect and imitate people who do value their own traditions, why do they become assimilated to other groups, why does what was once theirs pass into the hands of others, why do you think they cease to reproduce themselves, in every sense?

          Ah, but this isn’t just a problem for Aramaic speakers, is it?

  6. Thanks for the response Anon.

    I agree with you up to the “especially.” Imagine if Christ had loved the World, “especially” his own body which was in the World.

    As concerns the spreading of the Gospel … First, I take it that the spreading of Gospel, while it is an obligation for us, the spreading of salvation through the Gospel is ultimately the province of God. Even if a Christian population is silenced, the stones would cry out. Second, I take it that spreading the Gospel is synonymous with manifesting the love of God. If we choose to favor member’s of our own religion, we fail to spread the Gospel no matter how many Christians we may specially protect by our favoritism.

    Thanks again.

    1. I understand, but Galatians is explicit in that we pray especially for those of the faith. As for the situation in Iraq, we should be praying for the Christians in particular. BUT we should be acting for them: not solely because they are Christians (I agree with you), BUT because Gospel opportunities are being radically reduced.
      So we are not necessarily ‘favouring members of our own religion’ but acting specifically to this situation because it hinders the spread of the Gospel. We are not favouring Christians, but the faith to which we live our lives for.

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