It’s an old but live question: should Christians give their support to dictators and regimes with dubious human rights records if that seems the safest option for their own community, or should they join with those voices demanding change – even if it may mean worse conditions for themselves? What would you do?
From the perspective of those facing harsh or life-threatening conditions, the very basic human need for safety and protection of their communities is often the lesser of two evils, even if the regime that promises these is an authoritarian one. This is felt all the more strongly if the collapse of that regime could open the door for an Islamist administration with a radical agenda that would clearly restrict and persecute Christians. One can name this the utilitarian argument for Christians to back authoritarian regimes: it is for the good of the Christian community.
This has, in fact, been the decisive choice made by many Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, particularly since the 1970’s. It means that Christians have found themselves in small enclaves carved out by strong regimes. As long as they kept within those boundaries, the regimes did not touch them directly and, in the cases of Syria and Iraq, they enabled them, to an extent, to flourish economically and culturally.
This utilitarian position has drawn wide criticism. Opposition groups, civil society and intellectuals have criticised Christians – sometimes with justification – for not caring sufficiently about the wider society, for being insular and indifferent to problems, and only speaking up when they themselves were affected by an issue. Many saw this as an ethical failure, if not a failure of the Christian mandate to love one’s neighbour as one’s self.
The Arab Spring, however, has highlighted another serious problem with this utilitarian approach. Not only does it rest on shaky ground theologically and ethically; it has not worked in practice. While authoritarian governments promised to protect Christians, all across the region they were scapegoated and attacks on Christians were permitted by those governments who showed no genuine commitment to prevent them.
Similarly, long-term trends raised serious questions as to whether these governments were ever truly the friends they claimed. Rather, they seemed to use the freedoms they gave Christians for window dressing to gain legitimacy in the international arena. The isolation of Christians in the region and lack of knowledge about them or their beliefs in wider society were, in fact, two direct policies of these regimes. Official histories were also altered, first to suit Arab nationalism and socialism, then increasingly post-1970’s to promote narratives of Islam and nationhood. Both excluded the deep Christian roots in these countries and those of other non-Muslim communities. In addition, mainstream media excluded Christians from popular culture. Thus, while claiming to help the Christian community, these governments really placed Christians in a far more vulnerable and isolated position.
they seemed to use the freedoms they gave Christians for window dressing to gain legitimacy in the international arena
When those regimes began collapsing, both the fears of Christians as well as their short-sightedness revealed themselves. Fears became real: radical Islamist groups emerged, politically and as militant organisations, and targeted Christians. And the utilitarian policy of cooperation with the regimes had a bitter sting: there was hardly anyone left to speak up for them, while the Christians had scarcely any voice of their own or input into the debates about their future societies. In addition, non-Christians believed their calls for peace and democracy to be insincere.
Now, almost four years after the Arab Spring, Christians are being forced again to take political sides, and with that will come serious short-term and long-term social and political outcomes.
Many Middle East Christians have for too long internalised being vulnerable minorities in need of protection by strong states. That can easily blind us from viewing ourselves as active agents who can take action to prevent some of the abuses we suffer, to better our lives and strive for improvements in the lives of our fellow citizens.
For Christians, the only utilitarian argument that is right and would work is the one that seeks the best for everyone in their country. This is not a passive acceptance of a lofty vision, but requires serious dedication from Christians to being prophets in their own countries, to be peacemakers, bridge builders, and voices of fairness, inclusiveness, healing and restoration.
Practical realities aside, this is also the only political vision that can give a true testimony about who Christ is and what the Gospel means in today’s world.
Have your say
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Christopher B writes:
This is an excellent article on a profound ethical dilemma, and I am acutely conscious that I write from a position of comparative material security and comfort. But in the end, being a Christian isn’t about what MENA Christians will see as advantageous or beneficial for themselves, or for their national political leaders du jour, or for their non-Christian neighbours. Being a Christian is about proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed while seeking to build mutually beneficial peaceful relations with other inhabitants of the land. If geographical neighbours of other faiths are determined not to let local Christians do this, then the remaining NT approved options appear to be martyrdom or flight to another locale which will.
As for the powers that be, Christians are instructed to pray for their well-being (which in the classical world was often also a public expression of civic loyalty); and to take every opportunity God provides to live and explain the way of truth in gentleness and humility to all who will listen, while praying that the Lord will open eyes and ears, and soften hearts to receive the good news of Jesus.
David J writes:
Romans Chapter 13 verse 1 says there is no human authority other than ordained by GOD. Not being GOD and not seeing all of His purposes in our minds eye we have to rely on GOD’s word being right.
In human history Christians have had to face persecution and leave their homes, friends, churches. In the New Testament some lived in caves. We must not forget that it was not that long ago in English history…that Christians left these shores and sailed to places like the USA to avoid persecution and make a new start.
We must pray that GOD will work His purposes out and pray that GOD will give divine help to those who face much personal loss in being obedient for Him, even if they, or we, do not understand the purposes of GOD at any given time.
James B writes:
After working and living in Libya before and after the revolution, I’m afraid to say that Libya was better under Gaddafi. Under Gaddafi Christians were allowed to worship in their churches without fear. However since the revolution, Christian churches have burned out, Christian cemeteries have been vandalised, with the cross being smashed! Of course, I was only a ‘visitor’ to Libya, not a ‘Libyan Christian’ so I did have a certain liberty that the Libyans allowed me as a foreign worker. I was ‘pointed at’ a few times because I wore a cross around my neck. I think I was quite naïve as I thought the ‘revolution’ was a good thing for the Libyan people, however…seeing the continuing suffering of the Libyan people, I can only surmise that sometimes it is better to put up with the devil you know.
Jim P writes:
Our NGO has run projects in Nepal to support Christians there for a number of years. In 1980 the government declared Nepal a Hindu country, stopped foreign missionaries and imposed prison sentences for promoting Christianity, including the possession of a Bible or even a tract. All the older pastors we know have been in prison. Eventually there was a political rebellion. The Christians were faced with a decision, whether to join the revolution and fight for religious freedom or to turn the other cheek. A film was made [which] brings out the arguments, for and against, made by searching the Bible for guiding principles.
It is not clear to what extent Christian participation actually contributed to Christians being released from prison and the return of religious freedom. Religious freedom brought far reaching effects.
About three years ago the present government in Nepal made Christmas Day a public holiday, in recognition of the good which Christians were doing in the community. In Nepal today we keep seeing people drawn to Christianity because they perceive Christians as good people. From time to time we get photographs of a few hundred women and men queueing at a riverside to be baptised.
Of course the case with IS is a far different thing. It seems to me that the guiding principle in all these things, as well as in normal Christian living, is to understand God’s purpose and cooperate with Him. Many churches in England have moved to a different type of christianity, which is egocentric, focusing on God’s purpose for me, seen as God improving me and helping me through all my problems. Jesus’ statement of his purpose in coming to earth (at the end of Luke chapter 4) is clear. He came to proclaim The Gospel of The Kingdom of God. His instructions to his disciples on mission practice is equally clear: 1. heal the sick 2. cast out spirits 3. proclaim that The Kingdom of God is here. Also his conversations with them after the Resurrection, which were about The Kingdom (the first verses of Acts). In all Jesus said key things. “Seek first The Kingdom of God…” “…The Kingdom of God is among you.” Etc..
If we look with open eyes at what God is doing in the world now we see the Holy Spirit at work strongly in our time. There is a great outpouring of knowledge, with huge benefits to mankind, e.g. in medicine, IT, etc… Governments are opening their eyes to corruption… Islam has to face up to fundamentalism. Internet petitions for a just solution of the world’s problems have mushroomed. And amazingly, Avaaz, which is certainly not Christian, is currently asking its millions of supporters to pledge to renew their personal lives by keeping three principles which are in fact Christian. And much more. Jesus’ teaching (lifted from the Law) produces a viable, stable and happy world. This is God’s will. It is coming. It is our goal too, as Christians.
I am saying that we need to see this great tribulation with ISIS in an even greater context. Jesus’ several teachings on “love your enemy” come to mind. It may be a silent witness. What we are, because of Him, rather than what we say or try to do. The plan is His, the power too. He achieves in simple ways, which do not come to our thinking, and they work out.
Also the words of a Nepalese woman christian who was tied to a post, beaten, spat upon and taunted and left in the sun for three hours; “My Lord suffered more than this for me, I will never renounce Him”.
It is easier said than done. Perhaps it may be easier if seen, not as “our suffering”, but “His purpose which will prevail”. Do not IS themselves work for a “higher calling”? We pray that your people find His purpose and His strength. As I see it, each decision has to be a personal and local one, God whispering convictions to his people, God’s people reflecting His power and His love and His peace into the horror. They are in a battle for the world and for The Kingdom, more than the world knows.
Margaret N writes:
If ISIL or any other foreign sponsored terrorist organisation take over Syria, it will spell the death knell of the church, perhaps not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in the entire Middle East. It will also spell the death knell of even those existing rights that women there have, together with any hope of moderate decent humanitarian values of justice, equality and human rights. Syria under Assad, as attested by Patrick Sookhdeo of Barnabus Fund – the organisation dedicated to help persecuted Christians – was perhaps the easiest place to be a Christian in the entire Middle East. Therefore I would not be too hasty in wishing his demise. You need only look at the state of Libya to see the destruction that would result. In those areas controlled by ISIL in Syria, women have no rights and are treated as chattels, Christians are tortured, brutally killed and made homeless refugees made to endure freezing cold conditions as they are forced to flee these vile atrocities, so resulting in deaths especially among babies and the elderly. In Raqqa, abandoned Christian homes have been given to Muslim jihadis from the West so that Christians whose homes have been taken over in this way see no possibility of returning home due to IS’s control over the area. The so-called “rebels ” get their cue from their sponsors, Saudi Arabia, the vilest regime on earth, as many have argued.
In recent elections, held to be free and fair by independent observers, Assad gained 80% or more of the popular vote in those areas that were not under “rebel” control and thus prevented from exercising their democratic right to vote. Judge for yourself who are and aren’t the “dictators”. That is why Christians and many others support Assad, knowing the fate that would await them if he falls.