Article 1 in a new series: The Ethics of Global Engagement
A Middle East contributor highlights some of the issues we need to be mindful of as we engage with the church in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Body of Christ is not simply a local church that meets on Sundays, but a global body of all those who call him Lord and Saviour. We only make sense together and we are called to be one. This is easier said than done. Even when we sincerely want to be there for our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world, how we should help and what kind of help we can or should offer needs careful reflection.
It is clear that religious persecution is increasing in the world. A new (January 2014) study by the Pew Research Center indicates that the number of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012. One third of the 198 states included experienced high levels of hostility on religious grounds. According to their previous report (June 2013) 74% of the world’s population (nearly 5.1 billion people) live in countries where there are high levels of restrictions on religious freedom.
74% of the world’s population…live in countries where there are high levels of restrictions on religious freedom
Developments in the Middle East and North Africa in the last two years have particularly affected the situation of Christians. We hear heart-breaking reports of suffering almost every day. Naturally, we want to do our best to support, reach and encourage them. But increasing our focus on the persecuted church brings with itself a host of challenges and risks. If unaddressed, these will continue to undermine our good intentions and bring more harm to the suffering church than blessing.
Below are some of the areas where we may need to reflect on current practise and develop more ethical positions:
The number of publications, conferences and media reports on persecution is increasing. A significant proportion tend to focus on personal testimonies. This is understandable since abstract numbers and analysis are rarely as engaging. However, this brings a serious ethical challenge. The most popular stories are often ones that include supernatural accounts and heroic resolutions, and not all stories do. Editorial comments often present these events to the reader as an encouragement or challenge to greater faith. This reduces reports of persecution to objects of consumption by the Western church for our own encouragement or spiritual journey, whereas our encouragement should only be a by-product, not the main focus. We report stories of persecution because the Body of Christ is suffering and asking for us to be with them, to help them, to pray, lobby and to share their suffering.
The same consumer-based approach to publishing experiences of persecution often romanticises suffering. The story line follows like this: there is suffering but in the thick of it Christians are happy and full of faith; even though it is bad, the church grows under persecution. Sadly, this is only true sometimes and in some places. Many Christians lose their faith or suffer to such a level that they carry the scars and pains for a lifetime. There are more incidents of churches being wiped out through persecution than those that see church growth. There is nothing romantic about Christians being jailed, tortured and raped. And those that suffer such horrendous persecution may also feel the pressure to fit into our story line and what we expect of them. Their psychological suffering, doubts, questions and walking away from the faith are hardly mentioned in our publications. This raises a serious question about how genuine our interest actually is in persecution.
The suffering of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa especially is seized on by some politicians in Europe and North America who have their own political agendas. Faulty notions of ‘the clash of civilisations’ produce ongoing arguments as to whether people of other faiths can integrate into Europe and USA. In such arguments, the sufferings of Christians are simply used as another proof of why certain religions and certain countries are a threat to our own way of life.
When the suffering of Christians is highlighted in this way in the West it only further isolates Christians living in those countries from the majority of citizens. This plays well for extremist groups in Middle East who portray Christians as Western allies, spies and agents. Even though Christianity emerged from the Middle East, Christians find themselves portrayed as a local representation of a Western Christianity. Christians are regularly targeted not simply for following Jesus but because of these perceptions of a clash between East and West. Using the suffering of Christians for western political concerns only makes it worse for Christians living in persecuting countries.
Another problematic trend is the growing view that while Christians are persecuted elsewhere, they suffer in the West too. Some suggest it can be more difficult to be a faithful Christian in the developed world with all its freedoms and wealth than in a poor country with persecution. It is true that Christianity is losing its privileged position in countries like the UK. And while people in some occupations may feel under pressure to compromise their faith, we cannot say we are persecuted or face the levels of hostility experienced by millions of Christians around the world.
To argue that materialism and wealth somehow makes it more difficult to follow Christ than living in grinding poverty is deeply problematic both theologically and ethically. It dismisses or diminishes the actual sufferings of our fellow believers and turns us into victims. This results in apathy towards the suffering of the global Church and encourages us to be insular and self-obsessed. It is empirically wrong, (no, following Christ is not normally difficult here) and ethically corrupt (they, not we, are being victimised and we are the ones in a position to help).
These are just four reasons calling us to some honesty and self-scrutiny on how and why we relate to the persecuted Church. They are important questions, too, to ask of the speakers, publishers and charities that bring us reports on persecution, so that we can truly stand alongside our suffering brothers and sisters with genuine concern, prayer and action (1 Corinthians 12:26; Hebrews 13:3).
Let us know your thoughts on this article. Add your comments, thoughts, questions, or experiences. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Therese W writes: Thank you so much for a very needed article. We in the western world REALLY need to hear this. Much love and prayers from a sister in Sweden
Dr Harry H tweets: Agree w/ @Wazala_SAT7 on wazala.org/2014-01-relati… in that West at times singly worsens situation of #MENA Christians w/ talk of persecution.
Dr Harry H tweets: Much as West at times uses MENA Christian card @Wazala_SAT7, should we not also question how some MENA hierarchs deploy this same card too?
Hazel S writes: No lengthy critique or added reflections but thanks and appreciation for a wise, thoughtful article that will certainly help inform my thinking.