Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Christians in the Middle East: Martyred by Muslims in their Homeland, Disdained by Christians in America

In an early 2014 article by Michael Brendan Dougherty titled, 'The World’s Most Ancient Christian Communities are being Destroyed — and No One Cares', I was struck in particular by this brief quote, which sums up the problem in a memorable manner:

“The victims are ‘too Christian’ to excite the Left, and ‘too foreign’ to excite the Right.” —French philosopher Regis Debray

Quite so. I might amend Debray's observation to read that the Christian victims are "too Eastern" to excite American Protestant/Evangelical Christians to action. Though, as an Orthodox Christian myself, I am tempted to charge that the Christian victims of Islamic jihad are actually "too Christian" altogether.

Rod Dreher recently offered some reflections on this phenomenon following an encounter he had with a Bible-believer, which I hope American Baptists, Evangelicals and assorted others of the 33,000-or-so Protestant denominations (World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, Johnson; Oxford Univ Press, 2nd edition, 2001) will ponder:

Over the weekend, I got into a brief Twitter exchange with a pastor of a nondenominational “Bible church” (as if all churches aren’t Bible churches) in Texas who said that I am not a Christian, because Orthodox and Catholics are not Christian. I pointed out to him that Christianity did not begin with the Reformation, but then decided to block the guy on Twitter, because the last thing I wanted to do was get into an exchange with a guy like that. 
An hour later, I was standing in our Orthodox vespers service, thinking about that guy and smiling. There we were, praying in a church that can trace itself in an unbroken line back to the apostles. We chanted Psalms and read passages aloud from the Old Testament. We sang hymns commemorating the Council of Nicaea (325), and its victory over the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus. As in every vespers service, we sang the hymn “O Joyful Light,” which is the oldest surviving hymn from antiquity, having been composed in the late third or early fourth century; tradition says it was written by a bishop on his way to martyrdom. He didn’t write it for a praise band. 
And I thought about all the Christians of the Middle East being exiled and martyred today for their faith in Jesus Christ. These Christians are almost entirely Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, or members of one of the Nestorian churches. Whatever their communion, their ancestors were worshiping Jesus Christ as God when the ancestors of nearly all of us northern Europeans were praying to pagan gods. 
And yet, to this fundamentalist Protestant in Texas, these people are not Christian.

Rod's musings on the Orthodox Vespers service hit some of the myriad highlights as to why Orthodoxy deserves to recognized as authentic Christianity. While there are some Nestorian groups to be sure, it is illuminating to consider two recent articles by Dr. Anton Vrame of the Greek Archdiocese on the Assyrians and the Armenians, as well as an affirming "Amen" to the canonization by the Coptic Orthodox Church of the 21 Coptic Christian Martyrs of Libya, written by Fr. Lawrence Farley, as hopeful signs. Out of the darkness of Islamic persecution of Christians is shining the light of true Christian faith, showing there is far more uniting many of the Eastern Christian communions than the often circumstantial historical anomalies which have separated us for centuries.

Perhaps Rod Dreher's Bible-believing Twitter correspondent would concede the points raised by Rod in his reflection above (though perhaps not, as he seemed to be possessed of a priori certainty that we Orthodox are "not Christian"). But somehow I suspect the fundamentalist's objections to us may focus more on such "non-Biblical" practices as the veneration of icons, church ecclesiology and hierarchy, calling priests "Father" (and bishops "Master!"), our veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints, and so forth.

Though Rod makes several more essential points (read the whole post, by all means), he ultimately declined to take up the gauntlet in his post ("I have no interest in engaging in theological disputation here, and won’t.").

I have addressed some of these issues in an article of mine from 2013, and feel it is well worth re-posting here in its entirety, especially as it points out several fundamental theological deviations of Western Christians, and how that cripples their response to Muslim persecution of Orthodox, Copts and others today, actually predisposing them to implicitly side with the Muslim persecutors on theological grounds, and turn a blind eye to the plight of Eastern Christians.


Islam's Hatred of Holy Icons — and what that means for Persecuted Eastern Christians

Orthodox Church Iconostasis in the West Bank desecrated by Muslims


One of the great sorrows — after the church attacks, murders, abductions, rapes and forced conversions — caused by Islamic persecution of Christians, whether in our own day or in centuries past, must be the defilement of holy icons by Muslims. Indeed, it is highly probable that the iconoclast heresy which rocked Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries was triggered or accelerated by the brutal and sudden rise of Islam after the death of Muhammad in 632A.D.

Islam and Iconoclasm

Islamic 'icon' of Muhammad
and archangel Gabriel.
Islam is strongly set against images of any kind, although one may encounter in rare Islamic books depictions of Muhammad and his earliest companions, or Muhammad being visited by the spirit-being supposed to be the archangel Gabriel. But when it comes to Christian images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saints, Islam is the "icon smasher" extraordinaire. ("Icon smasher" is a literal translation of "iconoclast.")

In all the Christian lands conquered by Muslims from the seventh century onwards, when churches were not completely destroyed, they were converted into mosques and the holy images painted over, or, if they were panel icons, simply hacked into pieces and/or burned.

Islam's innate hatred of Christianity's holy images helps account for the recent push to re-convert all the Hagia Sophia churches of Turkey into mosques, including and especially the great Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (Istanbul) built by Justinian in 537A.D. In converting the Great Church into a museum, the original frescoes and mosaics began to be restored, revealing once again the holy images of Christ, His Most Pure Mother, and the Saints. This is a serious affront to the Islamic mind, thus with the re-Islamicization of Turkey, we see special emphasis on once again covering (or perhaps destroying) all Christian images, most perfectly accomplished in converting all the Hagia Sophia churches into mosques.

Protestantism and Iconoclasm

There is no small irony in the fact that Protestant Christians also tend to be iconoclastic, rejecting the holy images which the Christian Church had created, embraced and sanctified from the first century onwards. Though perhaps a justifiable reaction against Roman Catholic use of statues, the Protestant rejection of holy icons is in fact a theological error which limits and impoverishes Protestant theology and its grasp of the Incarnation, as well as its actual worship. 

(Orthodoxy does not accept the use of statues in its churches as they are too realistic, too much of this world. Icons, in contrast, are deliberately "other-worldly," and are often called "windows into heaven." Even when they depict historical events in the life of the Savior or the Saints, these events are "transfigured" with the uncreated light from beyond this world.)

Venerating an Icon
Orthodox converts from Protestantism are familiar with this issue, and are quick in grasping the essentials of proper icon use. “Worship is due to God alone,” the Church Fathers consistently affirm, whereas our veneration of an icon is imputed not to the wood and paint, but to the prototype in heaven. 

The Eastern Christian practice of making the sign of the Cross and bowing to kiss (venerate) icons is an essential physical aspect of Christian worship. Orthodox and Coptic Christians preserve intact the timeless certainty that worship to God must be performed by the entire person. Not with the mind alone, but with the body also do we show our love, adoration and worship of the Holy Trinity. 

Thus not only icons (which are visual and tactile), but incense (smell), prostrations and bows, and theologically rich hymnography (aural) according to the ancient rule of “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (St Vincent of Lerins) characterize traditional Christian worship.  

The pinnacle of Orthodox Christian worship is of course the receiving of the Holy Eucharist, the very Body and Blood of Christ, which sanctifies our entire being through the apparently mundane sense of taste. Thus the psalmist exclaims,

Taste and see that the Lord is good! —(Psalm 33:8, LXX)

And the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us,

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. —(John 6:53-57)

The Greek word used for "eat" in these verses means literally to "gnaw" or "chew." No mere memorial or symbol here! Christ means that we are to literally eat His flesh and drink His blood.

Thus all the senses, “All one’s strength,” as well as the mind and heart are to be fully engaged in worshipping the God of All. This is the first and greatest commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” —(Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37)

It was St John of Damascus in the eighth century who not merely defended the use of icons, but convincingly showed their necessity for Christian praxis, piety and worship. Because God the Word became Man and took on human form (literally becoming "enfleshed," which is what "incarnation" means), therefore He may be depicted in human form, as may His Most Holy Mother, the saints, and events in the life of Christ and His Church. The veneration of holy icons is thus a necessary and true aspect of authentic, timeless Christian worship.

This is so pure and simple a truth, that a child can grasp it. "Unless ye turn and become as little children..."  And children in the Orthodox Church naturally love and venerate the holy icons.

Just as the average home typically has many family photographs, so the Christian home should have holy images of the Family of God, the Church. Just as images are used in the secular world to teach, instruct, and depict historical events and heroes, so in the Church the holy icons present the Mystery of Faith in visual manner, yet, as stated above, in an other-worldly perspective, shining with an inner, transfigured light.

Tragically, by rejecting and denigrating Orthodox Christian iconography, Protestants are unwittingly siding with Islam, and implicitly denying the full meaning of the Incarnation.

The Islamification of the Bible

Protestantism commits a similar error in what Fr Stephen Freeman terms its "Islamification of Christianity." Protestantism has morphed the Bible into a sort of Christian Koran, as if God sent down the literal words of the Bible in direct revelation.

It is not the words of God which have been revealed to us. Rather it is Jesus Christ Himself, the Incarnate Logos, the Living Word of God, who is the most full and perfect revelation of God, "the image" — literally, in Greek, "icon" — "of the invisible God," as the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1:15.

All of sacred scripture testifies to Him, and was written by numerous different people, the Old Testament over a couple of thousand years, the New Testament over only a few decades after the Crucified, Risen and Glorified Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father.

NEWS FLASH: The Bible did not come down out of heaven fully formed.

In the same way, the Gospel is not properly a "book," nor is it even "four books." St Paul speaks of the gospel in his letters, which were written well before the four gospels were written or known to the Church at large. (It is thought likely that Mark wrote his gospel — generally accepted to be the first of the four — around 70AD, nearly twenty years after 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of Paul's letters, written ca. 50-51AD. However, some scholars suggest that when Paul writes of "my gospel" in Romans 2:16, that he may be referring to the Gospel according to Luke, who traveled with Paul on his later missionary journeys, likely compiling and composing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles during this time.)

The Gospel is the saving good news of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, in the flesh, bringing salvation and new life to mankind, enabling us to become "children of God" through Him (1 John 3:1), even to the point of becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).  In the theological language of the Church, this is termed theosis, or divinization. As St Athanasius of Alexandria boldly put it: "God became man so that man might become god."

The four gospels are thus the God-inspired accounts embraced by the Church within her Canon of Faith which properly testify to the Truth of The Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Living Word brings us the words of eternal life (John 6:68, 17:8), and it is the Word made flesh Himself  Who brings everything to us. Nothing is sent through an intermediary. Furthermore, by uniting us to Himself, he transforms us in an ontological manner. If we abide in Him, we are no longer of this world, just as He is not of this world (John 17:6, 14-18).

Jesus Christ is "the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6).  He is "the Light that was to come into the world" (John 1:9, 8:12), not the Bible. The Logos did not become incarnate to bring us a book — although we certainly rely on this Holy Book for the record of His life-giving words. And truly, all scripture is inspired by God and "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). However, we must recall that when St Paul speaks of "the scriptures," he is referring to what we call the Old Testament. The New Testament did not yet exist.

The Scriptures are indeed God-inspired, and the Scriptures come from out of the womb of the Church. It is the Church which formed the New Testament, led and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is part of the great synergia between God and Man. Thus we are not merely "People of the Book" (as Islam condescendingly calls Christians and Jews), but rather members of the Church, members of the theanthropic Body of Christ. And the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul even calls the Church "the Pillar and Ground of the Truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

The Logos became incarnate to bring Himself  to us, to unite us to Himself, and to usher us into Eternal Life in unending communion with the Holy Trinity, as Jesus prayed to His Father:

...That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. —(John 17:21-23)

Islam distorts the meaning of the word "Gospel," positing that Jesus delivered the Injil (the Koranic term for the Gospel) as a book of God's words to his disciples (in a manner similar to how Muhammad supposedly delivered the Koran).

(Interestingly, Islam teaches that Jesus' disciples subsequently distorted his message in the Injil, which is why Allah sent Muhammad to correct everything, which is eerily similar to what Protestants teach happened between 100A.D. and the Reformation, that true Christianity disappeared, only to be recovered by the Protestant Reformation.  This is an alarming parallel indeed...)

Therefore, muddled Protestant theology, cut off from the sources of traditional Christianity, can be seen to be Islamified both in its distorted view of the Bible and the Gospel, as well as in its rejection of the holy icons.

Eastern Christians are 'True' Christians

The sad result is that Western Protestant Christians, though well-intentioned and sincere in so many ways in their faith, tend to have a very difficult time seeing Eastern Christians as "true" Christians. (I am deliberately leaving aside here any discussion of Chalcedonian vs. non-Chalcedonian communions...)

I remember ten years ago or so, being very saddened at meeting a young woman who was zealous to do missionary work in Russia because, as she put it, "All they have over there is the Orthodox Church."

Another young woman returning from a mission trip to Romania expressed her confusion to me as to why the impoverished Romanians she had met were so zealous to donate what little resources they had for the building and beautification of Orthodox churches there. She wanted desperately to liberate them from what she saw as false piety, and help them "know Jesus." I know she meant well, and is very faithful in her own way, but the Lord's lesson of the Widow's Mites was lost on her, and the Jesus she wanted to introduce the Romanians to was the American Jesus, the one who hates the holy icons, beauty, "high church" services, and everything Orthodox.

This unfortunate ignorance is a persistent affliction blinding American Protestants to the fullness of the Christian Faith and to their own destiny and calling in Christ. The Lord loves His Bride, the Orthodox Church, which is why He calls her to suffer for His sake, and why He is blessing the Russian Church to flourish in our own time, in accordance with the mysterious prophecy of St Seraphim of Sarov.

The Effect of Iconoclasm on Eastern Christians

With this background, I would like to express my concern that the innate rejection of Holy Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity by Protestants may be a major factor in suppressing outcry in the United States against Muslim persecution of Christians in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and throughout the Islamic world.

In extreme cases, Protestants even condemn Eastern Christians (and Roman Catholics) as idolators because of their use of holy images, and therefore may secretly consider them as deserving of the "scourge of Islam" being visited upon them.  (As an historical aside, from the time of St Sophronius of Jerusalem in 637A.D., who called Christians to repent over their sins which had brought the Muslim attackers upon them, Eastern Christians have retained this sense of the rise of Islam as being allowed by God as a chastisement.)

With a double irony, the false "Prosperity Gospel" so popular in the United States actually fosters a sense within Evangelical circles that material prosperity (and lack of being persecuted) is proof of validation by God. This too is an Islamification of Christianity, being analogous to how the early Muslims interpreted Muhammad's battlefield successes, and after his death their own rapid expansion, as proof of God's favor and the truth of their religion. The Prosperity Gospel can ultimately lead to a condescending attitude towards Eastern Christians, and as with Protestant iconoclasm, suppresses U.S. support for Christians suffering under Muslim persecution.  In any case, Jesus clearly told us we would be persecuted if we follow Him, and he never promised earthly prosperity or glory.

We are seeing signs now that this unintentional suppression of concern and intervention for Eastern Christians suffering under Muslim persecution is beginning to change, as excellent organizations like International Christian ConcernMorning Star News, and others, offer broad reporting and support inclusive of Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Catholic Christians. Important texts like Raymond Ibrahim's new book, Crucified Again - Exposing Islam's New War On Christians,  Mark Durie's The Third Choice, and others, help convey the causes, breadth and continuity of Islamic persecution of all Christians, and foster an informed concern especially for Eastern Christians in their fourteen-century long endurance of Islamic jihad and domination.

We may even hope that God may work through this wave of Islamic persecution of Eastern Christians to awaken and draw many souls into the fold of the timeless, unchanging Orthodox Christian Faith.