"Worth dying for and therefore worth living in"
From a podcast by Embrace the Middle East
Tim Livesey, CEO of Embrace the Middle East, talked with former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, about the origins of Middle Eastern Christianity, its historical development and why Christian communities remain such a vital and threatened ingredient in the social and cultural mix of Middle East societies – a gift we must not undervalue. Here are a couple of extracts from the discussion:
One of the things we regularly forget, I think, as Westerners is that Christianity is an oriental religion in its origins. It's an eastern Mediterranean phenomenon, which like Judaism, and Islam has spread across the world. And to look at where this faith has its origins, to look at the melting pot of the first few Christian centuries, in the Middle East, in the eastern Mediterranean, that's always been for me a matter of great scholarly interest. I think we can learn a great deal about the nature, the priorities of the Christian identity itself.
I remember a conversation I had with quite highly placed person in the UK government who would better be nameless, talking about the effect of the Iraq war on Christians in Iraq, and they said, "Of course, it's very difficult when all these foreigners come in and convert people to Christianity." And I said, "We're talking about Christian communities that have been there since approximately the first Christian century." This was clearly news to them.
One of our Middle East Christians partners from Jerusalem recalls how pretty much every time he meets a Christian who's come from the west to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, he gets asked the question, "When did you convert?". I think that we in the West forgot that Christianity began where he lives not where we live, due to possibly at least two factors:
Firstly, I wonder if it's got something to do with the politics of the Middle Ages where you might say, the 'other world' begins somewhere around the Bosphorus. Over there are these 'others'. They are Arab Syrians, Saracens in the Middle Ages, the Ottoman Turks later. It's 'other', it's strange, it's not us. So the idea that there are Christians who are different from us, who do things differently, think differently, dress and act differently, is a bit hard to take on.
Secondly, people have so long been, I suppose, acclimatised to the idea that the development of Christianity is all westwards. There's a kind of natural, almost magnetic draw the Christian faith shifts towards a centre in Rome.
However, not widely known in the West, the direction of travel of Christianity in the two or three centuries after the death of Jesus was actually if anything, predominantly eastwards. You have this tremendous expansion into the Syriac speaking world, which in those days would have included what's now Iraq, quite a bit of Iran as well. You have Syrian and Syriac speaking traders taking Christian faith along the Silk routes towards China, but also on the shipping routes to South India, where you also, of course, have a Jewish community of huge antiquity. We have stories of Franciscan Missionaries turning up much later at the court of the Tatar Khans in Central Asia, ready to convert them and finding a lot of somewhat stony faced Christian priests flanking the Khans and waiting, saying, "So you're going to convert us to Christianity?".
Just a word about the whole idea of martyrdom and the role that it has played in Christian identity, particularly with reference to the Middle East. From the very earliest days, there is a living testimony or living tradition of people who have suffered for the faith. And one of the earliest historical documents we have about the churches in Palestine in the fourth century is a record of the martyrs of Palestine. This is a chronicle of the people who'd suffered torture and death under the last of the great official Roman imperial persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century, when Christians are a minority. Sharing those stories becomes part of what cements the community, the identity of the church. These stories remind us that for all the disadvantages and the risks, it is worth being faithful. Because that faithfulness itself becomes a kind of generator of new life and hope. So sharing the stories of martyrdom, it's a way of saying, this faith, this commitment, is worth dying for. And so it's worth living in.
And of course, we've seen it yet again, in the last 20-30 years, we've seen it with the killing of Cistercian monks in Algeria, we've seen it in the martyrdom of Coptic Christians in Libya. And there's a very strong sense in the eastern Mediterranean churches that yes, we know how to be a martyr church, we know how to stand our ground when the pressure comes. That's one of the things which makes us who we are, and makes us aware of the worthwhile pursuit of the commitments we hold.
And I suppose it may also mean that Middle East Christians living in the circumstances in which they do, when they look at us, and all the benefits of life in the West, the relative security and safety for example. They must wonder, really, whether it's we that's lost something. We've failed to experience something important about what it means to be a Christian.
There's certainly a sense in many Middle Eastern Christian communities I know, that we in the West have no idea of why the faith really matters because it hasn't had to be tested, tested to destruction in that way. We talk about Christians being persecuted in the West sometimes because there are some disadvantages to being a Christian in a secular society. I think Christians in the Middle East might say, "Actually, that's a shame, but you have no idea what persecution really needs. This is discomfort. But you're not actually being shot. You're not actually being expelled from your home, threatened with torture, sent into exile, and so on."
Listen to the 30 min podcast here.
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