The latest Pew Research Center report states that violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths has reached an all-time high. The number of countries where religious minorities are abused doubled between 2007 and 2012. Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List identifies the top 50 countries “where Christians faced the most pressure and violence.” Among the top ten are five countries in the Middle East, with Syria now ranked number 3 (deteriorating from Number 5 in 2013). While there are no accurate numbers, it is estimated that at least 600,000 Syrian Christians have fled Syria, out of a population of 2-3 million Christians in the country. The very well founded fear is that Christianity will be decimated in a country where Christians have had a presence and a witness since the time of Christ.
Is it possible to talk about having a Christian witness in places where Churches are being burnt and ransacked, and where Christians are being targeted with violence and driven from their homes? This is a question not only for Syria but also for northern Nigeria and other parts of Africa, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and numerous other places.
The story of Christianity in much of the Middle East in the last millennium has been one of survival rather than one of evangelism and growth. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the veteran missionary who spent years in the Middle East, tells the story of Robert Curzon, the English traveler, diplomat and author, looking for ancient manuscripts for British museums. While visiting a monastery in the mountains of Lebanon in 1849, Curzon writes about a meal with the monks in the candlelit refectory. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.” While there was violence and gunfire outside the high walls of the monastery, it did not affect the life of the monks inside the walls as they continued to live and worship as if nothing had happened. The massive walls kept out the world and its violence to preserve the faith and the faithful.
It is evident that in the midst of turmoil and violence a witness to Christ in the Middle East has remained. Sometimes surviving is all that can be done. But are there other ways of being a witness to the living God in Jesus Christ in such a context?
In a conversation with an Arab Church leader a number of years ago as radical Islam was beginning to target Christian communities in the region, he said that one of the few ways left for the church in the Middle East to maintain an effective witness in an increasingly hostile context, was to reach out to the poor and demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ.
His comment reflects one of the twelve principles for Christian witness in the document entitled Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct. Principle 4 is about acts of service and justice.
Christians are called to act justly and to love tenderly (cf. Micah 6:8). They are further called to serve others and in so doing to recognize Christ in the least of their sisters and brothers (cf. Matthew 25:45). Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief services and acts of justice and advocacy are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel. The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service.
Too often it is presumed that the only valid method of witnessing in a pluralistic context is through verbal proclamation of the Good News of Kingdom of God and its King Jesus Christ. Yet in the context of the Middle East, where words and rhetoric have little meaning and where hostility towards the Christian community is real, acts of love and compassion are powerful communicators.
However, there is a power relationship in any act of charity. The vulnerability of the poor can very easily be manipulated by providing assistance to ensure that they join a specific group. But as Principle 4 points out, the acts of service should not be tools for exploiting poor and vulnerable communities. There should be no conditionality in the assistance that is provided.
Caring for those who are not part of the mainstreams of society because of their brokenness and rejection is, among other things, a prophetic act. It illustrates more clearly than anything else, God’s work of caring for those who are not part of His Kingdom because of the evil that has broken them and the darkness that holds them in bondage. It is a prophetic act also because caring for the poor shows what the Kingdom of God is really like – where the weak, the vulnerable and the broken are not discarded but are valued; a place where people, regardless of who they are, find a place.
But for it to be a prophetic act, the message needs to be articulated also. How are acts of service and justice as part of being a witness different that what secular organizations such as Save the Children or Oxfam, or Islamic NGOs such as Islamic Relief do? Being compassionate and wanting justice is part of being human regardless of one’s faith or worldview and not unique to Christianity. However, acts of service and justice as part of the mission of God (Missio Dei) demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom of God. It cannot be assumed that by merely observing or experiencing acts of mercy and service that people will know the King and His Kingdom.
So what does this look like?
- Realize that the church is not just a spiritual institution that addresses eternal issues, but that it is also an institution in the community. It has a history in the community, as well as relationships, networks and credibility. As part of the community, it has a responsibility to the families and individuals. More so, the Biblical injunction is to be salt and light in the world.
- The verbal proclamation is not always a prepackaged presentation of the “Gospel”. Jesus fed the five thousand and then talked about being the Bread of Life. The Gospel is Good News that the Kingdom of God has come. How do those in need perceive this Good News of the Kingdom and the King? Is my presentation of the “Gospel” good news to them or is it so far removed from their reality that they cannot relate to it?
- The church and the people of God need to reflect the transformation that the Gospel brings. In Syria many of the churches are becoming places of compassion for anyone regardless of their faith or ethnic background. They are stepping out of their comfort zones and reaching out to those who do not belong to their group or community. In Lebanon, many of the churches are demonstrating what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like through their acts of compassion as they forgive Syrians for their twenty year occupation of the country.
The verbal proclamation and the demonstration of the reality of the message cannot be separated. It is this fine balance that the 2001 Micah declaration describes:
Integral missions or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the Word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the Word of God, we have nothing to bring to the world.