Nathan Lewis Lawrence is a biracial graduate student, world traveler, and jujitsu enthusiast from Lancaster, Ohio. He received his bachelor’s degree in Security studies from Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio and received a M.A. in Peace and Conflict studies at the Department of International Relations at Hacettepe University. Currently, he attends the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Check out his personal blog Taming Cynicism.
There is no question that Christians around the world ought to pay attention to the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East due to their oppression by the Islamic State. The Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1st Corinthians 12 speaks to the universal solidarity that the Body of Christ possesses by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ideally, Christians should be united in their mourning of the recent martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and for the 100 Christians in Syria being kidnapped by the Islamic State. We ought to follow the example of Bishop Angaelos and pray for our brothers and sisters-in-Christ. They were a sacrifice to draw attention to the suffering of those oppressed by the Islamic State.
“I learned a long time ago that when one prays, one prays for the best outcome, not knowing what that outcome would be. Of course, I prayed that they would be safe. But I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be able to get through it. It doesn’t change my view of God that these 21 men died in this way. They were sacrificed, but so much has come out of it. They brought the imminent dangers to marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yazidis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the whole world.”
One can add that they are also a sacrifice to help generate a conversation on inter-church relations. This horrific event offers us an opportunity to discuss the large relational gap between liturgical forms of faith and free churchversions of the Christian faith. Many American protestant denominations and non-denominational organizations in the United States have chimed in on the killings. Most notably, leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention expressed solidarity with the Coptic and wider Middle Eastern Christian community. This caused some controversy since shortly before the murders, the convention recognized the Coptic community as an “unreached” people group. “Unreached” is this context means any nation with not enough Christians to witness. Arguing against calling the Coptic faith Christian, the Baptist blog the Pulpit & Pen points out that “the SBC’s International Mission Board has scrubbed all articles relating to Coptic Christians and their status of being unreached, lost, or in need of evangelism.” In response to this, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Center for Great Commission Studies has issued an official response to the recent controversy:
“Southern Baptists have not suddenly changed our definition of what it takes to become a Christian. However, it is indeed possible for a cultural group, a people group, to bear the name ‘Christian’ yet remain almost entirely unreached. It is also possible for individuals within an unreached people group to be genuine Christians. In such cases, we are dependent on what we can see of their individual witnesses.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is not the only organization to chime in on the murders. The website 21martyrs.com is the product of over one dozen American organizations and aims to honor the memory of the 21 martyrs by encouraging believers to pray every day for 40 days. Some notable organizations involved include Focus On the Family, Barna Group, the NHCLC, and The Justice Conference. Out of all of those involved, not one organization is Coptic or even from the wider Orthodox community. It only seems appropriate to recognize the special place the Coptic Church has. Basic civility seems to imply that there should be representatives from the community impacted by an atrocity.
From my personal experience, conservative evangelical sympathy for the Coptic community can be quite shallow. After I revealed that I liked liturgical worship, I received numerous concerns from evangelical friends for my soul. I had one tell me that iconography was demonic and harmful to my spiritual health. That same friend often talked about the violence the Coptic community faced during the Egyptian revolution. When I revealed to him that the Coptic community was theologically closer to myself than he, he replied “well I guess they died for nothing” and stopped sharing material regarding their plight.
No doubts that there are non-Christians within the Coptic community. The Coptic Orthodox Church makes no claim that every single soul that passes through its door will be saved nor does the Coptic Orthodox Church claim that every single person born within the Coptic ethnicity will obtain salvation. Salvation is open to all of humankind. As an African-American convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I find such a misunderstanding of the theology of the Oriental Orthodox community to be disgusting. In fact, it has been condemned as heresy to teach that one’s ethnicity can somehow gain someone salvation. For example, in regards to Eastern Orthodoxy, ethno-phyletism or the confusion of nation and church was specifically denounced as heretical by Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople in 1872. Simply put, to claim that the Orthodox churches claim that there is a one-to-one relationship between any ethnicity and salvation is a serious distortion of doctrine.
Ultimately, what many Southern Baptists along with many well-meaning conservative evangelicals are claiming is not that there are absolutely no Christians in the Coptic community. Rather, they are claiming that there is a low percentage of “true Christians” in the Coptic community, enough to list their community as non-Christian. The problematic category of “unreached people group” in this instance borders on following a “No-True Scotsman” fallacy. The tragedy is that it seems to be that only under the circumstances of martyrdom that faith of people who practice liturgical worship is genuine. Such a line of thought is common among free church Protestants who insist that members of liturgical churches can only obtain salvation on accident when they unknowingly practice their Protestantism. We must admit the analysis from Pulpit & Pen is correct inthat, historically, many within the Baptist, Evangelical, and non-denominational traditions have denied that liturgical forms of faith are even valid. Simply affirming the divinity of Christ and Trinity are not enough for some to recognize the Christian character of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and other liturgical forms of faith.
We must remember that, in the U.S. American context, free church refusal to recognize the legitimacy of liturgical forms of faith has had a cost. Historically, liturgical forms of worship were concentrated among old world immigrant groups that found it difficult to adjust to life in the United States and Latin-Americans. This made them easy targets for nativist organizations that distinguished between their “true” Christianity and the “cultural” Christianity of foreigners. Claims that President Obama is Muslim channel similar conservative protestant claims that JFK was a threat to the constitutional order since he was Catholic. Conflict and at times violent conflict between Christian denominations is real and must be acknowledged.
Conservative Republicans in the United States use the plight of the Coptic, Assyrian, and other Christian communities in the Middle East to argue for what can only be called total war and unrestrained support for the state of Israel, in direct opposition to the words of Bishop Angaelos’ words that we should be “very wary of them [the 21 martyrs] being used to make a political point.”These people did not shed a tear when several hundred thousand Christians left Iraq after the US invasion to flee the fighting between American troops and the insurgency. I am not suggesting moral equivalence, rather that protecting Middle Eastern Christians or their interests is clearly not the motiving factor in the foreign policy stances of conservative Republicans. The closest many Republican politicians have come to experiencing the ethos of Eastern Christianity is through far-right pundits such as Maronite Brigitte Gabriel (who openly sympathizes with Phalang fascist militias) and Greek Catholic Robert Spencer (who mass murderer Ander Breivik cites in his personal manifesto).
Some conservative concerns for Middle Eastern Christians are best understood as a reflection of their own persecution complex, hence why they sometimes make wild analogies that compare the culture war between themselves and liberals to oppression of Middle Eastern Christians. For example, Scott Walker’s recent comparison of union protestors to the Islamic State implies that conservatives are analogous to Middle Eastern Christians. Such comparisons are more akin to the ravings of a mad man than the words of a pious saint only concerned for the well-being of his brothers-in-Christ.
In all likelihood, the recent killings in Libya will not be the last time such a discussion will arise again, but we must resist conservative evangelical co-opting of the suffering of Christians in the Middle East and instead use it as an opportunity to discuss differences betweenChristian communities. The narrative that the 21 martyrs in Libya somehow fit into the American Culture War is just as dangerous and inaccurate as the claim that the Coptic faith does not fit into Christianity. It may be shocking to some, but Christianity is more than a praise and worship band playing reworded love songs to a crowd full of middle class Americans in a church located in an urban-sprawl. To use it as a point of reference for an instance of martyrdom on a different continent is the height of hubris. By reflecting on the theological consequences of the 21 martyrs as well as the Christian witness of the specific community in which they were a part of, we can create a space for mutual understanding.
Photo Description: (Found on Flickr, Tomasz Szustek photographer; Coptic orthodox Christians were protesting outside Irish Parliment against killing Copts in Egypt, on October 15, 2011. One protestor is holding up an Egyptian flag and a cross, another is carrying a bullhorn. One sign behind both men reads ‘Stop persecuting Christians in Egypt’)