A Christian response to the challenges of modern Middle Eastern history – Part 2
The Church’s Role in Society
When trying to determine how a follower of Christ should approach involvement in society and politics, we should first turn to the examples given in the Bible. The scriptures are full of righteous and godly men and women who were deeply involved in the politics of their day. Even a casual reading of the Bible shows clearly that God wanted his people to be involved in all aspects of community life, including the political. It is important to remember, however, that whenever God’s people were active in politics, it was always based on the values of righteousness and justice. They were to influence the community for good and to speak the word of God. They were not to succumb to the prevailing mood or to what was politically correct. All the examples regarding God’s people in the Bible can roughly be divided according to three different roles or vocations, each of them fulfilling a unique and important aspect. First is the role of the king, second is the role of the priest, and third is the role of the prophet.
The Role of King
The king is the bearer of the sword of justice, God’s representative who maintains order and law by the use of power and authority. We see this in 2 Samuel 8:15 when David became king, “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered judgment and justice to all his people.” King David is the archetypal king in the Bible who God entrusted with a great deal of authority, but this authority came at a price. When David sinned against God by taking Bathsheba for himself and having her husband Uriah killed, the prophet Nathan told him, “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:10). The king in the Bible is powerful, but he does not wield unbridled power and he was not to abuse his power. In the New Testament, Paul also notes the role of the king as a punishing and law-enforcing agent. He says the governing authority “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).
The Role of Priest
The priest is expected to teach the will of God; to attend to the daily needs of his people, particularly during times of breakdown in social structure; and to mediate between the people and God. We see this from the beginning, when God established the priesthood with Aaron and the tribe of Levi. In Numbers 3:6-8 the Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may serve him. And they shall attend to his needs and the needs of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of meeting, to do the work of the tabernacle. Also they shall attend to all the furnishings of the tabernacle of meeting, and to the needs of the children of Israel, to do the work of the tabernacle.” The priests were to be separate. They were not given an inheritance, but were provided for by the people of God. “At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brethren; the Lord is his inheritance, just as the Lord your God promised him” (Deut. 10:8-9). In other words, the priestly vocation is one of pastoral care, tending to the needs of the people, and providing spiritual leadership.
The Role of Prophet
Finally, we come to the role of the prophet. When he established the priesthood and promised the people a king, God also promised to provide prophets for the people (Deut. 7:14-20; 18:1-8). The Lord told Moses, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him” (Deut. 18:18). The primary task of the prophet, therefore, is to speak the word of the Lord to the people of God and to those anointed with God’s authority. The prophet is also to preserve the God-ordained boundary of the authority of both the king and the priest. We see this in the story of Elijah’s tumultuous relationship with King Ahab in 1 Kings 16-21. When Ahab commits injustice by stealing Naboth’s vineyard, Elijah denounces him for it, and declares God’s justice (1 Kings 21:20-26). In this way Elijah fulfilled the prophetic role of limiting the king’s power while speaking out against injustice.
The church’s role in society is to be a place of blessing, prayer, and bringing people to God. It is easier for the church to fulfill a priestly role than a prophetic role, although it is also our place to take a prophetic role in society. While the prophetic role is often more costly, we need to become more active in speaking truth to power, and in speaking against injustice in our society.
How to Live Our Lives
As Middle Eastern Christians, we live our lives influenced by “two” empires. First is the Western Empire that values individualism and freedom of speech. It is open to change, and is focused on the future. At the same time, it separates religion from politics, even to the extent of removing God from the public sphere. Next, there is the “empire” of militant Islam that is less concerned with individualism. This “empire” is community focused and past oriented, considering the early Islamic years as the model of the perfect Islamic society. This “empire” prefers gradual change and there is no separation between religion and politics. To the contrary, some forms of militant Islam focus on bringing its understanding of God back into the public sphere. It believes that if sharia law is fulfilled, then the Kingdom of God will be here now. This is in contrast to the Christian principle of God’s sovereignty that understands God’s kingdom as present, but not yet in its fullness. Both the Western and Islamic “empires” have their advantages and disadvantages and both present us with moral and ethical challenges. The West offers religious freedom and economic opportunity, while Islam values God’s place in society and politics, believing God has something to say about history and human affairs.
Christians are leaving the Middle East due to political breakdown, economic failure, and the rise of militant Islam. As Middle Eastern Christians, our connection with the West is strong due to various historical and religious ties. Yet, we need to be careful that we do not become associated with the “empire” of the West. There are many things that are positive about the West – free speech, economic development, and more. Having said this, the problem is that we can send an inaccurate message of what Christianity is to the Muslim world. The West is not the Kingdom of God, and it is not Christianity. The West exalts the individual, widens the gap between the rich and poor, and divorces God from society and politics.
The Arab Spring prompted many Christians to ask themselves what is our role in the political situation around us. How do we express ourselves and engage with the political upheaval the Middle East is going through? We need to speak out against oppression and continue to celebrate freedom and improvement when we see them in our societies.
In the past, we have often aligned ourselves with “empire” for political protection, whether with the West or with local oppressive dictatorships that offer us a measure of security. Yet when we do, we compromise our prophetic role in speaking God’s truth to “empire,” and we are seen as aligning ourselves with the oppressor. The church needs to liberate itself from the fear of speaking prophetically to an oppressive regime, whether it comes in the form of a military regime or a political party. This is the weakest area of our ministry as local Christians. We have often failed in speaking God’s word to power.
The collapse of the state structure and its inability to provide services to the people, chaos and violence, require the church to create services to the community in the areas of food medical, social services, building civil society and aligning itself with others that have the same concern. This also includes care for the environment, which needs to be addressed seriously. As most of Eastern Syria is desert, people have migrated into the cities and water supply has been a major need of the people. With the building of dams in Turkey, the water flow into the cities in Syria became a scarce resource. The lack of water supply was one of the causes of the civil war in Syria as its government was unwilling to meet their needs. This is just one example of how crucial it is to address environmental issues.
We as Middle Eastern Christians are finding ourselves in a clash between two dominions, one represented by mainly by different forms of political Islam and branches of the Muslim Brotherhood that advocated different forms of Sharia Law that seeks to replace the Arab States. The second is the West who impact through globalization with its economic influence, international law and military strength. Yet, we as Middle Eastern Christians need to present a third alternative that aligns itself with the kingdom of God.
We cannot run away from the cradle of Christianity looking to the West for security, freedom, and economic prosperity. Escape comes with a price. That price is a loss of Christian presence in the Middle East (where Christianity originated), resulting in a loss of our faithful testimony to our own peoples. Instead, the local church has an important role to play in this context. As those who are called to be within the society, it is a role we must embrace. We cannot depend on others to come from the outside and make changes.
In light of the shockwaves ISIS have not only caused in the Middle East, but also worldwide, many Christians have embraced a demonized view of Islam without regard for its rich history and contribution to civilization. They have attributed to Islam the inability to rise up to the challenges facing the Middle East in the 21st century, not taking into account factors described earlier in this paper. We need to move away from our simplistic way of looking at history, politics, and economic factors in order to help us better understand those challenges and practice faithfully what Jesus taught us regarding loving our neighbors. Thinking that military power is the solution for combating the rise of militant Islam will only lead us to further bloodshed. At more than any other time in history we need to embrace our kingly, priestly, and prophetic roles in actively loving our Muslim neighbors.
The church also needs to reemphasize its priestly role by attending to the needs of the Christian people in the Middle East and by reaching out to the Muslims around us. In times of upheaval, the church needs to provide a safe community for people to meet and find support. We need to be evangelistic, but in creative, not condemning ways. We need to think imaginatively and use media and other tools to communicate our message. But this evangelistic mandate needs to be connected with its prophetic message that Jesus is King and his kingdom, the Kingdom of God, has social, political and economic ramifications that must be addressed in our context.
Another major issue we need to address, and which we cannot go into detail in this article is the allegiance to Christian Zionism and US politics in the Middle East. This alignment causes major damage in our witness to Jews and Muslims and expresses itself in a new form of Crusade mentality. A proper theology for both Jews and Muslims is something that Middle Eastern Christians need to strive for otherwise we will have a collision among our roles as prophet, priest, and king and the message of the gospel will become diluted. We need to have a voice and theology that serves as a blessing to our neighbor.
Finally, Middle Eastern Christians can provide a model of government where the Western and Islamic paradigms lack in their understanding of religion and politics. The church can offer the Biblical model of prophet, priest and king with its inbuilt system of checks and balances, in which God is deeply involved in human affairs and governance.
The Book of Revelation was written as a message of encouragement to the church during a time of trouble, persecution, and upheaval in the Roman Empire. It is a reminder of God’s faithfulness and Jesus’ faithful witness to the church. Revelation 1:4-6 states “Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and the dominion forever. Amen.” This is a reminder of the assurance of resurrection, and that Jesus will ultimately rule and bring just and lasting change. Jesus is the epitome of a faithful example, and we can look to him in times of trouble, assured that he can empathize with us in our struggles and encourage us in our weakness.
We have a unique and important role to play in our part of the world. We cannot effectively live out this role if we leave and do it from a distance. We have to bring the message of the Kingdom of God to our people and our countries, showing a third way between the two extremes of the Western and Islamic empires. Our challenge is to think creatively about our roles and responsibilities. With prayer, and out of love for God and our neighbors, we need to take up this challenge and take up our cross for the sake of our faith. There is always a cost involved. At the same time, there are also benefits of renewal, revival and credibility that our church and our society will experience if we embrace this role as only we, the indigenous Christian community, can.
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