image of jerusalem 2018

Can We Resist the Invasion of Fresh Ideas?
When you are trying to change the questions, you have to realize that many people are quite resistant to such a change. They like the answers they have. - Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir

5 September   |   2018   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Many moons ago, a friend asked me whether I was interested in amassing wealth and power in my later years (as many people planning the various chapters of their future lives would try to do), or whether I was planning to stay a bit of a rebel and fight the system? He wondered what my family thought about my unorthodox way of challenging the vagaries of life. After all, he segued, I come from a moneyed background, have been offered a sterling education and have had a stab at some good careerist options. Will I invest in those assets or will I be a modern-day Armenian Friar Tuck?

Interestingly enough, I recalled this conversation last Sunday morning after I had listened to “Sunday” on BBC Radio 4. In it, Edward Stourton discussed with guests the raw tensions between the patriarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in Moscow (HB Kirill) and Constantinople (HH Bartholomew I). The subject-matter this time was the split in political loyalties over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

And then, almost without much of a pause, Edward segued to the mounting challenges facing Pope Francis as some clerics question his Petrine authority, criticise his management of the Roman Catholic Church and even seek his resignation.

At the top of this short reflection, I quoted Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian, ethicist and public intellectual. His question is truly relevant to all our lives today. But you, readers, might not care about his utterances, so let me be humbler and say that his book appealed to me and ignited in me the spark of another remonstration - even in my creaky mid-fifties!

Over two decades ago, I chose consciously to forgo a full-time career as a lawyer and decided instead to wade into politics. Given my Christian upbringing, let alone my beliefs and convictions, I resolved to combine issues of the global church (what I call ecumenism) with the political realities of Israel-Palestine. My whole focus centred awhile on exploring legal and ecumenical ways that would strengthen the presence and witness of the Christian communities in this biblical parcel of land and to stand in solidarity with Palestinians over issues of peace with justice. However, since 2010, I also began addressing those issues tagged on other parts of the MENA region - not least Iraq and Syria. I initially chose to achieve some of this by associating more closely with clerical and institutional bodies that could help achieve justice for the disempowered and marginalised peoples.

However, today, I can describe my experiences as both enriching and frustrating. They were enriching in that the Christian communities have a two-millennia history that is made manifest by the traditions and rituals of all those different churches. Nowhere - in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, and even further afield - can one go without noticing a Christian reminder. As I often say, Christians of the Levant (largely Arabs these days) have suffered fraught times but have nonetheless carried their crosses with fortitude and dignity. They have been the latter-day apostles of the Early Church and have been annealed by the fires of many persecutions, not least by “fellow” Western Christians as much as by other tribes. And whilst their faith is Christocentric, their own culture has been largely informed by the local cultures of a region in which Islam has been one dominant aspect. This is why I often state that Arab Christians share many of the traditions of Arab Muslims, and their Christian faith does not mean that they are a different - Eurocentric - community apart from others.

However, those communities have not always had the best religious (or political for that matter) shepherds or leaders. Or, to put it differently, the priorities of those leaders have at times been a tad removed from Christian teachings. When examining my faith, I often struggle to remember Jesus’ parables that are as valid today as they were during His ministry. I also recall Jesus’ instructions in The Beatitudes - the naked person, the hungry woman, the imprisoned man for instance. And last but not least, by the two commandments to love God and also the neighbour as oneself.

Over the years, many Christians in positions of authority, whether established figures or upstarts, have striven - perhaps out of fear, weakness, subservience to political authorities or sheer pressure - to endear themselves to the rulers in those countries as if they are trying to follow a policy of appeasement that would guarantee their security or privileges as well as those of their communities.

This sense of communitarianism, that is based on small self-governing communities, has also meant that those same religious leaders and their supporters have at times closed their eyes and ears to fresh ideas about the rights of citizenship, and have not always encouraged the new generations of men and women to help renew the Church and reach out to all those who have been disillusioned by its sclerotic attitudes. In their quest to protect their self-defined interests, they have omitted to realise that if faith becomes turgid, it turns into an ideology. Surely Christian leaders cannot afford to be seen to take sides with the tyrannical and the powerful at the expense of weak and bereft members of society.

As some readers will have spotted already, the title of this reflection is a play on one of Victor Hugo’s assertions. So if the Church wishes to be a spiritual leaven and remain relevant, whether in the Ukraine or Rome, or across the MENA and Gulf regions, it should learn how to be inclusive and introspective - perhaps even brittle. It should not be seduced by power that breeds self-importance or by an appeasement that justifies survival at all cost. But are human beings not vulnerable?

This is why I bank on my “pessoptimism” to express the rusty hope that the Christian answer to my question in the title of this short piece will be a resounding - and more importantly powerless - No!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2018   |   5 September


Print or download a copy of this article.


Google: Yahoo: MSN: