Article by: Mindy Belz
Editors’ note: This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in a way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.
On a balmy evening in another time zone, I sat down on a bench by a basketball court with the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, to talk about the future of Christians in the Middle East. Shadows fell amid the olive trees as night came on and the sound of Muslim calls to prayer went up from the mosques all around us. It was 2008, and I was in Syria covering the influx of refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.
Children bounced balls and ran across the court as I told Bishop Audo about my stay. I had been pelted with rocks while walking with several Syrian Christians near the city’s landmark Citadel. The incident was mostly harmless but capped a week for me of feeling the rising Islamic fervor in Syria—more women cloaked in head-to-toe hijab, more murmurs when unveiled Christians walked into a restaurant. This was not the Syria I remembered from years before. What will the future hold for Audo’s people? I wanted to know.
The bishop’s family was originally from Iraq, but he had grown up in Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, and remembered when its population was 25 percent Christian. At 62, Audo had watched the Christian population drop to 10 percent of the city. Yet when he spoke he was determined, far from resigned to minority status.
“It is very important for us as Eastern churches to have this presence here in the Middle East,” he began, “and at the same time we have the experience of living with Islam. It will be very negative if we go abroad, if we don’t have the presence of Christians with Muslim people.” And then he said this: “It is important to give Islam the opportunity to live with another religion. Even the Muslims need historical references, even if they are in opposition.”
What the Persecuted Can Teach Us
My persecuted brethren have given me important inspiration during a strange and disorienting American election. They have long been aliens in their own culture, though their roots run deeper than those who now torment them. Here in America, it’s not unusual for Christians to feel disconnected in a sometimes-toxic American culture, but it’s disorienting to feel the divisions within the church, over an election, and to see name-calling, insults, and recrimination continue after the votes have been counted.
I didn’t dream I had Christian friends who’d be willing to stake our friendship on whether I supported any presidential candidate, much less a former casino and strip club owner. Or that they’d be ready to hold it against me after their man won. Yet my inbox has turned into a repository of choleric outbursts from Christian conservatives over anything I’ve written that could be construed as anti-Trump. Many have written in anguish, too, seeing fissures crack deep into their churches, dark breaks in what they thought were our quakeproof institutions.
I didn’t dream I had Christian friends who’d be willing to stake our friendship on whether I supported any presidential candidate, much less a former casino and strip club owner.
For those Christians who in recent months feel they’ve awakened in another country or walked into a foreign church, how do we chart the way? The Bible is full of wilderness experiences, and so are the testimonies of today’s suffering church.
Bishop Audo, like many other church leaders I have met in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, has held on in the face of mortal danger not by retreating from life but by engaging in service—to his church, his community, and, yes, to his enemies. The wilderness may be harsh, but it can also be a place free from distraction, a place to rekindle first loves, a place to learn (again) how trials and suffering conform us to the image of Christ.
As Bishop Audo’s life grew harder during Syria’s descent into civil war, he poured himself all the more into his community—officiating at weddings while bombs exploded a few streets away, or feeding countless homeless. He redoubled his efforts to care for Muslims, feeling that they needed not simply his help but his witness, his otherness.
Where does the strength for this labor come from? From the well that never runs dry, the well of living water springing up in the life of the believer in Christ. It needs tending to run free, and nourishment through study of the Scriptures, celebration of the sacraments, and prayer. When we commit ourselves to these regular rhythms, we find hope to face a daily wilderness, courage to contend with the enemy at the gate, strength to move beyond grudges and insults.
This is no call to retreat from public advocacy or political engagement. Loving neighbors and enemies is a good reason to support pro-life causes, to defend family structures, to champion racial justice, to campaign for less-than-onerous taxation, and to help the able-bodied jobless find work instead of sustaining them with life-draining handouts. But policymaking devoid of service robs the church of its witness and drains its ability to speak prophetically.
In the four decades of life in America under Roe v. Wade, legislation to curb abortion has fought its way—sometimes successfully and sometimes not—through statehouses, Congress, and the courts. In that time what has arguably done more to change both behavior and attitudes on abortion, however, are changes brought through “incarnational” ministries—through devoted firsthand contact with pregnant women and with their unborn children.
The technological advances allowing a woman to see her baby moving on a screen, in 3D, at life’s earliest stages, complicate the pro-abortion industry’s game to keep a baby a fetus, its moving, breathing parts mere tissue. Then, the steady, unglamorous work of pregnancy support centers around the country, staffed mostly with volunteers, have helped women know—no matter their circumstances—they and their baby can have a life beyond the challenges of an unwanted pregnancy.
In this and other areas where injustice cries out, the point is to look, ground-level, to see who is hurting, who is left out, who needs our “otherness.”
Working Class of Jesus’s Day
Jesus drew followers from the competing and contenting classes of his day: tax collectors (Matthew, Zaccheus); Pharisees (Nicodemus); women and the marginalized (Mary, Martha, the Samaritan woman at the well); and day laborers (Peter and James, his brother). Think of them as today’s professionals, the intelligentsia, the people below the glass ceiling, and President-elect Trump’s much-analyzed white, working class supporters. Surely each would break for different candidates.
Think of [Jesus’s disciples] as today’s professionals, the intelligentsia, the people below the glass ceiling, and President-elect Trump’s much-analyzed white, working class supporters. . . . [The early church] drew from these disparate groups an unconventional fellowship, a fellowship of otherness bound only by their unity in Christ.
Yet as we read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we see Jesus and later his disciples drawing from these disparate groups an unconventional fellowship, a fellowship of otherness bound only by their unity in Christ. They came not to the occasional town hall meeting, or the once-every-four-years election cycle, but to intimate relationships formed over daily activities and built around the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.
The disciples’ willingness to labor together—though once strangers, even enemies—is the ground we walk on in our churches. It’s the way forward from this bruising season.
Mindy Belz is senior editor for World News Group and the author of They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run From ISIS With Persecuted Christians In the Middle East (Tyndale Momentum, 2016).