Christians in the Middle East: Towards Renewed Theological, Social, and Political Choices
We Choose Abundant Life is a document issued by Christian intellectuals and theologians who met together in Beirut on September 29, 2021 to launch their vision for Christians in the Middle East. A stark choice for these Christians is presented in this document, to choose the abundant life that is promised to God’s people in Deuteronomy 30:19b (“Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live”), which is both the choice and the challenge taken up by this group of Christian intellectuals, or the stark alternative which is to resign themselves to the gradual death of Christian communities in the Arab world. Certainly, this situation of sharply declining populations of Christian communities in the Middle East is undeniable. The document of intent, We Choose Abundant Life, promotes a progressive vision of the cultural diversity of Middle Eastern society over a narrow focus on Christians as a beleaguered minority in an Islamic world. Instead, the desire is to reinvent Arabism from the failed modernist project of forced Arabization, to become “a cultural space and an inclusive cultural concept.” This reinvented Arabism includes the diverse richness of identities amongst the Churches of the Middle East, from the Syriac and Armenian traditions to those of the Greek and Coptic churches.
The methodology of achieving this is ambitious, emphasizing above all that the theological approach must be intellectually rigorous and deploying all the tools provided by the modern human sciences. This is a contextual theology that examines the geopolitical situation in relation to religious discourse and praxis through the humanistic sciences, such as history, social science, and cultural anthropology. The purpose of this intellectual rigor is to allow for a broad historical-critical methodology that understands the divine word in the cultural context of the Ancient East. The document seeks to avoid fundamentalism in all its guises, including a narrow fundamentalist reading of the biblical text that would ignore the kind of critical engagement provided by the human sciences. This aversion to fundamentalism is extended to the Islamist groups, but a distinction is carefully maintained here between two parallel phenomena: the actions of these violent fundamentalist groups and the mass emigration of Christian communities from the Middle East in recent decades. Islamic fundamentalism is thus not presented as the root cause of the predicament that these Christians find themselves in.
The document makes a clear statement on how Christians should relate to people of other religions, whom they should view as their brothers and sisters in the task of upholding “human dignity and freedom.” This vision of living together with believers of other religions is extended especially to Muslims, and of course, it is Muslims who form the majority religious community with whom the Christians of the Middle East must live alongside successfully if their future in the region is to be assured. This unequivocal reality is one that the document does not openly confront, though as a statement of intent it clearly presents the aspirations of the Christian leaders and intellectuals of this group in the form of an invitation towards others to join them in forming a new pluralistic identity for Arab society in the Middle East. Clearly this is the beginning of the dialogue required for the model of cultural diversity and religious parity being envisaged for this society; dialogue which must include widespread consultation with representatives of many other religious communities. In the interim, a series of formal responses to this document from other religious leaders would allow us to see to what extent this vision can really be shared by these religious others. The desire to depart from the logic of a minority that is expressed by these intellectuals is an aspiration which cannot exist unilaterally but needs to be met and accepted by those belonging to other religious beliefs and intellectual orientations within civil society.
The document also outlines its mission to move towards a culture of dialogue and rapprochement as one that explicitly includes Jews and Muslims as the primary partners in this inter-religious endeavor. The goal of this renewal of theological discourse is ‘to move away from the culture of polemics and exclusion between Churches and other religions.’ Therefore, communities belonging to faiths other than Christianity must be approached with an openness to listening and a desire to understand the religious claims of other religions in their own terms rather than judged entirely from the perspective of one’s own values and claim to truth. The We Choose Abundant Life document calls for opening a new chapter to relations with Jews who are seen as integral to the religious tapestry and pluralism of the region. On the geopolitical side, dictatorial political regimes are firmly rejected, alongside the tendency to seek protection for religious minorities from such quarters, which is the limited mentality of seeking a “minority alliance” that does not serve the long-term future of Christians in the region.
This is both a new theological discourse and a new social contract that is characterized by its inclusivity and openness towards others. Crucially this new discourse has a strong ethical emphasis, upholding personal freedom and the freedom of conscience as a foundation for the flourishing of innovation and creativity that underpins the cultural model of diversity. One is reminded at several points in reading this document of the UN declarations on Cultural Diversity (2001) and Freedom of Religion (Article 18). Perhaps one of the greatest challenges that is posed by the vision of We Choose Abundant Life is to suggest that not only Christians, but also society at large, should come to appreciate their own role as citizens in contributing to the common good. While there have been signs of such feelings in the Arab Spring when popular protests arose around the perception of shared injustices, it is still questionable how far the obverse, the common good, is something that can be conceived and worked towards as a standard of peaceful civic life. The good of one’s community, religious or ethnic, is perhaps the more obvious goal within Arab societies, and the citizen as an independent individual is a concept much more familiar to the West. It may well be that what is required is a careful negotiation of these two concepts on the geopolitical plane, in recognizing that the civic responsibility and role of the individual as an autonomous identity is a more ambiguities concept in societies which have not (yet) followed the secular histories of post-Enlightenment Europe.
Jennifer Griggs is a scholar of Arabic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.