Articles > Interreligious dialogue > 2006 > The Challenges for Christianity which is no Longer Central
The journal > Year 2 N.4 September 2006 > The Challenges for Christianity which is no Longer Central

The Challenges for Christianity which is no Longer Central

The gaze of the East /2. New responsibilities have emerged in a situation afflicted by pitfalls and difficulties: to avoid a frontal confrontation with Islam; to work with equilibrium in the construction of political democracy; and to achieve liberation from the historical-political complex of colonialism. In a dialogue inspired by realism and patience.

Maroun Lahham | 01 September 2006

I would like first of all to ask what we mean when we refer to 'Christianity'. There are traditional Churches which have a clear line of thought and judgement; there are autocephalous Churches, not to speak of ecclesial communities that have unpredictable positions, and, lastly, there are 'religious' personalities (I will cite only the case of the American President, George Bush) who, especially at a certain level of political responsibility, seek to represent the Bible and Christianity. The situation, therefore, is a complex one. Despite this, it is possible to clarify some of its aspects.
What changed after 11 September 2001? Christianity has been obliged to think as Christianity and to have a more unitary position, in particular because Islam is more compact than Christianity. This 'Christianity' is no longer the centre of the world. In everything that it does it must take into account that there are other religions and that these have points of reference and positions that do no always coincide with Christian ones, for example: in relation to peace and war, ways of expressing oneself, upholding rights, and dealing with those who is different.
the New Challenges for Christianity. The calm, serene and logical separation of Church and the state is no longer evident: we are face to face with a reality (Islam, Judaism) in which this separation, in principle, does not exist, and this is because political thought is an essential part of religion. Islam appeared on the public scene with force after 11 September 2001 and the new thought that underpins 'Christianity' leads to the belief that Christianity is no longer the centre of the world, with the consequence that it is placed in front of new challenges at various levels.
There is a challenge which is even more important: it is necessary to avoid a final confrontation between Islam and Christianity. Some events of recent years have led it to be thought that a certain clash is about to take place, unless, that is, a radical change does not take place in both as regards the way they treat each other. It is certain that at the level of principles many aspects of the two religions are different; at the same time it is necessary to always work to find a reasonable space of common thought and shared ground that can bring about reconciliation in order to prevent a clash at a general level. I would like to give an example of this: the case of the satirical cartoons published in Denmark. It is necessary to promote a position that reconciles freedom of thought and expression with respect for other people's religious feelings, just as it is necessary to have legitimate reactions in a context of reasonableness. Another area where a balance has to be found is that of political democracy, the heritage and 'creed' of the new world, with its results in contexts of peoples that are not prepared to accept it (we may cite as examples the exponential growth of Islamism in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine).
There is a third challenge: the time has arrived for Christianity to free itself of the historical-political complex of colonialism, even though this may be unconscious, and to convince the other religious communities that the principles, values and teachings at a social, economic and political level of which it is the bearer do not necessarily coincide with those of the so-called 'Christian West'. I may give some examples of this: the defending of the rights of the poor, the vision of globalisation, the concept of 'structures of sin', the condemnation of the exploitation of poor countries, and the definition of democracy as a right that is acquired from within and not as a present granted from without. We may cite here the repeated request by the Church during the Jubilee of 2000 for the cancellation of the debts of third world countries.
What should we think about terrorism and war? In an Arab-Muslim context where autochthonous Christians live within a harsh and long political conflict, the pastoral letter that the Theological Commission of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem published on 15 September 1998, which bore the title 'Look for Peace and Pursue it Questions and Answers about Justice and Peace in the Holy Land', remains constantly valid as regards such questions. The document takes up the position of the Church on peace, justice, violence, terrorism etc, It defines violence as 'every action that causes a grave physical or moral injury to a person or a community, under various forms: war, military occupation, the confiscation of land, armed resistance, terrorism, reprisals by a government, collective punishments'. The concept of 'legitimate violence' is also defined as 'the final means to which to have recourse after in vain trying all other meansas the last remedy to put an end to an evident and long lasting tyranny that gravely injures the common good'. But 'violence absolutely cannot be adopted as a normal principle for action'. With respect to terrorism, this is seen as 'violence against third parties in order to apply pressure to the opposing party; violence carried out by the state or by groups of people not directly involved in the conflict even though they form a part of a people at war'. In addition, 'those that carry out terrorist acts, inspire them and support them and, secondly, those that maintain situations of injustice that provoke terrorism', are guilty of terrorism. And the idea of terrorism also delineates 'the limit that even a licit armed insurrection must never go beyond'.
The West and Christianity. Without engaging in a condemnation or a negative prejudice, we may observe that the West has wrongly been seen as being linked to Christianity and vice versa, as, for that matter, has happened with the equating of 'Islam' with the 'Arab world'. This identification has taken place at three levels:
At a theological level: whereas the formulation of the Christian faith was modelled from the outset in a Semitic and Greek theological vocabulary, after its reworking by the Scholastics this almost halted.
At a cultural level: beginning with the period of the Crusades (the ninth to the thirteenth centuries), Western culture has been identified from various directions with Christian culture.
At a religious level: in various countries of Asia, Africa and America evangelisation and the entrance of Western culture took place at the same time but not in uniform way: in Africa, where the local culture was less compact, 'Western-style' evangelisation was successful, whereas the oriental cultures (China, Japan, India) did not succumb. As regards the countries of the Middle East, this link between Christianity and the West was experienced at a political level (for example the various English, Italian and French mandates). To complete the picture, we should observe that Middle Eastern Christianity, after the first missionary expansion in Persia, India and Africa, experience a halted with the arrival of Islam which, with the passing of the centuries, wore down its energies.
The consequences of this identification:
At the level of Christianity: at a positive level: the very many developments at a cultural, educational, civil and health-care level; at a negative level: Christianity lost its prophetic charge and the purity of the call to the Gospel, in terms of condemnation of the link with politics imposed on the Gospel, slavery, and the exploitation of land (to employ the phrase of a South African political personality 'when the European settlers arrived they had the Bible and we had the land; now they have the land and we have the Bible').
At the level of the Christians of the Holy Land: the positive consequence has been the help given to the presence and continuity of very many Christian communities of the Middle East, through the formation (in various epochs) of a cultural and human elite as well; the negative consequence has been the alienation of these Christian communities from the Arab world of a Muslim impress (it is said that 'in Christian Arab schools more is known about Joan of Arc than about the Caliph Omar'); in addition a feeling of dependence at a social, historical and political level which a significant number of Christians have still not managed to jettison (for every need that presents itself Europe is turned to, whereas in the face of injustices Muslims show themselves to be more capable of resistance); and, lastly, the drawing away of a certain Christian 'intelligentsia' from the faith, which is felt to be linked with the West, in favour of other political projects. Indeed, these intellectuals have been involved, as founders or members, in secular parties, and have not found in the Church a local vocabulary that could illuminate the political choices of Christians. This alienation was aggravated because of a succession of conflicts (the Holy Land, Iraq, Kuwait) which have not helped people to forget the contrasts that exist, especially when certain Western leaders express themselves in a provocative way ('crusades'). It should in all justice be said that in recent years the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs of the East has examined this problem. Given that the Holy Land in particular is a very much alight hotbed of antagonisms, the Patriarch Michel Sabbah has performed the role of a pioneer. His appointment coincided with the beginning of the first 'Intifada' and he immediately understood that Palestinian Christians who were patriotically involved expected from the Church clear directives and answers based upon Holy Scripture and dogma to their legitimate questions as regards their national duty. The Patriarch has continued to expound such directives and answers in many pastoral letters, speeches, and conferences held in his homeland and abroad. We can guarantee that the Church of the Holy Land owes all of the Magisterium, both as regards principles and in terms of their practical application at the level of resistance, attachment to fundamental rights, the condemnation of violence and injustice, the exact definition of situations despite pressures of all kinds, to the Patriarch.
The confusion between Christianity and the West is constantly nourished by political events and as a result Arab Christians feel the need to affirm repeatedly their total extraneousness to the positions and the initiatives of the West.
The self-awareness and task of Christianity in relation to Islam. To outline a final position of the Church, which, like Islam, is characterised by the claim to bear a universal truth, and all of the theology of religions. The Church has made great strides forward in this sense. It is also true that Islam presents itself as a holder of universal truth, as a unitary and compact system, and hitherto its position in relation to all that is different takes at the most the character of tolerance. The great service that the Christian West can render to Islam, especially in Western countries which have accepted Muslim minorities and in particular where the second and third generations of Muslims have by now become naturalised, would be to forge a pluralist Islam which, on the one hand, remained faithful to its own principles, and, on the other, built a road by which to live in a pluralist world at more than one level. This service would also have important consequences for Christian Arabs who live within Islamic majorities in which such a development is not even imaginable. To achieve a development in a pluralist sense, Islam could also take advantage from the example of Judaism, which for centuries has been able to live in minority situations within various societies, with which, indeed, it has been able to integrate. The possibility is real because Islam as a religious system contains all the elements that are needed to live with the twenty-first century if it accepts paying the price of a historical criticism. In this courageous undertaking the experience of the literary and critical study carried out by the Church could be of use. In the meantime Christianity in relating to Islam should become accustomed: 1) to an interlocutor who believes that he possesses the absolute truth; 2) to exaggerated reactions every time the Islamic umma or Islam as a system feels offended in relation to one or other essential aspect of its creed; 3) to the systematic restatement of its exclusive identity as an unconscious defence against the modernity that Islam is not able to enter; 4) to the wish to see implemented the traditions of the Muslim religion (for example the veil, the separation of males and females in sports associations, and legislation on cemeteries the Swiss state has allowed cemetery areas that are not subject to the removal of bodies, something requested by Muslim religious practice).
It is necessary to be patient, to dialogue with difficulty, to look for the exponents of moderate Islam and interact with them, as emerged during the recent conversation between the Holy Father and the English Prime Minister Tony Blair, during which, according to what was reported by the agency Zenit, 'emphasis was laid on the contribution that shared values of the religions can make to dialogue, in particular with moderate Islam, above all in relation to the subjects of solidarity and peace. The challenges of globalisation, dialogue between the various religions and the importance of the moderate voices of different religions that come together to address extremism and terrorism, were all discussed'.

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