28 May 2015

Falafel, Syrian Politics and Christianity

Just yesterday I was in a nearby city and stopped for a falafel at a 'Mediterranean' restaurant and engaged the Syrian owner in an interesting conversation.

We both agreed the fall of Palmyra is unfortunate both to the people who live there and of course to the historical artifacts that are now in danger of destruction.

It turned out this very friendly man was a Syriac Christian. Two things caught my eye that led me to inquire. One was a picture of Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper and secondly was a picture of Bashar al-Assad and his wife that was tucked in the corner behind the cooler.

That launched an interesting discussion about Syria in recent years. He admitted frustration with US media coverage of the issues. The US public has never been given the whole story and while he agreed that Assad was far from the greatest, in a country like Syria, he was and is necessary for stability. The Christians in Syria as well as groups like the Druze support Assad and this was long before the rise of ISIS.

Many Christians bought into the confusion of American Democracy and their values and were eager to support rebel movements against Middle Eastern dictators. In many cases the US has backed and supported these dictators. They almost become a necessity when you've created fictitious countries as the French and English were so wont to do in post-WWI era. Democracy in such contexts is almost an impossibility.

The Assads were opposed by the US and have long been antagonistic to Israel. They have acted in collaboration with Iran and consequently with Russia. It is beyond the understanding of many Christians in the West that these 'Christians' in the East might have a different take on geopolitics. It's baffling to them that a 'Christian' nation like Armenia might not only find more affinity with Russia but also might view it in their interests to befriend a nation like Iran.  

The same is true of the Christians in Syria. This man was from the area around Tartous and his family had been largely protected from the fighting. The western coast dominated by the Alawites and also containing a significant Christian population has been largely exempted from the troubles. Tartous also hosts a Russian naval facility. Largely used for refueling it allows ships in the Russian fleet to avoid traversing the Bosphorus.

It was an interesting conversation and I enjoyed it, but I also kept thinking about how many on the Christian Right for as much as they talk about the Christians in the Middle East would be completely baffled by this man and his understanding of the region. I found myself largely in agreement with him though unfortunately I can't call him a Christian at least as Scripture would define the term.

His Christianity has nothing to do with the Bible. It's an ethnic and cultural identification. In terms of doctrine and worship the Orthodox and certainly the Syrian variant have little to do with Scripture and in fact it has little authority in their system. They are keepers of tradition, rites and rituals that developed in the early days of the Constantinian period when the Church began to radically turn away from what was left of its earlier Biblicism and Apostolicity.

The gospel of salvation by grace through faith would be unknown to him and something that he would not accept. Again Christianity is for most of these folks a social identification and since there is no gospel there is precious little in the way of the transformed life. Worship which must (if we're honest) be labeled as idolatry does not honour God and the Spirit does not seem to work in their lives. I am not saying it's impossible for someone to become a Christian under that system but I don't think there are very many and those that converted when reading Scripture would become grieved.

That said, they can be kind and good people. But I can also say that about many Muslims, Hindus and Jehovah's Witnesses I have met. I can't refer to this man as a brother in Christ simply because we share a name. The Scriptures, the revelation and oracles given by God define these terms and concepts. Too often we allow history and sociology to define these terms and lost scholars will certainly do so. What else can they do? It makes things confusing but we have to work through it.

He would say the Scriptures are defined by the tradition held by the successors of the Apostles.

Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy are quite old and represent a tradition much older than even pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. Their liturgies and traditions indeed go back to the 5th and 6th centuries and they never went through what we would call the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Their thinking and perspectives are different and in some respects preferred when compared with that of Rome. If I was going to abandon Sola Scriptura and 'convert' to some other form of Christianity I would certainly go the Orthodox route before I would look toward Rome. But that said, if I reached that point I'm not sure there would be any Christianity left in me... if I can put it that way.

I can't call him a brother but I can appreciate his kindness and be his friend. There is ground upon which to build but as with many others you would have to get him 'unsaved' to get him saved. And for the Christians of that world, embracing Biblical Christianity represents a total break with their community and traditions and would generate a great deal of antagonism.

I only get into the city once or twice a year but I will certainly visit him again. God willing.

In the mean time we can pray for peace in Syria, for all the people who live there. We can also pray that the American Empire would quit destroying societies through war. This type of utter destruction breeds monsters. We saw it in Cambodia and we're seeing it in the Middle East.