Can Christianity survive in the Middle East?
- Written by: Kim Smith
The lead article in the November 2014 edition of Christianity Today posed the question whether Christianity in the Middle East is on the edge of extinction. Kimberly Smith looks at the decline of Christianity in the Middle East through the lens of the troubled nation of Iraq – a country which has rarely been out of the international news during 2014.
The Crisis in Iraq
For many centuries the Iraq of modern times has been referred to as the “cradle of civilisation” – a term describing the Tigris–Euphrates River Valley region of southern Iraq. Historians believe that the world’s first writing system emerged during the 4th millennium BC, during the time of the Kings of Sumer (i.e. southern Iraq). The Sumerians were the first to harness the wheel and create city states. Early writings of the time also record the first evidence of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, written law, medicine and organised religion.
A nation of continuous conflict
Conflict has been a characteristic of the Middle East ever since Sargon of Akkad conquered all the city states of southern and central Iraq and subjugated the numerous kings of Syria in 2200 BC.
During the 20th century BC the Canaanite speaking Amorites began to migrate into southern Mesopotamia and set up kingdoms in the south – one of which was the small administrative town of Babylon - which later became a major city in the region. Not long after Babylonia had been sacked by the Hittite Empire (around 1595 BC) another foreign invader from the Zagros Mountains of Iran invaded the region and ruled over Babylonia for almost 600 years.
Various Babylonian and Mesopotamian kings who followed were unable to prevent new waves of West Semitic migrants entering southern Iraq during the 11th century BC. Conquering Assyrian rulers later built an empire stretching from Persia and Parthia in the east to Cyprus and Antioch in the West – and from the Caucasus in the north to Egypt, Nubia and Arabia in the south. During the 10th and 9th centuries Babylon fell to yet another foreign dynasty - that of the Chaldeans. Around 325 BC Alexander the Great arrived on the scene . Yet another round of conflicts engulfed the Iraq region during the Roman-Parthian wars, the conquerors actively supporting Brutus and Cassius in the Roman invasion of Syria.
The Christian population of Iraq in 2013 was believed to be in the vicinity of 500,000 - down significantly from 1.5 million before the 2003 war. Following a mass exodus during 2014, some think as few as 200,000 are left today. The majority of the remaining Christians live in the far north of the country.
According to Religious Freedom in the World – 2014, by July 2014 jihadists will have driven out all faith communities from Mosul, including non-Sunni Muslims. Christians have been forced to choose between converting to Islam or leaving the region. They were given a deadline, and the Islamic State declared that if they failed to comply, “there is nothing for them but the sword”. A city of up to 30,000 Christians, Mosul suddenly had none – and for the first time in 1600 years there is now no Sunday worship in that city.
From the time of Jesus Christ, there have been Christians in what is now Iraq. The Christian community took root there after the Apostle Thomas headed east in the year 35. But now, after nearly 2000 years, Iraqi Christians are being hunted, murdered and forced to flee. Many churches have been destroyed or abandoned.
Not that the various churches in Iraq were ever in agreement theologically over the centuries. Operation World observes that Christianity in Iraq has for years been characterized by fragmentation – denominationally, ethnically and politically, despite the great opposition all Christians face. The majority are in the Catholic-linked Chaldean Church, but others are part of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestant denominations or even a Muslim-background believers’ network. OW’s Prayer Guide states that some in the historic denominations are being impacted by revival; others resent and oppose what they perceive to be aggressive proselytism, and a money-spinning focus of the newer Protestant groups.
Outreach to the Muslim majority remains a terrifying prospect to most, although compassionate ministry by some Christians to all in need sees many Muslims profoundly touched. Understandably many good leaders have fled the country – many others are dead, specifically targeted by Islamists. Christian leaders in Iraq invite us to pray for their equipping and enabling. With a young population and many Muslims coming to faith, leaders who are gifted in discipleship and teaching are crucial.
Pray for peace. Pray for Christians remaining in Iraq, and for the return of leaders who have fled, for the development of new leaders and for protection of all who shepherd God’s people in Iraq.
Kimberly Smith is a retired Melbourne chartered accountant now helping to establish the evangelical integral mission agency Anglican Relief & Development Fund Australia.
- Written by: Ben Underwood
Ungodless: Being Christian in a Secular Australia
There are always cultural challenges facing Christian believers. One set of challenges for our discipleship comes from living in our secular age, where the gospel is felt to be yesterday's discredited news. How can we face this cultural situation and make progress as Christians?
A statistic: Norman Morris Roy Morgan Research, wrote in April of this year, “By Easter next year, it could well be the first time that the majority of Australians don't affiliate with Christianity.” Morgan polls from late 2011 to early 2014 had Christian affiliation in Australia dropping from 60.9% of the population to 52.6% and trending down towards 50% and under.
A story: the decidedly godless journalist Paul Toohey recounts talking to Muslim women from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan in Indonesia:
“Over tea served in glass cups the women were asking about Australia. […] They wanted to know about jobs, the cost of living and their level of acceptance as Muslims, should they make it. I told them that the greatest freedom Australia offered was the freedom not to believe in God. We'd more or less got rid of him; he was not required. One woman buried her face in her hands, appalled. They all looked slightly alarmed. But this was one bit of useful information I could provide. Their acceptance in Australia, if they made it and were not to disappear into strict cultural enclaves, would require them first to accept us. Then one of the women said something that started them all laughing. Maybe it didn't seem such a bad idea, living somewhere godless.”
Toohey casually and unapologetically presents godlessness as the foremost cultural conviction that Australians share, a source of the freedom we cherish together. If the downward trend in Christian affiliation continues, and if Toohey's view that being Australian means being godless increasingly shape our national psyche, how will we Christians approach being in a shrinking minority of ungodless Australians? Here are four kinds of response that I perceive amongst us.
One response is to agree with the critics of Christianity and seek to remake Christianity to be a new thing that lines up with the new spirit of the age. I suggest this happens in liberal Christianity. People find it implausible that Jesus is the only mediator between God and human beings? Well, they are right! We Christians have to drop this myth of Christ’s uniqueness and learn to see God at work in all the religions of the world. People find it implausible that there is a personal God who made the world and hears our prayers and will judge the living and the dead? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop the literal interpretations of our theology and learn to see our doctrines simply as stories which help us live lives of love, which is the real point of Christianity, not being saved from death and hell. People find it implausible that we should take the sexual ethic of the Bible seriously today? Well they are right! We Christians have to drop our backward and repressed view of sex and have the compassion to let people do what comes naturally. In this way Christians abandon Christianity and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism.
I suggest that you also see the same thing in churches which preach the health and prosperity gospel. People want power to step up to a new level of material wealth, or to remake themselves as leaner, more disciplined, more successful individuals and so to reap the rewards our society bestows on the successful. Well, we Christians can help! God wants to bless people after all, and he wants to change and transform people and bring them into a better future, and his Spirit empowers us to do great things and fulfil our potential. So just believe in him and start living your best life now. In this way, too, Christians abandon Christianity, and become assimilated to the secular age, preaching the convictions of a secular age in the churches, in a kind of reverse evangelism. The first kind of alignment with the spirit of the age – liberalism – empties churches, but the second one – the prosperity gospel – fills them. Christians must attend to the spirit of our age, to be sure, but in order to commend the one gospel intelligibly to our age, not to remake the gospel in the spirit of our age. Let’s not surrender.
Another response to de-Christianisation is to fight tooth and nail to defend and preserve Christian truths and values against any erosion or marginalisation. This fight might involve political organisation aimed to keep a distinctively Christian voice articulating Christian concerns in the halls of power, and working political leverage to get legislation that reflects Christian convictions. So, for example, the Australian Christian Lobby introduce themselves on their website saying, “The vision of the Australian Christian Lobby is to see Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community.” They and others use the tools of political and social activism – mobilising a base of supporters, keeping them informed, running public meetings, organising rallies, briefing politicians, writing social and political commentary, raising funds, presenting petitions, encouraging people to write to their local members. They do this to contest any legislation which might reflect values not compatible with Christian faith, and commend legislation that reflects Christian aspirations. Many Christians wish to encourage others to be active as Christian citizens and to be engaged and active politically, so that a Christian witness is preserved and we don’t lose a precious Christian social heritage without a fight.
Unlike the response of surrender there is something to be said for fighting, or, put less pugilistically, for Christians being engaged as citizens, expressing our preferences to our elected representatives in the various channels that operate in our society. It seems to me that there is an art to getting this right. Although we believe that Christ is Lord of everything including Australia, others do not share this conviction, and will not feel the Christian outlook has any inherently privileged place in shaping the laws and policies of our nation. We will be expected to make our contribution to the national discourse as citizens among our fellow citizens, rather than as natural chaplains to the nation assuming we have a special right to speak arising from cultural precedent or divine appointment. Commending Christ to all in that situation is where the art (and the need for good character) comes in.
Some do not think fight is the way ahead, perhaps because it will never be anything more than a doomed rearguard action. Instead of fight there is flight – a bunkering down into Christian enclaves of various kinds, leaving the mainstream culture and living apart, building a whole parallel structure of social institutions, where our counter culture can survive. In "Thoughts after Lambeth" T. S. Eliot wrote, "The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide." This gets expressed in many ways. Take education for example. The state schools are lost, we say. If our children are to escape the black hole of secularism we need to take their education back and do it ourselves. Maybe taking our kids’ education means home schooling, maybe it means Christian schooling, but we need to preserve the faith while we await the collapse of the non-Christian experiment in education. Here’s another example: popular music is the tool of the devil. We must delete all our secular mp3s and listen to Christian bands only. Others would say that even that’s not enough. The very form of popular music is corrupt, and a properly Christian music sounds like Bach, or Handel. We need to hold onto the beauty and goodness and truth of God, and flee the culture of death surrounding us.
Like fight, there is something to be said for flight, that is leaving cultural forms and institutions that stifle, undermine or even persecute Christian aspirations in favour of alternative forms and institutions that express Christian convictions and aspirations more faithfully. Perhaps the traps this response can fall into are fear and contempt. The fear is fear that the world will overcome Christ. But ‘he that is in you is greater than he that is in the world.’ We should not flee in fear. The contempt is contempt of the world: let them all go to hell. But God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. We are still to love our neighbours, believers or not, and not to despise them or withdraw entirely from them. So our alternative forms and institutions should remain in touch with the wider society for the sake of that society.
Change the world (again)?
Another response is to say, well Christendom is dead, but that’s a mercy, because we are now back to purity of first century Christianity, and we can ditch the Constantinian baggage and start all over again to win the culture through authentic Christian living. The job is not a political fight nor a cultural flight, but grassroots movements with fresh expressions of church. No more denominations and parishes, it’s time to learn again how to plant churches and make disciples in a post-modern, post-Christian, secular, hedonistic and individualistic age. If we are on the margins now instead of in the centre, that’s ok, because Christianity works best from the margins. If the culture has turned away from God, that’s no reason for us to turn away from them, but rather to engage the culture again at every level – not in a defensive stance to preserve our ancient privilege, but as people who love our culture and want to reach it and renew it. Christian ministers need initiative, they need to be innovative and entrepreneurial and to empower the people of God, who in turn need to think through how their work and gifts and opportunities can bless and influence and beautify the world and see lives and whole societies transformed again. We need networks of culture-makers, supported by patrons in the great cities of the world, sparking new cultural movements in which Christians are leading figures and the Spirit is the animating genius.
This is also rousing stuff, and has much to commend it. Perhaps the dangers here lie in despising our inherited forms, and putting too much confidence in our projects of sociological re-engineering. It is a good moment to go back to the New Testament and scrutinise our traditions, practices, aims and expectations in light of a renewed careful study of the apostles’ teaching. But it would be passing strange if we decided to neglect or de-emphasise the most ancient and basic of Christian disciple-making structures and practices such as instruction in the scriptures, common prayer and praise, sacraments and designated leadership in local congregations which also maintain a fellowship of mutual recognition and help. It is also good to think carefully and creatively about how cultures are influenced and changed, but if we lay out a plan for how to change the world (based of course on the latest research and the most original and insightful analysis) we should do it with a good dash of humility. Maybe the world won’t change according to the theories of expert cultural analysts or the hunches of disillusioned mavericks.
Who will save us?
Who will save us and where does our power lie if we ungodless are become a dwindling minority? Will it be in the fighters, the flighters, the culture-makers, or someone else? As soon as you put it like that this answer suggests itself; God will save us and all his people, and the gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes – Jew or Gentile. So our trust must be in God to preserve, transform and bless us who believe in Christ, and our confidence must be in the gospel as the power of God to bring salvation to the people around us and address the culture we live in.
If we do take seriously the idea that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, then we should take a moment to think through how the gospel goes to work amongst human beings. As the gospel is told, God brings human beings to a new birth by his Holy Spirit; he humbles sinners and lifts them up too as his forgiven children in Christ. They repent and confess their faith in him and he binds them together as members of one another in the fellowship of his church, and as his church gathers in local congregations he gives gifts to his people so that they can serve one another in love and grow up into Christ’s likeness together. In churches we brothers and sisters are taught and nourished with the word of God and in the world we walk in good deeds and speak the word of God. There is a new humanity in Christ; this new humanity has a counterculture, the word of God is its fountainhead and the church is its home. It is a counterculture that can also be carried everywhere we go, work, speak, write, play and rest, whether we go alone or with others. God’s basic programme – whether we are in the early church, or high Christendom or the ruins of Christendom – is laid out in the New Testament, and it does not change because the culture is not as receptive to it as it may once have been. Our hope is in the old, and long, and patient work of making disciples of Jesus, through the inculcation of the truths of the gospel of grace and the disciplines of faith and repentance in the fellowship of other Christians. Political activism, Christian counter-cultural institutions and culturally engaged new Christian endeavours must cluster around and flow out of what is central: gospel ministry, church, repentance and discipleship. Rising godlessness shapes our lives and churches and the deliberations of coming synods will be shaped by it too. Will our response to that godlessness, as we contribute to those deliberations, express confidence in God and his gospel, so that our activism, our institutions and our cultural engagement as Australian Anglican churches are shaped more and more by that confidence, and less and less by any surrender to the spirit of the age?
Ben Underwood oversees the 5pm congregation at St Matthew's Shenton Park in Perth.
Partnering with the Indigenous Church in the Kimberley
- Written by: Ray Arthur
Ray Arthur explains why CMS is starting a new partnership in North West Australia
Australia was in the sights of CMS and at a meeting on November 13 1786 the question was asked “What is the best method of planting and promulgating the Gospel in Botany Bay?”. The answer was seen in the appointment of gospel centered clergy such as the Rev Richard Johnson and a little later the Rev Samuel Marsden.
Marsden became the senior chaplain to the colony and “apostle to the Maoris of New Zealand and the Aboriginals of Australia” (quotes from ‘A History of the Church Missionary Society of Australia’).
In 1908 CMS-A appointed their first missionary to indigenous people in Roper River (NT). CMS-A has expanded Indigenous ministry in the NT which continues throughout the Territory today. From this experience, and its concentration on equipping people for cross-cultural ministry throughout the world, CMS is in a good position to respond to the request of the Anglican Diocese of the North West Australia, and in particular of the parish of Broome, for help in building God’s church throughout the Kimberley Region.
From Darwin to Melbourne
- Written by: Chris Appleby
Murray Seiffert brings a personal perspective to bear on life and ministry among Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and highlights some (at times) unflattering contrasts with life and ministry in the south.
This is a rather personal tale which reflects on living and working with Christian Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory, then returning to Melbourne. It is seven years since I returned to Victoria from that life-changing experience. Of course most of the first five years were dominated by researching and writing two books linked to that work: Refuge on the Roper: the Origins of the Roper River Mission, Ngukurr (2008) and Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land (2011).
What was I doing there?
Having spent much of my life in teacher education, I was appointed to be Academic Dean at Nungalinya College in Darwin. All students at the College are Indigenous adults, the majority coming from the Top End of the Northern Territory, although most States were represented. The College was established in 1973 by the Anglican and Uniting Churches, being joined in the 1990s by the Catholic Church.
My wife Marjorie and I had felt God’s call to work as missionaries with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and did so from 2001 until 2007.
My work involved many challenges, not the least being asked to lead the transformation of an Indigenous college into a Registered Training Organization meeting the increasing demands of national ‘quality control’ standards for the twenty-first century.
Priorities for a Mission(al) Society
- Written by: Mark Short
Mark Short outlines what a Mission Society should look like, and what it has to do with church.
Long before missionalbecame the favourite adjective for churches wanting to serve on the cutting edge, voluntary societies like The Bush Church Aid Society have defined themselves in terms of mission (early editions of the Society"s Real Australian magazine refer to "Home Missions" in contrast to the "Foreign Missions" supported by other Societies). But what does a commitment to mission look like for us?
First, it is important to recognise that we are not a church. We aren"t a local gathering of God"s people around the Risen Lord Jesus.
But we do have a vital and necessary connection with the church. The thousands of people who express our mission through their prayers, giving and going do so largely because their faith has been awakened and encouraged through one or more churches. In turn BCA needs to ensure that the formation and strengthening of churches is central to what we do. If, as Leslie Newbiggin argued, a healthy local church is one of most powerful demonstrations of the gospel to a sceptical age, then we have no place supporting programs that exist in isolation or independent from a local gathering of believers.
So what disciplines will sustain a healthy partnership between BCA and churches? Let me suggest four:
- Written by: Kimberley Smith
Kimberly Smith introduces the Anglican Relief and Development Fund.
The growing influence of global south leadership within the Anglican Communion (www.globalsouthanglican.org) has led to the emergence of the Anglican Relief and Development Fund. This is a new faith-based overseas aid agency now operating within a coalition of independent integral mission agencies in the USA, Canada and Australia. ARDF Australia was launched last year during the EFAC-sponsored visit of Archbishop Ben Kwashi (Jos, Nigeria) to several Australian capital cities. The Primate of South East Asia (Most Revd Bolly Lapok) and six other G S Primates have written: ‘We look forward to working with you and like-minded colleagues and agencies in the worldwide Anglican Communion.’
From the beginning, accountability and governance of ARDF Global has been enriched by an international board of trustees which includes many of the global south primates who were involved in initiating ARDF Australia. The international board currently includes Archbishops Anis (Egypt), Lapok (SE Asia), Akrofi (West Africa), Deng (Sudan), Isingoma (Congo), and Zavala (Southern Cone), and EFAC members Glenn Davies (former National Chair) and Kimberly Smith (Victoria).
Locally, an autonomous Australian board comprises well-known EFAC identities, Glenn Davies, Richard Condie, Richard Trist and Kimberly Smith. Recently the board invited former CMS missionary Fiona Oates to work part-time as a project consultant and to help ARDFA achieve tax deductibility status under AusAID’s Overseas Aid Gift Deduction Scheme.