Preferential Treatment for Syria’s Christians: A Discussion

As our nation deliberated about the merits of intervening in Syria–a deliberation that has presumably come to a close with the announcement of the agreement between Russia and the United States–many American Christians argued that intervention should be avoided in part because of the potentially horrific repercussions to Syrian Christians.

Whatever we make of the overall case against intervention, deploying these sorts of special moral obligations raises interesting questions for foreign policy.  Here, Jake Meador, Jon Askonas, Brad Littlejohn, and I take some of those questions up as a dialogue. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

MLA:  It’s my party and I get to kick it off:  What role should potentially grave harms to Syrian’s Christians play in a North American Christian’s deliberation about intervention?

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic tex...

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic text, Convent of Our Lady, Greek Orthodox Church, Sednaya, Syria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jake Meador: Let me lay out a few of the facts. In the 2.5 years since the civil war began, 110,000 people have died, 40,000 of whom are civilians. That alone may be enough to justify intervention on grounds of protecting the common good which, it should be remembered, is concerned with the flourishing of all people, not just Christians. Indeed, one could argue that attempting to only protect Christians is a Christianized form of utilitarianism–pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of Christians. A good rule of thumb in political ethics is that any time your political views can be linked with Jeremy Bentham’s, you should be concerned.

That said, I’m still leery of taking action that will almost certainly harm Christians in the region. Perhaps this question can clarify why: Is it possible for Christians to speak coherently about the common good without the presence of the church? Put another way, are we really promoting a nation’s common good if we’re taking actions that will reduce the number of Christians in the nation from 10% of the population down to less than 1%? If so, doesn’t that imply that we’re defining “the common good” in purely materialistic–and implicitly non-Christian–terms? (That less than 1% figure assumes that a new Islamist government in Syria will do to Syrian Christians what the new government in Iraq did to Iraqi Christians–most of whom are now in Syria, it’s worth noting.)

Jon Askonas: Jake, I think the problem of moral particularism really comes into play for Christian policymakers, and not for Christian citizens. As voters in a democracy, Christians have every right to allow their sense of morality and view of the world to influence their advocacy. But a policymaker isn’t simply responsible to his own conscience; he has a special warrant to pursue the national interest of the United States, and he has to articulate any policy in more or less secular terms. I think he has two avenues to do so.

1) By making the general argument that the people who could potentially defeat Assad are not going to act in the American interest. Here, the value of Christian communities in Syria is not simply that they’re co-religionists but rather that they are not radical islamists, and that they likely share at least some core values with America.

2) By making the argument that the US should defend religious freedom abroad as a matter of course. What infuriates me about this White House is that, even though this is the stated policy of the United States, and even though the world’s Christians have gone through a violent couple of years, the present administration has made this policy a far lower priority than nebulous attempts to win political points at home by enforcing “gay rights” in the Third world.

So I think Jake’s right on the “common good” as far as how most American Christians should think about Syria, but things get more complicated when that Christian is also a policymaker with governmental obligations.

Jake Meador: Jon, I agree with your point so far as it goes, but I suppose I want to step back a little and think about the underlying theology that drives how we think about public policy and how we arrive at policy decisions. I’m reading both Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart right now and one point both of them hit pretty hard is that a Christian’s political identity doesn’t begin with their national citizenship, but with their place at the Lord’s Supper.

So I understand the pragmatic reasons for a policy maker to think in secular terms and express their argument in secular terms. But there’s the debate itself and then there’s the way the debate is framed–and I want to be sure we’ve got the framing right before moving on to the particular questions. So I think all of your points are right about how it’s more complex for policy makers. I’m just not sure I want to proceed to the public policy questions quite so quickly.

Brad Littlejohn:  Jake, it certainly sounds nice to talk about a Christian’s political identity being tied to the Eucharist—but what, really, does this mean? I’m pretty familiar with Leithart’s remarks on this score in Between Babel and Beast (though where does O’Donovan make this claim?), and there, it really does seem to mean that Christians should never fight other Christians, and perhaps (though Leithart never quite says this), should always take the side of other Christians in conflicts. But followed consistently, this would make us no better than jihadists. Fact is, the church is almost as imperfect a polity as any nation-state, full of people who sometimes start unjust wars, or take the side of oppressors. If we accept just war criteria, it seems that we should apply them impartially, whether Christians turn out to be the bad guys or the good guys.

So if it were the case that the rebels were innocent freedom fighters, and there were otherwise a good case for aiding them, we might lament that Christians would suffer, but it shouldn’t affect our view of the justice of the cause. To be sure, it’s not nearly so open-and-shut a case. The rebels are bad guys too, and we might deem, all parties being equally bad in the present, that the Christians are likely to be better in the long run than the Islamists. From this standpoint, your original argument about promoting the nation’s common good has some relevance. But I don’t see how talk of eucharistic political solidarity helps this argument.

Jon Askonas: Jake, the problem I have with operationalizing the Christian identity question is how you fit it in with other vital layers of Christian theology, including our theology of state power, of Christian citizenship, of war, of justice, of charity, and of persecution. And I think this kind of intersectionality absolutely has to define how we frame the policy discussion. For example, if we leave out any question of violence, our engagement with Syria becomes about how we prioritize the material needs of Christians vs non-Christians and how we witness Christ in the midst of terrible violence and sorrow. If we leave out how Christians have to deal with Syria in their roles as secular law-makers and only focus on Christians as private citizens, we avoid tough questions about gray areas and murky thresholds between private and public duties.

Laying aside normative questions about policy, even analyzing the situation is fraught with difficulty. There have been clear instances of martyrdom that Christians everywhere should witness. But Syria is also a civil war in a region in which Christianity has important ethnic meanings: Coptic Christians are not simply Christ-followers who happen to be Copts. Many of these Coptic communities have made understandable political choices to support the regime and, now that a war over that regime has broken out, are understandably subject to (and presumably generators of) violence. Isn’t it a little disingenuous to purport that they are being attacked for their identification with Christ?

MLA:  Jon’s last point about the complexity of the Syrian Christian’s entanglements is worth camping out on for a moment, as I think it underscores what is so interesting to me about North American Christians’ response to this. I don’t think anyone is being disingenuous in suggesting they are being attacked because of their Christian identity. (They may be, after all.) But they may be analyzing the situation with an unreflective ability to pull apart  the Christian life from other forms of identity in ways that others who haven’t been formed with liberal intuitions may be able to.

I would be interested, though, to hear thoughts about the moral case for preferring Christians and whether it flies–if it can be abstracted from the other considerations, that is. Dreher argues for it by way of analogy here, only while I agree with his conclusions about those cases I’m not sure they’re actually analogous. For one, none of his examples are set within a political context, which introduces many of the additional considerations that we have been discussing.

But I am also interested in knowing how this should work out: should I prefer a fellow Christian’s life in Syria to that of my atheist friend’s here, because of the nature of our ties? In the distribution of charitable goods in famine situations, should we distribute at the churches first so the Christians are fed before everyone else? I’m on board with some sort of moral particularity, and Galatians 6:10 lends itself to some sort of prioritization of believers. But nor do I think it solves the questions I’m raising here.

Jake Meador: Going into this I was of two minds on that particular question. On the one hand, there’s a lot of good biblical warrant for Christians giving preference to Christians. Galatians 6:10 is the most apparent. But you can also look at what Jesus says about Christian unity in John 13 and 17. Those verses about Christian unity make me very nervous about any policy my home nation might pursue that directly or indirectly harms other Christians. Can I say I am loving my brothers and sisters if I’m encouraging my nation to act against their interests?

Then again, Christians worship a God who triumphed over evil, in part, by dying (although it’s worth remembering that without the resurrection, the crucifixion is just a tragedy). And that act of God breaking himself for the nations is something that sits at the center of our worship. It’s not foreign to Christianity to suggest that one person can die so that others may live. So can the argument be made that Christians, in this case Syrian Christians, should be willing to literally forfeit their lives in a political conflict in order to save their neighbors? Perhaps. (I suppose what I’m saying is that we need to think a great deal about the meaning and significance of martyrdom.)

That said, I still lean strongly toward option one, which means opposing any plans that will have the effect of harming the church. If anything has changed in my thinking in the past few years, it’s that the church has grown larger and larger in my mind and heart. So I’m exceedingly uncomfortable supporting a course of action that will almost certainly harm the church.

Jon Askonas:  Jake, I don’t think loving fellow believers is the only (or even the primary) consideration in play here. Justice, peace, and the lives of millions in the region are also at stake. Galatians 6:10 tells us to do good to believers when we can, but it’s the optimistic capstone on an argument Paul concludes in Galatians 6:7 – God is not mocked, what a man sows he will also reap. There have been innumerable cases of Christians justly engaging in armed conflict with each other. Obviously, any breach of peace is ultimately rooted in some sort of sin. But while there may be other reasons to oppose them, surely you would not suggest that the Revolutionary War or the Civil War were bad wars simply because Christians engaged in violence against each other?

While I don’t think intervening in Syria is the right move right now due to other policy considerations, I don’t think the fate of Syrian Christians should be a determining factor in how American Christians think about the kind of military intervention that is being discussed now. Jake, I think you, Rod Dreher, and others have raised legitimate concerns about the US inclination to support the rebel opposition in light of Christian unity, but I think you are theologizing and abstracting Christian brotherhood in general away from the particular entanglements of Syrian Christians. For pretty good reasons (including, perhaps, 1 Peter principles of obeying political authorities), Syrian Christians have supported the Assad regime. Now what was sown is being reaped; their protector is engaging in behaviors that are wicked and unjust, not to mention in violation of important international norms which protect civilians in armed conflicts. Can America justly intervene to damage the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, even if this results in greater violence against Syrian Christians in the end if the regime falls?

The principle of double effect would suggest that America would be justified. First, “punishing evildoers” is a responsibility of government, and, ceteris paribus, this kind of strike would be justified. Second, America would intend no harm against Christians either directly or as a means to the end. The only question remaining is whether the bad outcomes of a strike are outweighed by the good to come of it. On this last point, I’m convinced that present circumstances do not justify military action. But were those circumstances to change, the plight of Syrian Christians could not be the sole consideration. We can mourn our martyrs and actively seek to assist Syrian Christians, but their plight does not change the responsibility of political leaders (not only in America) to seek peace and justice in Syria.

As an aside, I do think a theology of Christian unity should complicate our otherwise stalwart support for democracies around the world and the Middle East in particular. It has reliably been the case that Christians have a much harder time in Islamist countries, whether they are democratic or not, and our foreign policy should reflect these concerns. Unfortunately, religious freedom has been a complete non-priority for the Obama administration.

MLA:  I think Jon’s last word is a good one.  However, I also think the case of Christians fighting against each other in (say) the Civil War doesn’t quite do justice to this particular argument.  The possibility of Christians going into combat against one another was–if I can put it this way–accidental to the nature of the conflict:  while there were doubtlessly theological differences at work in how each of the respective sides represented worked out their understanding of slavery, any one soldier would not know whether the other soldier he was shooting at was himself a Christian or not.

Here, the argument is that the intervention would affect Christians as a class of people, an aggregate, which means the parallel doesn’t seem to work.  That doesn’t mean the argument for preferential considerations for Syrian Christians works, but it does mean that as we think about the limits of the preference that Paul mentions in Galatians we have to recognize that it is fundamentally a social reality that is under consideration, not simply the relationship between individual Christians per se.  (So Paul is extending the argument even from Galatians 5, where the fruit of the Spirit are “embodied” in particular persons but take shape within the social life of the church.)

One last observation, by way of closing down this interesting discussion:  American Christians have spent a good deal of time wrestling with the fundamental tension between our Christian identity and our American heritage.  The Neuhausian formula that I will meet God as an American is (I think) close to the right one, but the conflicts over gay marriage are potentially in danger of creating a sense of alienation among conservative Christians from our government.  In this case, none of those internal changes stopped many American Christians from potentially instrumentalizing American foreign policy for specifically Christian purposes (even if not American Christian purposes).  But I for one am interested to see how whether these cultural transitions among American Christians play out in foreign policy.

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  • Amy Mantravadi

    Hey guys! I have more knowledge about the religious situation in Egypt than the one in Syria. What I can say about the Copts is that, while they certainly get targeted for being Christians, it is also more complicated than that, as you mentioned in your piece. The difference is not just religious but cultural as well. While I would say that it is the Islamic extremists who instigate the worst sectarian violence, the Copts are not completely innocent either. The political situation in Egypt over the past few years has only heightened this since there is a security vacuum that has led to a spike in all kinds of crime. The rise of Islamist parties was naturally seen as a threat by the Christians, who preferred even a military or authoritarian government to an Islamist one. Thus, when the military kicked out President Morsi and began a campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood recently, it was not surprising that Islamists would be mad at the Copts. I am not in any way excusing violent actions, which are always out of place, but you are absolutely right that the motivations here are often as much political and religious. The Christians in Syria have maintained their support for Assad throughout this civil war because they are much more afraid of the extremist elements within the Sunni rebel groups. Unfortunately, from the aspect of the U.S., supporting Bashar al-Assad is even worse than supporting the insurgency, so it will be difficult for them to get any sympathy here. I feel for them, because they are in a difficult situation, stuck between a dictator and a hard place. They need our prayers, but are probably not going to get any military intervention.

  • Anastasios

    One way to help Christians in the Middle East would be to give them a “safe haven”–a state where they can flee to. The Jews have Israel, after all. Christians in the region should have at least one such state. Iraq’s Nineveh Plains are majority Christian. Perhaps an if an independent “Assyria” were created there, it could be a safe haven for Assyrian Christians (who currently have no nation-state of their own, the way Jews have Israel and Armenians have Armenia). Likewise, a Coptic state in (part of) Egypt could be a possibility too?