The op-ed page in the Aug. 20 New York Times features an article, “Who will stand up for the Christians?” by Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress. Below is an expanded version of the response I submitted to the comment section of the website of the World Jewish Congress:
Thanks very much, Mr. Lauder, for this impassioned appeal. I agree with you entirely that thousands of Christians have been targeted, that thousands have died, and that the global community should challenge violence against Christians as strongly as it challenges violence against other religious minorities. A number of news outlets have given good coverage to the victimization of Christians in places such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, but you are right to protest the lack of popular protest against such victimization when the victims are Christians.
In the midst of your article you ask the question, Why? – “And the beautiful celebrities and aging rock stars – why doesn’t the slaughter of Christians seem to activate their social antennas?” I’m not sure why, but I have some guesses.
Christians are members of the world’s most populous religion – at something like 2.2 billion, with Muslims next at about 1.6 billion. So people may have difficulty even conceptualizing violence against the majority as victimization, let alone feeling outraged by it. Reticence is intensified by an impression that Christianity is a “Western” religion, and people have difficulty seeing “the West” being victimized when it continues through the USA and the West European powers to exercise the clout that it does in world affairs.
If such an anti-majority reflex is at work, several contrary points need to be made:
(1) Where Christians are victimized in the ways you highlight, it is in places where they are far from being the majority but are a small minority, and a diminishing minority as a result of discrimination and violence.
(2) Religious freedom as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and in most national constitutions, even in countries where religious violence is tolerated – is a right of all religious people, regardless whether they are in the majority or minority globally, and regardless whether they are in the majority or minority in any particular setting. Integrity demands that we must be even-handed and not selective in our application of the right to religious freedom. Global citizens should be just as passionate about the victimization of Christians by Muslims in Iraq or Pakistan as we are about the victimization of Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar, or that of Bahais by Muslims in Iran, or that of Muslims by Christians in France or the USA.
(3) Christianity is not a Western religion but a Middle Eastern religion in both origin and tenor. Moreover, it was not until around 1400 that a majority of the world’s Christians were European, and today the majority of the world’s Christians are in Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, the reflex of indifference would be wrong even if Christianity were primarily a Western religion, for the right to religious freedom applies equally to all.
History is another reason for people’s reticence about persecution of Christians. European and North American history is replete with Christian persecution of religious minorities, and it goes back 1,700 years to the shift by which Christianity moved from being persecuted in the Roman Empire to being linked to its coercive state power. The Crusades, the Inquisition and the brutal “conversion” of the Americas are well known examples of Christian intolerance, and the Holocaust was one result of centuries of official toleration of anti-Jewish hatred. Moreover, Christian establishments have been equally intolerant of their own internal “heretical” minorities, such as Protestants under Catholics, Anabaptists under Lutherans, Puritans under Anglicans, Mormons and Catholics under North American Protestants – the list goes on and on.
A reflex born of this history is expressed in such aphorisms as “Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” and “What goes around comes around,” and “Time for comeuppance.” Few would acknowledge the root of their indifference in such crude terms, but it is likely that the fact that so many members of other religions have suffered from Christian intolerance cools the outrage that reasonable and fair-minded people might otherwise feel and express about contemporary realities.
One appropriate response to this reflex is to insist on both-and rather than either-or thinking. One can and must both decry current persecution of Christians and be quite forthright in acknowledging and condemning Christians’ persecution of other religious minorities over many centuries. It is especially important that Christians be clear about both sides of this both-and.
Another appropriate response is to follow your example, Mr. Lauder. As President of the World Jewish Congress you are at least as aware as the most competent historian of the discrimination, persecution and calamity visited upon Jews by Christians in many corners of the globe over many centuries. After all, that is partly why there must be a World Jewish Congress. And yet in impassioned tones you are decrying the widespread apathy and indifference toward the persecution of Christian minorities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
You are saying, in effect: Yes, there is the terrible history. We must acknowledge that and learn from it. Truly learning from it, though, means decrying religious persecution wherever it occurs. We are in the present moment, with real people who are suffering. We must not allow ourselves, whether tacitly or explicitly, to indulge in historical tit-for-tat thinking. The time we are living in is our own time, when we must rise to the responsibilities posed by our time. Every day is a new day, when we have opportunity to write a new story.
Thank you for your vision.
A next-day postscript on August 21: Today there is an equally important op-ed column by Kenan Malik, “Muslims and Jews are targets of bigotry in Europe,” in which the author focuses on rising anti-Semitism in Europe.