Washington, D.C. — “The West must shift from reactive to proactive, from crisis management to crisis prevention.” Aram I Keshishian of the Armenian Apostolic Church was giving Washington advice, but it happens to be good advice to live by for everyone, even the very group of people gathered to hear him.
He was speaking at the inaugural In Defense of Christians summit. Five Eastern Christian patriarchs had come here to demonstrate to the world what an essential reconciling presence Christianity is in Iraq and Syria and all around that region of the world, where Islamic extremism is threatening the lives of Christians and the future of Christianity.
The summit was successful in that the patriarchs met with President Obama and talked with congressional leaders about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But the story that grabbed the headlines was a keynote address gone bad. It seemed to have been made for YouTube, where it quickly appeared.
Taking the stage at the same time as the president’s prime-time remarks about the Islamic State, which has brutally killed two American journalists and a British aid worker in recent weeks, Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) talked to the In Defense of Christians summit about Israel. He began innocuously enough, calling out all terror groups in the region, but he was soon telling those in the packed Omni Shoreham ballroom that they all had to “stand with Israel.” This audibly upset some of those present — it doesn’t require an expert in regional politics to know that there might be some political sensitivities about some Israeli policies among a group of Arab Christians, some of them politicians in or immigrants from the Middle East. A few walked out of the room; others asked Cruz to “move on.” He took the reaction as anti-Semitism, told them so, and promptly left. (I wrote more about the scene here on the Corner on Friday.)
As it happens, IDC’s “mission” materials include an explanation that the group does not “seek only to protect the human rights of Christians, but all religious groups. These rights are universal, applicable to all human persons.” “Christians,” the conference schedule explained, “in this sense,” refers not only to “those who confess the Christian faith, but also Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, and even the freedom to confess no religious belief at all.” Many of the speakers’ remarks reflected this. Even the Maronite liturgy the summit closed with included prayers to God as “lover of all.” It was clear that those assembled believe he created Jews, Muslims, and Ted Cruz, too.
Reactions to Cruz that evening ranged from perplexed and rattled to disappointed and angry. Some wondered if the senator knew whom he was talking to. Maybe he thought the meeting was a foreign-policy conference about the Middle East? Maybe he thought it was a pro-Israel evangelical group? The cynical gave the clinical Beltway analysis: The new group had invited the presidential aspirant in the hopes of getting some buzz, and Cruz used the occasion for the same purpose. And what began as an opportunity to laser in on a specific vulnerable population became just another ugly political mess. Cruz supporters took to social media and dubbed him a hero, IDC was derided, and that little matter of Christian genocide was forgotten once again.
Inside the ballroom, Cruz was viewed as a bit of a bull in a china shop, coming off to many there as a smug politician with an agenda that was not at all focused on the one group the gathering was convened to raise awareness of and prompt action for.
But this too is an opportunity for reconciliation.
The takeaway for many was: Speaker booed at gathering of Christians. We cannot emulate Adam, Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan Joseph Zahlawi said the next morning. Christians are Christians precisely because we are sinners. But when the world sees just another man yielding to temptation instead of following Jesus, it doesn’t see Christianity, and so, at best, it doesn’t see the point, or, at worst, it sees Christianity as a menace.
Speaking on September 11 this year, Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutrous Cardinal Rai reflected on a visit he had made to Ground Zero in New York, seeing there “the mystery of evil.” “We are children not of death, but of Resurrection,” he said. “Christians believe in spreading love in the region.” The Arab world is in the midst of a difficult birth, he said, and Christians need to be there to “nurture Arab humanity.”
Unfortunately, among the most memorable images of Christians in that part of the world to Westerners are the ones from a few years ago, of priests and monks from different communions brawling at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the holiest spots of Christianity. (I’m not casting stones here — Western Christians have more than our share of well-known bad witness and scandal, too.)
Perhaps both for damage control and in the interests of shepherding his flock, Bishop Angaelos, a Coptic Orthodox who lives in London, acknowledged that a truth was spoken the night before, even as he maintained that IDC had been “misrepresented” — first by Cruz and now by the media attention it was receiving.
Cruz had said that it does not reflect the teachings of Christ to hate Jews. That is absolutely true. However, this statement was upsetting to the majority of people I spoke with after his talk because the admonishment wasn’t one they particularly needed to hear. “We are not people of hate,” Angaelos said. “We speak in defense of Christians, of Jews, of Muslims, of those of no faith.” That said, no one in the room is perfect, and where did the impulse to heckle a speaker come from? Angaelos also said, “We apologize profusely when we stop” living as Christians. The disappointment and the PR headache can also serve as an examination of conscience.
You can talk about something all you want, but people have to see it. And if a Christian approaches the world with anything other than true love for the heart of God, what the world is going to see is not his best intention but the obstacle in the way of a world of good.
Boos and brawls are what make news. So we have to be better.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.