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For years I’ve been asking Christians in the Middle East why they are so happy. And as Islamic State and other terrorist groups have forced millions from their homes, over and over I get the kind of response Chaldean Archbishop Amal Nona recently gave National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez:
“Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ. … We were angry. We were afraid. But we were also happy. … Our faith is more important than everything else.”
Comments like Nona’s arise like solid ground in a miry landscape. When we crawl out of this fever swamp of a presidential race, the self-identifying “evangelicals” who vote for Donald Trump will have left for the rest of us a lot of explaining to do. Do Christians who didn’t support Trump have the skill, wisdom, and happiness for the task? Should Trump continue to gain in political standing, it will only become more difficult.
Already you can feel the sorting, and the confusion. When an MSNBC story concludes, “What evangelicals like about Trump is that he speaks for them,” I want to hide, change the channel or at least my own modifiers. But rather than dropping the terms that identify me most deeply, I need to remember Archbishop Amal Nona.
Nona doesn’t have a diocese anymore. He doesn’t have a church. ISIS destroyed all that, and his people are scattered. But he’s not afraid to speak forthrightly, even when ISIS was at his doorstep: “Liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here,” he said in 2014. “Islam does not say that all men are equal.”
‘Liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. Islam does not say that all men are equal.’ —Amal Nona
Traveling among Middle East Christians, I’ve watched their situations grow worse—and their faith grow stronger. Years ago in Iraq you’d rarely see Chaldean, Orthodox, and evangelical church leaders together. The older churches saw evangelicals as usurpers. The evangelicals distrusted the older churches, as some for centuries had compromised with and been corrupted by Muslim leaders.
Persecution has a way of winnowing the corrupt and the fainthearted. For them there are sunnier shores. The remnant speakers at a women’s conference I attended last year in Iraqi Kurdistan were Evangelical, Missionary Alliance, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean (one was Dominican priest Najeeb Michael, featured in “Priest on a mission” in this issue). Each spoke, and what you heard was the gospel, unadorned save for the grief they’d suffered, and kindness toward one another.
When I asked the clergy about it later, they agreed: This is new. They are all displaced themselves, and since ISIS came in 2014, they’ve been serving together their now-homeless flocks. One had money, another had a van, and a third knew where bottled water was selling cheap. They pooled those resources and took turns visiting each others’ displaced community, ferrying to them water, mattresses, milk powder, and a little money.
The unity had its effect, as the 350 women attending for four hours didn’t move from their seats. For them and their church leaders, as Archbishop Nona says of his flock, “None of them thought it would be better not to be Christian.”
Perhaps we can learn from these Christians the grace to stand firm, form new alliances, and be happy in it. We should be glad also when the questions come. A contact in Europe, a pro-life activist, wrote me the day before the South Carolina primary to ask why so many evangelicals are voting for Trump.
“I was at first flabbergasted,” he said, “and it’s worrying for the United States because Christianity has become so superficial, it mixes up being rude with being assertive.”
Jesus cared about a watching world. A candidate who speaks in public in ways we’d discipline our children for, whose mode of operation is to berate and insult, and whose conduct contradicts the teachings of Jesus—all make a watching world wonder. Christians laboring in an already hostile public square will be more easily edged to the periphery, dismissed not so much as fools but as haters. The former we can live with, but the latter?
The boorishness of Trump makes him easy to dismiss, yet the enmity he sows cannot go unaddressed. And it may not end soon.