CHRISTIAN MISSION AND WITNESS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Washington D. C.
February 7, 1994
Are Christian Mission and Witness two different categories in biblical theology? What is their specific relation regarding the Middle East mainly since the advent of Islam? This is the topic with which we are concerned.
Although substantive mission is not found in the New Testament, the command of the Lord to his disciples to go and proclaim the Gospel is obvious. There is a divine message to be sent by messengers representing God who sends them because they are faithful and do not deceive the message. There is a kind of unity between he who sends and he who is sent, "he who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Matthew 10:40). The value of the one who is sent comes from the fact that he is sent. He is an official delegate, an ambassador, and, like the prophets of the Old Testament, he is obedient to the voice of the Lord (Isaiah 6:8). The truth of Jeremiah's call is valid for all times: "I appointed you a prophet to the nations. Then I said Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth. But the Lord said to me: Do not say I am only a youth; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak" (Jeremiah 1:5-7).
This remains the basis of the apostleship in the New Testament. But it assumes another dimension, a dimension of depth in the Gospel; it becomes rooted in the mission assigned to Christ by the Father. Here the one who is sent is not to be separated from the sender. He is the messenger of his Father, for he dwells in him. His mission to the world could not be dissociated from the glory of the Father which is given to him. He goes to the world, but does not leave his Father's bosom. Thus, by receiving their Master, the disciples receive also the Father who abides in them together with the Son. They do also receive the Spirit who shall reveal to them all truth and glorify Christ in them.
The new dispensation is more than a sheer word. It is not external to man. It abides in him as a power of transfiguration. The messenger is a new creature, and, accordingly, the message obtains a new strength until the messenger be identified with the message itself. In the fullness of obedience we become the letter written by God himself. Here the distance between the messenger and the witness disappears.
So far, we have dealt with individual messengers whom God has given the responsibility to proclaim the word. This is the Old Testament pattern still valid for particular mission corresponding to a particular charisma in the Church. To hold a charisma is to be sent by the Spirit. But in the new dispensation the Church as such is sent. Obviously, being the body of Christ necessitates that one of its functions was that its prophets and leaders lay down their hands on other apostles like Barnabas and Saul and to send them off. This office continued in the Church where the Spirit through it, sends off people to the evangelization of nations. But the Church as such is placed in the world as being in mission. Its nature is to preach the Gospel. To bear the Evangel and to transmit it is one and the same task. The Church announces the Kingdom which becomes a reality in the hearts of those who obey it. The mission is not a function of the Church. It is its very being.
The Church is missionary because it should gather in itself both Israel and the nations. Those who believe and are baptized constitute the people of God. This is a prerequisite of the salvation promised to all those who believe. However, the power of the Church as missionary stems from the fact that it is a witness. It is a witness because it is the body of Christ. It is a witness by the power of God who dwells in it. When the Lord addresses his disciples saying: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 27:19) he sends them together as an apostolic college. "And the wall of city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the lamb" (Revelation 21:14) in such a way that he who receives the teaching of one apostle is founded on the apostles gathered together. No one preaches his own Gospel nor baptizes in his private name. The Church, which is already bride and shares the glory it aspires to, is in mission because it is a witness.
As a witness to the Father, Christ gave rise, by the Counselor to the permanent witness, the Church which bears his word and fertilizes it. Witnessing is not a sheer verbal proclamation of the Gospel. The word was made flesh. And so, the sacramental life is the very core of an entire proclamation. The power of the message comes to the Church because of its central reality, the Eucharist. The Kingdom can be preached because it is fully experienced through the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is designed by Saint John Chrysostom as the fullness of the Kingdom. According to Saint Symeon the New Theologian, it is the day which is the ultimate light. One can never truly proclaim unless one sees the light, i.e. the uncreated energy of God. This is not a mere illumination of the mind, it is the light which shines in the being itself. A communion in light does exist in the very being of the Triune God. The Gospel is transmitted in a shining life; proclamation as teaching will never convey light unless the preacher is bathed in the Trinitarian light. It is his inner face perceived as icon of the Lord, which burns the very heart of his listener. A true proclamation of the word is only possible after a transfiguration of the being, by which the face of the witness becomes sun as the face of the Lord on Tabor.
This glorification of man is linked to the fact that there is an ecclesial organism growing in the Spirit, which excludes the individualistic approach to salvation and to a privileged time of the conscience of our salvation. We are born constantly together from the waters of the divine Love, and the extent of our salvation encompasses the whole universe in its march towards a transfigured time and a matter made of light.
It is exactly this life in communion, this sanctity of life, which makes our being ecclesial; and each member of this ecclesial being is a witness to the Kingdom. When the apostle says: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9), he is speaking of a reality already existing in the Spirit. It is not only a question of a potential transition from darkness into light, but of an actual and evident testimony to the light even though we are conscious that the fullness of glory is fulfilled only at the Parousia.
This means that the entire transfigured community, which contemplates in its Koinonia the glory of Jesus crucified, is "witness to his resurrection" (Acts 1:22) because it bears in itself his victory. This is the reason why the Eastern Church calls the contemplation of Jesus "bios apostolikos" (apostolic life). The Christian who bears the vision is sent; his vision makes him an apostle.
Our unity in vision implies our unity in testimony. As Saint John of Damascus truly states, it is because the flesh of the witness becomes word that the message is conveyed from the Christian community to another human community. Those who died together washed by the blood of the Lamb rise before the Throne of God. The Church and its members who have experienced together the faith of having lived with Jesus in the nuptial residence can invite others to break the idols, to free themselves from their passions, to convert to the unique face of the Beloved. We are here to bear witness not only to the word but also to the silence, to the inexpressible zeal of the beings of fire wounded by the Love of Jesus. The silence becomes a song to which human communities can listen. Hence the dialogue of life, the graft of the wild olive-tree, the joint life of the disciples of Jesus and of those who peregrinate through the infinite limits of religions and cultures. The patience of the Saints creates an invisible impregnation and prompts a dialogue in simplicity and confidence. Whenever the Christian is admired, it is Christ who radiates.
Here the social can become a prelude to the testimony, but only a prelude. The social is nothing if it does not unveil the power of the Spirit. It replaces neither the uttered word nor the sanctity of life. It is the death of the Christian, his complete deprivation, that allows him to translate the social into a mystery of love.
To go is, in the first place, to be. And to be is to be constituted by Christ in all his richness. That is why it is, initially, a question of making the space where we live a place of divine epiphany. The Spirit should blow within us first, so that the word become audible, i.e. the power of the Spirit.
How the unity of mission and witness, as we have attempted to bring it out from the Scripture and the theological thought, has been lived in the Land of Islam? Throughout the centuries the orthodox East has known debates with Islam either in its polemic literature or within the circles of learned people where representatives of both religions used to confront one another. the Christian theologians attempted to defend the basic dogmas of the faith and to reject the Islamic belief. In the course of the Middle Ages, a host of authors from the various Christian confessions tried to expound more positively the Christian faith, in order to assert themselves as monotheists. However, Islam remained impervious. One of the main reasons of this imperviousness comes, as I think, from the fact that Islam held the power. It was an established religion, and thus felt itself in a powerful position.
Moreover, Islam is an integral religion, structured intimately and on principles linked to the temporal. Its followers had every reason to remain adherent to it. But more basically, the apostate was put to death according to a legal rule ascribed to the Prophet. In this way, the Greeks who became Muslims and, by act of repentance, returned to Christianity, were put to death by the Turks. They are the Neo-Martyrs of the Greek Church. In spite of this the Greek-speaking countries under the rule of the Turks have known a considerable number of theological works.
In Asia Minor, the Balkans And the Middle East, the Church could not but defend the faith, within the confines of the possible. Yet it was instituted in the mentality of the people that the Muslims were impermeable to the Gospel. In front of this the Protestant Missions have utterly failed and have undertaken only a cultural work.
We should probably add that the state of legal inferiority, to which the Christians were reduced on account of the status of "Dhimmis" which was a canonical status of the marginalized communities, did not help them to blossom at all. they were not members of the city of equal rights. They were excluded from important public responsibilities and the army, and paid a tribute per capita.
The English historian Fortescue who wrote a book on the Church of Antioch, considered the Christians of the East as heroes. Nothing in the Land of Islam is similar to the Roman Empire which occasionally persecuted the Christians but, on the other hand, provided a ground where ancient religions freely faced Christianity. Nothing in Islam is similar to the Barbarian Europe where liberty prevailed or India which tolerates diversity.
Furthermore, Islam promoted one of the exegetical and religious literatures strongly elaborated. Nothing here resembles the African Animism which has few intellectual elements in contrast with the Gospel.
Nevertheless, the Russian orthodox mission succeeded with the Muslim Tartars ethnic groups in southern Russia. Is this due to their cultural inferiority, to the prestige of the Russian Empire or to the fact that they relatively ignore the Koran written in Arabic? In the Middle East, the mission as a system of organization is unthinkable at any time.
However, this did not inhibit a Christian presence which appeared especially in the field of literature and the national life where we live together. There is an evident sensibility to the Gospel in this part of the world, yet without adherence to baptism. However, the Church here and there receives Muslims individually. The difficulty to proclaim their conversion emerges mainly from the fact that, outside Lebanon, the Muslim states, where religion and state are intimately bound together, do not recognize their transition to Christianity, nor their marital status, nor do they provide free Christian funerals.
At the moment, it is not time for freedom. I hope that Christians, in the future, do not experience big sufferings. Yet it is an indubitable fact that Christ has never been without witnesses in this part of the world. The Church in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt has known a considerable revival since several decades. A new language is used. A light is indisputably radiating despite much tension and ambiguity relating to the national life. But during peace -which is not scarce- lights penetrate the hearts. To this, the Koran itself has been witness in the seventh century.
A lived Gospel is certainly conveyed. But what about the uttered word? It seems to me that in as much as the revival of the Church intensifies, the Lord will incite evangelists, theologians and especially spirituals who would commit themselves to expound the faith in a language accessible to the Arab mind. We are already getting out of the ecclesiastical ghetto, and of the vocabulary which addresses exclusively our congregations. The Christian modes of literary and artistic expression are getting shape.
To be fair to historical reality, one has to say that the Eastern Church did not betray the fact that it is committed to witness. It undertook the apology of faith in different manners. It needs more scholarly knowledge of Islam, and an utterly new language more or less freed from Greek philosophy to express faith within the categories of Arabic mind in a society where secularism has begun to find its way.
On the other hand, Judaism has been a minority to such an extent that it did not seem to have preoccupied the Easterners. It forced itself upon the intellectuals in connection with the advent of the State of Israel. Preoccupied by the rise of Zionism, the intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian, write very stern critique of the Old Testament. But the Arabs are not yet interested in Post-Biblical Judaism. A Neo-Marcionist tendency dominates most of the minds. With the exception of some occasional contacts with believing Jews, and most certainly owing to the feeling of injustice the Arabs are experiencing, a true dialogue has not been established yet. The Arab Christians involved in the ecumenical movement had plenty of initiative to urge the World Council of Churches to reflect upon the "misuse of the Bible", with a view of a more secular approach to the Palestinian issue. I do not know yet whether, once the peace is established in the region, the minds will be appeased enough to meet Judaism in all its theological complexity. When our Eastern theology will be elaborated in depth, it is determined to be challenged by the great Jewish theologians throughout the different stages of history. I am convinced, however, that the theologians of the East will reject, by faithfulness to their tradition, "a two people of God covenant". They take as an order imposed on them: "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). There is undoubtedly a proclamation of the Gospel to the Jews.
The ideal would be that the Christian witness becomes not only the act of each church apart, but of the churches which work in harmony. The churches are separated not only within themselves, but in the variety of feelings towards Islam and Judaism as historical and cultural entities. Therefore, it is indispensable to the Christians to acquire a scholarly and serene understanding of these two religions, and more particularly of Islam, because of our common engagement in the Arabic culture. Therefore, as a start, there should occur a releasing from historical prejudices and fear. Courage alone is a witness. It is only by the power of Christ and the meekness of the Gospel that contacts begin to be established.
The message which is addressed to both Jews and Muslims, could not be creative nor could it flow from the land of the East unless it is the message of the Eastern Patristic tradition, and in particular, of the Semitic theology in a terminology that should be worked out by a critical usage of the Greek philosophy which gave its modes of expression to the Christian dogmatic. The Semitic mind in general, and the Muslim in particular, is alien to Greek categories. An intelligent biblical theology read through the Syrian tradition can become the tool of the evangelic message. It is to this task that all churches should settle down. It is the work undertaken together in the mission and the witness which will free the churches of what opposes them.
Along this road, the Protestant churches are invited to rediscover their first inspiration, that of bringing renewal to the traditional churches. We do owe the Protestantism the rediscovery of the living message of the Gospel. But, we are persuaded that it is not scientific any more to contrast the Bible as letter with the great liturgical and spiritual tradition. For us, the tradition is not something else than the word of God said in a different manner. It is the tradition that kept us faithful to the Bible. The renewal is already making its way into our churches. The Protestant churches established in the East are challenged by the ecclesial tradition. Their rediscovery of what has been delivered to us once and for all in the life of prayer and worship will bring them close to what is common to all the churches of the Arabs. It is through our itinerary towards what was our authenticity and our way of being Christians, together with the "cloud of witnesses", and always towards more depth, that the Lord will be again manifested in his ineffable glory.