Lately it’s been hard to laugh. Every glad moment is hushed by a persistent melancholy, as though someone you’d hoped could be there isn’t. And we’re right, as a Christian community, to sense a dreadful gap: far afield from all of us here in the Anglosphere, fellow Christians are enduring exile and martyrdom in scores. Ancient communities, places of memory and meaning, are being dismembered and destroyed. Churches have been burned, icons defiled, homes and neighborhoods razed.
Distressingly, a slew of media outlets, pundits, and politicians in the United States have appropriated the fact of widespread Christian suffering in the middle east to advance partisan interests. Breitbart, notorious for its committed partisanship, links the suffering of Christians under ISIS with “the Islamist Spring backed by the Obama administration,” with emphasis upon the administration rather than any particular policy. A banner fixed at the lower corner of the screen for the entirety of a Hannity segment on the crisis of Christians in Iraq featured a beleaguered President Obama alongside the word ‘O-Blivious’, with the familiar and iconic campaign styling. The topic may have been the destruction of Mosul’s Christian community, but the subject was the President. So too, President Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also received their due opprobrium, with a heavy dose of I-told-you-so.
The cheapening that arises from the appropriation of horror for the advancement of moneyed partisan interests is still only one hazard of this sport. The greater harm is twofold: first, because partisan narratives are directed by self-interest, they generally fail to accurately accommodate realities that transcend the uses of American politics; second, because partisan narratives rely on a certain level of out-group antagonism to perpetuate themselves, they occlude the very virtues we should most emphasize in the face of present carnage.
On the first count, consider the robustness of rightwing condemnation of the Obama administration’s response to the persecution of Christians in Iraq in comparison with the paucity of their interest in the suffering of Christians in Palestine. In fact, in the same interview in which Sean Hannity excoriated Obama for failing to act on behalf of Christians in Iraq, he condemned the President’s administration for contributing millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the people of Palestine, among whom number over one thousand Christians. Since Palestinian Christians live intermixed with their Muslim neighbors rather than in isolated communities, the violence that has produced roughly a thousand casualties in Gaza affects them equally. Like Christians enduring similar violence in Iraq, Palestinian Christian communities are historically rooted and unique, and they are tied to areas with spiritual significance in the Christian tradition: nonetheless, their status appears to be of little interest to rightwing partisans.
This is not because of defects in particular people, but because of defects in the partisan model of rendering intelligible political realities. If political action must take place along party lines, then even the most straightforward commitments are difficult to maintain when their coherence would interfere with the party line. Since the right wing must support Israel and tends to maintain anti-Muslim animus, rallying for Christians besieged by ISIS is convenient, while rallying for those endangered by Israel is untenable. Partisan commitments truncate good impulses, like the one to protect threatened Christian communities abroad, by measuring qualification for support by amenability to internal agendas rather than objective need. In other words, they hobble virtue by calibrating it against their own interests rather than a shared or sharable standard.
Part and parcel with that habit is the tendency to allow out-group antagonism to obscure the very fundamentals of Christian ethics. By demanding the defense of Iraqi Christians, pundits on the right mean to signal a couple of things: firstly that they are committed to Christianity, and secondly that they’re opposed to Islam, both evidently in contrast to the left. While this might invigorate electoral bases of a particular stripe, the demands of Christian ethics are far more radical:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
The nature of partisan politics encourages tribalism, and in this case one tribe has claimed Christianity as its cause due to a shared affinity: but Christianity itself would ask that we seek mercy for all our neighbors. As Jesus indicates, it’s an easy feat to campaign for the safety of those you share with in some way, or those you consider an extension of your own. But to love others as we love ourselves is to use the experience of love that comes easy to extend that same love to those who might seem foreign, unwelcome, even threatening. It is true that we’re obligated to love fellow Christians far afield, and to share in solidarity with them in their suffering. But Christianity is always more radical than what comes with ease, and our obligation to love does not conclude at the boundaries of our in-groups.
Nor should we seek gain in love. Yet love-for-gain and tribal exclusion are natural facets of partisan politics, and thus the suffering of Christians in dangerous territories across the middle east has been leveraged to score political points in a system much in need of virtue like theirs. In the Shejaia district of Gaza, a 12th century Greek Orthodox church currently serves as a shelter to mothers and children, shielding them from shells and shrapnel. Her blind walls do not distinguish between Muslims and Christians: her mission is peace, and her offer is sanctuary. This is the role of the Christian church in the world, and it isn’t amenable to appropriation by partisan narratives—on the contrary, it reveals, in bloody relief, their incredible shortcomings.