Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Shedding Christian Blood: The Perils of Naïve Solidarity

Bradford Littlejohn


By Bradford Littlejohn

January 10, 2014

With the spread of globalization has come a growing consciousness among Western Christians of the global extent of Christianity, and with it, a growing concern for the challenges faced by our co-religionists living in the developing world. The resulting sense of global Christian solidarity, especially with those suffering for their faith, has borne remarkable fruit. Organizations such as Voice of the Martyrs, the Barnabas Fund, and Christian Freedom International advocate for persecuted Christians and assist them in their plight. Churches in America and western Europe have added the persecuted to their prayer lists and used social media to invoke intercession for particularly urgent needs. Christians have even lobbied for foreign policies geared toward protecting Christians. 

In his recent book Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, theologian Peter J. Leithart elevates this idea of international Christian solidarity to a basic principle of Christian politics. Those nations who favor and protect the saints are, in biblical terms, “angelic guardians”; those who persecute the saints are “beasts,” doomed to destruction. Among the greatest stains on modern America’s record, he charges, is its support of bestial nations such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, through which American Christians have indirectly cooperated in the suppression and even murder of foreign Christians. In response, he says, Christians need to work on “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood” (152).  But what do we do when the very Christians that we are trying to protect are themselves shedding Christian blood?

The breathtakingly rapid unraveling over the past month of South Sudan, a poster child for international Christian solidarity and faith-based American foreign policy, has posed this question with stark urgency. South Sudan emerged in 2005 from a decades-long civil war that had pitted the largely Muslim north against the largely Christian south, and finally gained independence in 2011 due in large part to concerted US support. This support drew much of its strength from the lobbying effort of American Christians who had made the plight of the south Sudanese something of a cause célèbre during the late 1990s and early 2000s as the charismatic Christian leader John Garang led the resistance forces. Ethnic tensions continued to afflict the new nation, however, and last month these boiled over in an outbreak of violence, civil war, and genocidal acts that have killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands in a chilling echo of the Rwandan holocaust twenty years ago, with much of the killing between fellow Christians.  

The problem with a politics predicated on international Christian solidarity is that it forgets that not all Christians act like Christians. We imagine, with more charity than realism, that Christians in the developing world, by virtue of their suffering, are probably more godly than we are. And so we instinctively take their side in inter-religious conflicts. But a quick look at recent major global conflicts reveals what a misguided assumption this is. The Serbian-Bosnian conflict witnessed terrible atrocities committed primarily by Christians against Muslims. In the Lebanese civil war, all parties were at fault. Likewise, although American Christians have been quick to speak up for the Copts in Egypt and Syrian Christians as violence has broken out in their countries, the role of Christians in both conflicts appears to be deeply ambiguous. When we simply assume in foreign politics that the Christians are standing and suffering for Christ, we forget that all Christians have, in Martin Luther’s categories, a Christ-person and a world-person within them. 

This has two key consequences when we look at Christians in conflict situations. First, even for a faithful Christian, the world-person is still capable of great evil, up to and including demonic acts of violence like those witnessed in Rwanda. Second, even when the world-person is not steeped in evil, that person is still enmeshed in the world, in the myriad relationships and concerns and motives of worldly life that may not reflect specifically Christian motivations or display a specifically Christian identity. This should make us slow to conclude that a conflict involving Christians is necessarily a conflict over or because of Christianity; often it reflects the clashing social, economic, ethnic, or political agendas of those involved.

Failure to realize this can result in a naïve approach to conflict resolution, where we imagine that in South Sudan, for instance, all would be well as soon as the Muslims stopped oppressing the Christians. In reality, such conflicts often run much deeper, and if we are to resolve them, we must be willing to confront fellow Christians as those who are almost as often on the side of the oppressors as on the side of the oppressed.

-  Bradford Littlejohn has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Theological Ethics. He researches and writes in the areas of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, and Reformation History and also works as Registered Investment Advisor in the state of Idaho. He is managing editor of Political Theology Today and a regular columnist for several blogs.

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