Addressing the “In Defense of Christians” (IDC) summit on Wednesday morning, September 10, U.S. Representative Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) declared that every “freedom-loving man, woman, and child must be engaged” in the fight to defend persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Would that members of the media, particularly Christian and/or conservative journalists, had actually been engaged in this fight to defend religious minorities for a while! If they had been, they would be able to write more knowledgeably about the scourge of global jihad. They would have had experience with U.S. political leaders that have actually given more than lip service to the issue of religious persecution. And they would have known that Texas Senator Ted Cruz is regarded as a strong advocate for persecuted Christians, as well as for Israel, by those of us who actually spend our days and years working on behalf of the persecuted.
If that had been the case, IDC’s Wednesday evening gala with Cruz as keynote speaker might not have become such an issue. As it was, though, the messages given by other speakers in the remaining hours of the summit such as the terrific keynote on Thursday by Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy author Eric Metaxas, have been all but ignored by the media. They preferred to go after Cruz for what they perceived as his insensitivity to Middle Eastern Christians. Metaxas’ speech (sermon, really) was important in its own right, but was also important as a response to what took place the night before, over the gala dinner of braised short ribs of beef and Chilean sea bass.
Senator Cruz’s gala speech has now been dissected and autopsied (but not buried!) from Right and Left. It wouldhave been an inspirational charge for unity against all religious oppression from a political leader who has stood consistently with persecuted Christians – if he had been able to complete it. He began:
Good evening. Today we are gathered at a time of extraordinary challenge. Tonight we are all united in defense of Christians. Tonight we are all united in defense of Jews. Tonight we are all united in defense of people of good faith who are standing together against those who would persecute and murder those who dare to disagree with their religious teachings.
The murmurs around the room, which began with that introduction by the senator, grew louder when Cruz continued:
Religious bigotry is a cancer with many manifestations. ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran, are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East.
Sometimes we are told not to lump these groups together, that we have to understand their so-called nuances and differences. But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on murderous rampage through the region. Hate is hate and murder is murder.
Instead of hearing Cruz’s remarks as a rallying cry to unity for those who are facing the same enemy, a small but very vocal group booed and heckled the statement for its support for Israel. Shouts of “Stop it!” and “No!” went up from the audience causing the senator to respond to their angry denials.
Although Cruz persisted for some minutes, putting aside his speech and speaking extemporaneously, he soon said that he could not stand with those “who could not stand with Israel.” “My heart weeps that the men and women here will not stand in solidarity with Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals who seek to murder them,” he said as he left the stage.
Senator Cruz had come to the IDC summit aware of certain facts of which many of the participants – even other members of Congress and some of the other speakers – were not aware. He knew, for instance, that in August a Syrian-American activist, Farid Ghadry, described the IDC summit as “a Hezbollah-backed stealth conference.”
Ghadry, a reform-minded Muslim, later retracted his post, but did not deny his assertion that “a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman and a Hezbollah ally named Gilbert Chagouri” was a “major backer and bankroller” of the summit.” Chagouri had a close relationship with the late brutal Nigerian Islamist dictator, Sani Abacha, as well. Ghadry revealed that most of the protest against Senator Cruz came from members of the Hizb al-Kawmi al-Souri, which he called, “a political party that is a staunch backer of Arab nationalism and the Assad regime.”
Many have written about this event with varyingdegrees of understanding. Those who have actually been working in counter-jihad, anti-Sharia, religious freedom arenas, of course, defended Senator Cruz. One of the best was Katie Gorka, who pointed out that to Cruz “even in as worthy a cause as defending Christians from extinction in the Middle East, we cannot compromise our fundamental commitment as Americans to the right of all people to live free from persecution and free from subjugation by totalitarian, supremacist ideologies, such as that espoused by Hezbollah.”
But Eric Metaxas, who offered the next day’s luncheon keynote address, did not just understand who the players were. He spoke about the critical spiritual implications of refusing to stand in solidarity with others who are persecuted. The best-selling author’s talk, “Unity with the Persecuted,” may not have been exactly what the audience was expecting, but it was what many needed to hear.
Before he began, Metaxas offered a prayer for both the persecuted Christians and other oppressed minorities of the Middle East and for The Rev. Dr. Canon Andrew White, the famous “Vicar of Baghdad.” White, who has lived in the community of St. George’s Anglican Church with Baghdad’s persecuted Christians, Jews, and Muslims, was to have been a speaker at the summit but had to withdraw because of illness. Even in his prayer, Metaxas was reminding the audience that not only should they be in unity with the persecuted, but that that persecuted should be in unity with each other – as they are in this beleaguered Baghdad community.
Metaxas then skillfully wove together the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his stand against Nazis and in defense of Jews with the stand that the Church today must take against evil. He quoted Bonhoeffer, saying “silence in the face of evil is evil.” He explained that he had learned in his research for Bonhoeffer that many people that “claimed to be Christians” were silent because they were more “nationalistic” than they were Christian.
The author never mentioned the incident of the night before, but the truth was there for those who have ears to hear. Metaxas said gently but firmly that it was never appropriate to “conflate nationalism with Christian faith.” He made three points that show why Christian identity cannot be one with nationalism:
- The role of the Church is to be the conscience of the State. If it is one with the State – appeasing or compromising – it is abdicating being the Church.
- Satan is the one who divides the Church. After lightheartedly asking the audience, “you do believe in Satan, right?” Metaxas said, “We only see the true Church of Jesus Christ where there is unity.” He declared that the greatest enemy of Satan is unity in the Church.
- The Christian’s first allegiance is to Jesus of Nazareth (“Jesus the Jew,” he added), not to his or her nation.
Metaxas challenged especially American Christians to guard their remaining freedom and never take it for granted – both for their own sakes as well as for the sake of the impact that they could make for persecuted people around the world. He concluded with these words to the IDC crowd: “Speak up for your Christian faith. Speak up for your brothers and sisters. Repent of this silence. Rejoice to be in the Lamb’s Book of Life.” His talk was indeed about unity with the persecuted. But it was not about unity as a result of national identity or political solidarity – themes with which some, especially the shouters, in the IDC seemed more comfortable. It was about unity because the Church, one body around the world, is called to speak with one voice against evil, just as Senator Cruz had said the night before.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).