An Open Letter from the Second Century 5 December 2013
Timothy Pearce reflects on early Christian teachings and their relevance to modern-day conflicts.
There is no doubting, nor denying, that the Arab Spring has brought about violence. Violence of many forms and kinds, of many different manifestations and faces; violence of a psychological nature, a physical nature, and also of a religious nature. One may presume that the two ideas of religion and violence, by definition, would not be compatible, but it seems that in the Arab Spring the two ideas are almost synonymous. Arguably, the two largest religions at the forefront of the Arab Spring Islam and Christianity. There is no doubt that these two religions have a very complicated, involved, and bloody history; which has created quite a deep-seated problem, mostly awfully plagued by violence to one another. There is not an easy solution to this conflict, as inherently there is no easy solution to the amalgamation of two seemingly oppositional worldviews.
Yet, an interesting point arises when one speaks of union concerning these two religions, and that is the common idea of peace. In both Islam and Christianity peace and love are promoted; peace and love are doctrinal and moral pillars of both faiths. The most common greeting among Muslims is As-salam alaykum, roughly translating to “peace be with you.” The figure of Jesus Christ is called the “Prince of Peace” in the Old Testament, and according to the New Testament taught that peacemakers are blessed. So, why do two religions that both claim to promote peace and love have such a history of violence and hatred toward one another? That question, like the problem itself, is very complicated, and any answer would only scratch the surface of the problem. Yet, is an answer what is really needed? Or, rather, is the present need actually peace and love? This author would posit that it is.
In that vein, consider this an open letter to both Christians and Muslims, an exhortation toward peace and love. An open letter that will seek to present the early morality of Christianity, and what it stood for in the first two centuries following the death of Jesus Christ, as represented in the early letter called the “Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus”. This document is recognised by the larger academic community as a 2nd century example of Christian apologetics, or in laymen’s terms, a Christian version of morality and how that morality ought to interact with the non-Christian world. Its 5th verse reads:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life.”
First, to the Christian community. This letter ought to be a proof by which you measure yourself, a “yardstick of morality” if you will. If a Christian is not living according to this worldview, is not practicing this type of morality, how Christian are they really? As the creeds of the Christian faith guide and protect its theology and liturgy, may this letter guide and protect Christian morality. If Christians are not living for Christ’s Kingdom, but for this present kingdom, are their actions really Christian? If they do not place the philosophy and morality of Christ as superior to the philosophies and moralities of men, are their thoughts and beliefs really Christian? If the actions of Christians are after the “flesh,” are they really Christian? Mathetes says Christians “have a common table, but not a common bed,” but if Christians do not share their food, and instead do share their bed, are their actions really Christian? If Christians cannot understand how to “surpass the law,” but simply grumble and complain about the laws of men which they are presently subjected to, are they really Christian? If Christians only seek justice and vengeance, rather than choosing to “repay insult with honor,” are they really Christian? If Christians cannot stand with this morality, cannot stand by their dedication to Christ’s words in the Christian Bible, then where do they stand?
Yet, if all Christians can unite under this morality, can unite under the words of Christ, then where is their unity? Countless churches and Christians have been destroyed in the Arab Spring, and the larger Church has turned a blind eye to their devastation. The larger Church has not heard their cries as they are beaten, raped, and killed. The proclamations of their martyrdom have fallen on deaf ears. One early Christian apologist said of the persecution of Christians going on in his lifetime, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Yet, in the Arab Spring the blood of the martyrs is not even recognized. How can this be?
Second, to the Muslim community. This letter ought to be an example of what true Christian morality looks like. If the morality of Christians truly matches the morality seen in this letter, then a few questions arise. If Christians follow this morality, then what problem do you have with them? If Christians follow this morality, then why are Islamic groups killing them in the Middle East? If Christians truly followed the words of Christ, and perfectly performed the type of morality he presents in the Christian Bible, especially in his “Sermon on the Mount,” would Islamic groups still martyr them?
May this letter be an exhortation for all of Islam to try to find the best in Christians, and not the worst. Inversely, may Christians seek to find the best in Islam, and not the worst. Either side could look at confused and misguided events in history, such as the Crusades or the tragedy of 9/11, to fuel unfair and anachronistic conclusions; but what purpose do those conclusions serve, but to propagate hate? May both Islam and Christianity seek the Peace of our respective Gods, that love may abound in our world, especially in the tumultuous and violent times of the Arab Spring.
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