Those Were Also the Days

Is it bad form to compare ISIS to Europe’s religious wars after the Reformation?

This Protestant versus Catholic division – our version of Islam’s Sunni versus Shia – was replicated all over Europe. In Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany, what started as disagreement and protest later morphed into religious persecution and then, often enough, into civil war. Only when these conflicts came to an end in the mid-1600s was this nightmare, which lasted 140 years, brought to a close.

What Syria is going through at this time is no worse than what Germany experienced in the Thirty Years War that ended in 1648. The historian Norman Davies describes the post-war scene thus: “Germany lay desolate. The population had fallen from 21 million to perhaps 13 million. Between a third and half of the people were dead. Whole cities like Magdeburg stood in ruins. Whole districts lay stripped of their inhabitants, their livestock, and their supplies. Trade had virtually ceased.”

Nor is the Syrian calamity any more disastrous than the English Civil War, which petered out in 1651. Read what the Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, has to say about the conflict: “The Civil War was the most lethal conflict England had suffered since the Conquest. A recent estimate suggests around 86,000 killed in combat, nearly all soldiers; another 129,000, mostly civilians, succumbed to the diseases that accompanied war; and infant mortality reached the highest level ever recorded. These losses, in a population of 4-5 million, are proportionately much higher than those England suffered in the First World War.”

I should add that neither the Thirty Years War nor the English Civil War was caused solely by religious hostility. The former was part of a Continental power struggle, as well as being a contest between Catholics and Protestants. On the latter, Tombs comments that: “Religion was the clearest dividing line, but even that does not explain everything.” But then religion is not the sole generator of Middle East conflict.

Sure, as a committed (or soon to be committed) Protestant, I’d prefer not to be compared to religious terrorists. And when I think about the start of the Civil War I’d like to think (in the neo-conservative part of me) that this was oh so different from the American War for Independence. But can Western Christians really avoid noticing certain parallels between their own past and Islam?

David Robertson, never one to miss a chance to send a missive to a newspaper, thinks we can refuse the analogies by rebranding Presbyterians as — get this — “freedom fighters”:

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of ISIS.

How pastor Robertson describes the “freedom fighters” that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a rebellion foreign policy initiative that helped to create ISIS, is a question that may be answered the next time someone in the British newspapers traces the American revolution to Scottish Presbyterianism.

If You Want Ecumenism, Go to War

The various reactions to developments in Iraq from Protestant officers have me wondering when we Presbyterians ever established fraternal relations with the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. David Miller, the moderator of Scotland’s Free Church has written a letter to the UK parliament in which he links the Free Church to the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox communions of Iraq:

The plight of persecuted Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria – chiefly in regions controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) – is a matter of grave concern to the Christian community and to all decent human beings.

Likewise, Rick Phillips has prayed:

Our Father in heaven, the sovereign and almighty God, the faithful covenant-keeper and Savior, we plead to you on behalf of our suffering fellow believers in Iraq. Cast your eye upon them and have mercy to uphold and defend your flock. Overthrow the evil of their persecutors and strengthen the faith of those suffering tribulation for the name of Jesus.

To his credit, Joe Carter is calling for caution about the conclusions Christians in the West draw from the situation in the Middle East. Whenever church officials — pastors or popes — speak about current events, the spirituality-of-the-church jaws in me tighten. What do these people know about the situation over there beyond what they see from journalists? Talk about being above your pay grade.

But the odd aspect of this outpouring of legitimate concern for a genuinely tragic set of circumstances in Iraq is the way that Presbyterians lose their ecclesial wits and identify as Christians those whom they used to evangelize. Let’s not forget, for instance, that the southern Presbyterian (Old School no less), John B. Adger went in the 1830s to modern day Turkey to evangelize among the Armenian Orthodox. Also keep in mind that the character of Clarence Ussher, the doctor who tried to protect the Armenians of Van from the Turks during the Armenian genocide was there as part of the Presbyterian missionary effort to Eastern Orthodox Christians.

In full disclosure mode — all the talk about sex has me going — I will admit that I have prayed for persecuted Christians. But the ones I have had in mind most of the time are those believers in Eritrea with whom the OPC has a long and special relationship. (Aren’t I special?) Does that mean that prayers for those suffering at the hands of the ISIS are inappropriate or even wrong? No. But do we need to refer to them as fellow Christians? Does this somehow give us victim status in the culture wars back here in the greatest nation on God’s green earth? (And by the way, would they recognize us as fellow Christians?)

Such solidarity among professed Christians is however a further confirmation of the Old Life axiom that war and church union go hand in hand. War healed every single split in American Presbyterianism except for the start-ups of the OPC and PCA. In 1758 in the middle of the French and Indian War Old Side and New Side Presbyterians put aside differences in part to pull together behind those recent Presbyterian settlers close to the front on the frontier. In 1869, enthusiastic over a war to preserve the union, Old School and New School Presbyterians reunited to show at least in part that they were committed to the same ideals that animated the United States. And just after World War I, mainline Protestants proposed a church union that would have created a single Protestant Church of America (comparable to the ecumenism that fueled the formation of the United Church of Canada 1925).

War is hell. Do we need to forget our theology to affirm that?