By Rupen Das
As the challenge of the presence and integration of Muslim communities in Europe grows, I was reminded of something that was mentioned a number of years ago. The person said that historically Christian theology and teaching has assumed that Christians are a minority in society. Hence the teachings about being salt and light, about relating to governments that may seem hostile, people of other faiths and those who oppress you, and realizing that God allows “the wheat and the weeds” to exist side by side in society till the end of time. On the other hand, Muslim theology and teaching has assumed that Muslims are a majority and in power in their particular context. Though it took them between 300-600 years (depending on the region) to become demographically a majority in the emerging Muslim empire, there is very little in their theology about how to live as a minority without power in society. If they are minorities, it is not the ideal.
This would partly explain the struggle of Muslim communities across Europe and in many other parts of the world as they wonder how to be part of pluralistic societies. Their responses have ranged from establishing self-segregated communities to protect and preserve their identity, culture and faith, to being productive and contributing members of society, to extreme responses that seek to destroy the non-Muslim culture around them and establish what they would consider a “pure” society. Muslim thinkers such as Tariq Ramadan are trying to navigate these complexities with regards to Muslim identity, theology and practice in societies where they are minorities and powerless.
Interestingly in contrast, the Christianized world has increasingly struggled as it has become the dominant voice in many societies. They are drawing from Baptist pastor and Social Gospel proponent Walter Rauschenbusch’s concept that what was needed in society was a “social ideal” that drew from the teachings of Jesus. The thinking is that humanity organized according to a Christian understanding of the laws of God would influence and then embrace the social, economic and political dimensions of a larger socio-political system. So they use all the levers of the legal and political system to impose their image of the kingdom of God. There is little understanding of where social and religious minorities, and those who live on the margins fit into this kind of cultural and political Christianity. While laws ensure the well-being, safety and security of the population, attempts at legislating morality or enforcing conformity to a specific set of ideals, ignore the fact that moral change only comes through individual transformation. With industrialized societies becoming increasingly secular and churches hemorrhaging members, Christians in these societies are facing the prospect of becoming a minority again.
As minorities, how would Christians and the Church relate to society and its problems? While many have debated whether the church should be involved in addressing social issues, there is another discussion on what exactly is the purpose of the church addressing social issues. The debates in the Protestant and Evangelical worlds have described the purpose of the church addressing issues of marginalization, poverty and social justice in a variety of ways such as providing an opening to verbally share the Gospel, transforming society, being a witness and revealing the invisible Kingdom of God, and demonstrating the compassion of God for those who are broken. Regardless of the reasons, responding to human need is a prophetic witness to the reality of a God who is redeeming and restoring all of His creation. The Micah Declaration describes the balance of how this is done:
“If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world.”
However, there is another dimension to the Church being involved in addressing social issues. Christian communities that are minorities in a country, especially where they are under threat, have been wondering how they can become an integral part of the national fabric. Too often they are perceived as not being indigenous and a part of mainstream society, but are seen as transplants of a “foreign” faith.
For minority Christian communities, this has become an issue of protection as well as one of identity. They see it as protection, because if they are valued for who they are and what they do, they will not be threatened and “cleansed” from the country. The issue of identity is key for them as they see themselves as being citizens of the country they live in; this is their home, their culture and their way of life. They have no desire to be living elsewhere.
Many are realizing that the only way they can ensure protection and safeguard their identity is by “doing good” and contributing to the well being of society. In countries like Syria, many churches have become places of compassion for people of all faiths and as a result are ensuring that they have a place in a country where the conflict is for power and of competing visions of who belongs in the country. In Lebanon, Christian organizations are on the forefront of issues such as addressing disability (especially among children) and protection of migrant domestic workers – issues that usually don’t register on the national consciousness. Historically, Christians across the world have been acknowledged for establishing schools, hospitals and printing presses (that enabled literacy), and for introducing improved agricultural systems that ensured food security. They were seen as an integral part of society because of the contributions they made for the development and well being of society.
These lessons have deep historical roots. The early Christians, who were a very small minority in the Roman Empire, understood this. Missiologists David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen write that the Early Church tried:
“To demonstrate that they were able to take their proper place in the empire and more than any other group to make a unique positive contribution to the stability and moral fiber of society. This included personal evangelism as well as good works.”
Maybe the Church in the majority world has something to say of what it means to be a minority and how to live in a pluralistic society that we need to listen to.