In the Wake of the New Zealand Attacks: Suggestions for a Church Response to Populism and White Nationalism

IMES Regional Brief – April 2019
April 4, 2019
Come Follow the Crucified! An Interfaith Reflection on Easter*
April 18, 2019

by Wissam al-Saliby*

The recent massacre of Muslim worshipers in New Zealand was the manifestation of a growing global phenomenon which has been described as nationalist populism, white nationalism, extreme supremacist ideology, xenophobia, racism, populist nationalism, and other terms.

Related to this phenomenon is a sense of eroding national identity in many countries, and increasingly negative attitudes toward religious minorities, particularly Muslims. These societal developments have led many to vote for Brexit in the U.K., to vote for the far-right in France and in other European countries, or to vote in a recent Swiss referendum in support of a proposal to ‘make national laws supersede international laws.’

In some countries, Evangelical churches are accused of complicity.

On Friday March 15, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva held a debate on the mitigation and countering of rising nationalist populism, during which a panelist from Argentina said (emphasis added):

These nationalisms, first expressed in Europe and then in other regions, have been the product of a deep discontent of citizens with liberal democracies, which in the framework of globalization have not been able to resolve critical situations both at the economic (inequality) and political (mistrust and questioning of democracy, especially in relation to situations of increased insecurity and criminality) levels. The mistrust of societies in liberal political systems and the undeniable crisis of bourgeois and representative democracies led, as a major example, to a strong racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist discourse permeating Brazil. The threatening arguments have been supported by a good part of the local evangelical churches that played the role of structuring mechanism of social values, and that legitimize the hegemonic domination.

Large and seemingly unwavering Evangelical support for U.S. president Donald Trump has also raised questions of Evangelical association with the president’s nationalist rhetoric and its implications on relations within American society (race issues, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism) and relations with the rest of the world (economic nationalism, immigration). This recent Foreign Policy article title is revealing: America’s Islamophobia Is Forged at the Pulpit.

On March 21, UN human rights experts appealed to States to “take urgent, concerted action to achieve racial equality and stop using nationalist populist rhetoric to stoke discrimination.” And reports indicated that the United States House of Representatives is planning to hold a hearing on the rise of white nationalism in the U.S. in the wake of the mosque shootings in New Zealand.

What could a Church response to this phenomenon be? Here are some suggestions:

First, the Church reaffirms biblical values and denounces nationalist populism and supremacist ideologies, as well as other intolerant ideologies, prophetically and with humility. We need to address the difficult political and societal challenges of the moment, acknowledging our own sinfulness, and reaffirming the love of neighbor.

This is exactly what our World Evangelical Alliance team in Geneva is trying to do. On Friday, March 15, we contributed to the debate at the Human Rights Council on the mitigation and countering of rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies via an oral statement. The statement was self-critical, and affirmed the right and need for every nation to provide for its own security. Our statement added:

The World Evangelical Alliance would like to affirm that in our understanding, Christian values are not compatible with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and xenophobic discourses. Nationalism, when it stirs up a sense of victimhood, grievance, and blame against other groups in society, when it stokes fear and hatred of ‘the other’, is anything but Christian (…)

We are concerned that so-called Christian values have been leveraged to foster hatred, and discrimination against those adhering to other religions, or from other nationalities and regions of the world.

A similar message came out in September 2018 from a joint Vatican and World Council of Churches conference:

Claiming to protect Christian values or communities by shutting out those who seek safe refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermines Christian witness in the world, and raises up national boundaries as idols.

It would be amazing to see local churches, pastors and priests echoing these messages in their Sunday sermons.

Second, the Church seeks to equip the believers in recognizing and resisting intolerant ideologies wherever they appear on the political spectrum. This is exactly what the European Evangelical Alliance (EEA) is currently pursuing through its Issachar Project. Seeking to help Evangelicals in Europe understand the times (1 Chronicles 12:32), the EEA produced resources designed for individual Christians, home groups and local churches. In one of these papers, Julia Doxat-Purser, EEA Socio-Political Representative and Religious Liberty Coordinator, wrote:

EEA hopes that these papers will enable Christian leaders to reflect on our troubled times and to discern how they can enable others to resist the many temptations of these ideologies, to expose and challenge the idols and dangers, to earnestly intercede for their nation and continent and to be engaged and hope-filled citizens, offering the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Third, the Church acts upon our values and puts the parable of the Good Samaritan into action! All over the world, the missional drive of Evangelical Churches is the perfect example of putting love into action. I have experienced it first-hand. And yet, I have also seen that the same church that sends teams on a 12-hour flight for ministry to a specific people group, might struggle to reach members of that same people group who live only one hour away by car. Meanwhile, other churches, faced with refugees on their doorsteps, can find themselves ill-equipped and react like the rich man towards Lazarus.

In the first draft of our Human Rights Council statement on nationalist populism, I included the following first-person paragraph that I later removed considering that it did not speak to an intergovernmental body such as the Human Rights Council. This paragraph speaks to the Church:

The antidote that we found in my country, Lebanon, for Muslim extremism is for the churches to love, care for and serve the Muslim refugees. Surprisingly, this not only softened the hearts of the Muslim refugees but also softened our own hearts and helped us understand what it means that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore equal in dignity and respect. It strengthened our faith.

Indeed, in Lebanon, the churches that opted to serve the Syrian refugee communities were ‘rewarded’ with an unprecedented opportunity to comprehend what Jesus meant by loving the neighbor, what Jesus meant by the parable of the good Samaritan, and with the experience of harvest that the first-century Church witnessed when the Gentiles first believed in Jesus Christ.

Fourth, the Church cultivates cross-border unity in the spirit of John 17. One implication of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for unity includes listening to brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of borders, whether these are the borders of States, or political, ethnic or religious divides.

Examples of disunity are easy to come by – whether between Iraqi churches (see Martin Accad’s blog on this issue) or towards Palestinian brothers and sisters (for example, attitudes of some towards Bethlehem Bible College’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference) or when a missionary lands in country to plant a church and fails to navigate the existing church landscape (see Mike Kuhn’s blog: The Commodification of Mission in the Muslim World). Also, in an age of populism, I have sadly seen Christian media platforms and Evangelical opinion leaders sow disunity, adopt a belligerent tone, and flourish on divisiveness within the Body of Christ and in society under the banner of Christian values.

On the other hand, as a staff member of the World Evangelical Alliance, I have seen wonderful examples of the pursuit of unity through the regional evangelical alliances of Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Another wonderful example of unity comes from the Coptic and Evangelical churches in Egypt – a good model for church relations in the Middle East. As global migration makes communities more diverse in the Northern hemisphere, and knowing that the Church permeates all communities, the 2012 Evangelical Immigration Table in the United States is also an approach for addressing the hot topic and demonstrating unity.


* Wissam al-Saliby is the Advocacy Officer of the World Evangelical Alliance. He holds a master’s degree in international law from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France, with an emphasis on protection and human security. Between 2013 and 2017, al-Saliby was the Development and Partner Relations Manager of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. Now based in Geneva, al-Saliby relays reports from WEA’s member Evangelical alliances in more than 100 nations to the U.N., with the aim of advancing respect for religious freedom and the rule of law. Twitter: www.twitter.com/walsaliby

1 Comment

  1. Ash Abuatieh says:

    I think the xenophobia of Islam and immigrants to the west is not an evangelical church problem, but it’s a White older generation problem in the western churches. I think the fear of the change in a church that becoming more and more a place for a majority of older- whiter people is become such a safe place for the hatred groups. Otherwise, why we don’t find the same spirit inside evangelical Black or Latino churches? In a political atmosphere of black or white of how to deal with increasing hate to Islam and Muslims within the church, and hate of immigrants in general has formed a strong aliens between them under the terms of influence mixed with benefits as a character of this illegal marriage relationship between nationalism and the evangelical church. That relationship that gave birth to ridicules system after the American election of 2016. A system that unfortunately has become an inspiration to all radical supremacist across the globe. With the church getting the political influence to fight the raise of other religious minorities, same sex marriage, and limiting abortion and support Israel. While the supremacist finding a loyal voters to keep them in power and spread their policies. Such a deadly formula that going to put the church and Christians in a spot of rejection from young generations seeking tolerance with others, and lead to more deadliest events like the shooting in New Zealand. The only light in the midst of this to Wissam’s point those local and Alliance of churches that took a step to declare the divorce of this relationship and to work with God given opportunities to witness of Christ love and care to the others.

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