April 09, 2007

In late 1990, in the run-up to the Gulf War, I was a graduate student in political theory at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  The coming war occupied much of our talk outside the classroom, and I can recall only one graduate student”€”a Sicilo-American Republican from Philadelphia who had gone through ROTC and was studying at the law school so he could be a JAG Corps attorney for the Army”€”who was in favor of the war.

I was a subscriber to the American edition of the Italian Catholic magazine 30 Days, and we were all shocked when the American publisher (Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.) decided to quit publishing the American edition in part because the Italians ran a cover story on Pope John Paul II’s opposition to the war. (That was the genesis of Catholic World Report, which was given to American 30 Days subscribers to fill out the rest of their subscription.)

While it was clear that there were some Catholics in favor of the war (Catholic politicians, in particular), much of the conservative political opposition to the war was being led by Catholics, such as Pat Buchanan and Russell Kirk, as well as an increasingly Catholic-themed publication called Chronicles.

How times have changed.  Today, the war in Iraq is far less justified, morally or strategically, than the Gulf War was; and yet, outside of Chronicles and Pat Buchanan, most “conservative” Catholics have supported the war unquestioningly.  Take a spin around St. Blog’s Parish and try to find anyone who raises any objection to the war.  There is the courageous Mark Shea,    but the general reaction to his opposition is instructive.  When he dared to question even the most over-the-top proposal by Michael Ledeen (that “terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not captured, many of those who commented on his post (as well as many of his fellow St. Bloggers) took him to task.

And anyone who points out that John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger opposed the ongoingIraq war is simply dismissed: Don’t you know that they oppose all war?  Don’t you understand that this is just a prudential judgment?  Are you suggesting that my prudential judgment may not be better than that of two popes?  After all, there’s a lot they don’t know”€”John Paul and Benedict aren’t even Americans, much less Republicans!

And everything I wrote above applies in spades to “conservative” American Catholic support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon last July and August.

Back in 1990, the opposition of us conservative students at Catholic U was both moral and strategic.  One thing that may have set us apart from others, however, was an awareness that the conflict in the Middle East can never be boiled down to just two extremes, whether Judaism versus Islam or Israel versus Arabs.  We had watched the Lebanese civil war rage most of our lives; we knew the effect it had had on Maronite Christians.  Coming from Michigan, I was familiar with the massive influx of Lebanese Christians to the Detroit area, in large part because of the war.

In the eyes of today’s “conservative” American Catholics (not to mention evangelical Christians), the Christian populations of the Middle East”€”the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world”€”are simply invisible.  Palestinians are all Muslims; there are no Melkites. Lebanese are all Muslims; there are no Maronites or Syrian Catholics or Orthodox. Ditto for Syria herself.  Iraqis are Sunni and Shiite and Kurd; Chaldean and Assyrian Christians simply don’t exist.  And everyone who lives within the borders of Israel is an observant Jew.

This blindness on the part of “conservative” American Catholics is partly ignorance; even many of those who have heard the words Melkite and Maronite have no particular interest in trying to learn anything about either rite, must less trying to grapple with the history of these Christian populations or even being bothered to find out who lives where or how they worship.

More importantly, though, it reflects a growing political reality.  Since at least the Six-Day War, the presence of Christians in the Middle East has been a sign of contradiction that has stood in the way of American and Israeli attempts to reduce the broad conflict there to the dualism of Judaism/Israel versus Islam/Arabs.  The inconvenient reality of Middle Eastern Christianity has been a stumbling block to remaking the Middle East in a particular ideological image.

I started to write the “irreducible” (instead of “inconvenient”) “reality of Middle Eastern Christianity,” but, unfortunately, it is not so.  By acting as if they were dealing only with Muslims, both the United States and Israel have helped to change the demographic reality in the Middle East.  Palestinian Christians have left in droves.  Much of the Maronite population is now in the United States (and there was another massive influx after the bombing last summer).  The Chaldean and Assyrian Christians in Iraq have, as Wayne Allensworth predicted in Chronicles before the war, largely fled the country.

These Christians, who used to act as leaven, politically and spiritually, in a troubled region can no longer do so.  And so the ideological description of the conflict as the dualism of Judaism/Israel versus Islam/Arabs has gone from an inaccurate reduction of reality to something more than a half-truth today.

Let one example suffice.  During Israel’s attack on Lebanon in July, I ran across the following comments that Andrea Kirk Assaf, a journalist and the youngest daughter of Russell Kirk, made in response to Pat Buchanan’s July 21 column on the war.  I once knew Andrea quite well, having spent seven months living at Kirk’s Piety Hill with my wife and our first child, at the gracious invitation of Kirk’s widow and Andrea’s mother, Annette.  Andrea wrote:

“Thank you, Mr. Buchanan, for being the lone sane voice among conservatives in Washington today. I really appreciate this article and have posted it on my blog: http://andreakirkassaf.blogspot.com.

“This is the same Andrea Kirk you know, the youngest daughter of Russell Kirk.  I married a Maronite Lebanese man, Tony Assaf, and so have been directly affected by this war.  In fact, my in-laws’ home, and sadly my father-in-law too, were hit by the Israeli missile that struck Baabda last night.  Incidentally, there are no Hezbollah targets within miles, though the presidential palace is just next door.  And Olmert claims he’s trying to help the Lebanese government?  I fail to see how destroying Lebanon could possibly help the Lebanese or the Israelis, in the short or long term.

“Please speak out on this as frequently and loudly as you can. It could save lives if certain actors finally see the light.”

You can read more details of the attack that injured Andrea’s father-in-law, who for years has been a cook in a Maronite monastery, in this post on her blog, which is also an excellent compendium of source documents on the conflict in Lebanon and the broader conflict in the Middle East. This story, thank God, has a happy ending, or at least as happy as endings come for Christians in the Middle East these days.  Mr. Assaf recovered from his wounds, and his family remains in Lebanon.

Less happy were the responses I received when, on various “conservative” Catholic websites, I asked for prayers for Mr. Assaf.  One well-known blogger and former editor of a leading Catholic publication took me to task, claiming that it was wrong to single out one person for prayers.  He later apologized for his intemperate remarks but continued to maintain a position of studied neutrality, saying that he prayed for all Israelis and Muslims involved in the conflict, not just Christians.

Others weren’t so evenhanded.  Knowing nothing about Andrea or Mr. Assaf, they suggested that the shelling did not occur as reported; that Mr. Assaf wasn’t really hurt; that the whole story was propaganda.  It had to be: Otherwise, they might have to come to grips with what their support for the naked aggression that the Vatican had unequivocally condemned had led to.

There was a time when American Catholics understood that their Faith was not like the faith of modern evangelicals”€”a mere matter of “believing on the Lord Jesus” and being saved.  They understood that receiving the Eucharist is not simply an act that brings us grace but one that unites us to the Body of Christ, of which the Church here on earth is the corporate manifestation.  Yes, we’re called to pray for our enemies, but we’re also called, as Saint Paul reminds us, to build up the Body of Christ.  And we are bound to our fellow believers not simply by “values,” or even by bonds of kinship, but spiritually.

Our failure today to understand and defend the Crusades shows how fully we’ve lost this corporate sense.  European Christians sacrificed their lives for the liberation of the Holy Places in the Middle East and the survival of the Christian communities there.  They undoubtedly prayed for the souls of the enemies they fought, but they never fell into a moral equivalence between their fellow Christians and those who had attacked and subjugated them.

It all comes back, once again, to Vladimir Solovyov, and his prediction that “Days will come in Christianity in which they will try to reduce the salvific event to a mere series of values.”  Too many American Catholics have placed their political values, which they have elevated to the level of “moral values,” above the corporate Body of Christ.  Like the worst of Christian Zionists, they have come to value the military might of a secular Israel above both the survival of the Christian communities of the Middle East and a sane, considered view of the American interest in the region.

What is astounding is that so few of these “conservative” American Catholics realize that the ethnic cleansing of Christians from the Middle East is not, in the long run, in the national interest of either the United States or Israel.  Blinded by American nationalism or partisan politics or maybe just bloodlust, they are supporting policies that will likely cost more American and Israeli blood in the decades to come.  Once the conflict in the Middle East is completely reduced to Judaism/Israel versus Islam/Arabs, the only way for Israel and the United States to win politically will be to lose spiritually.

“The Antichrist,” Solovyov wrote, “is the reduction of Christianity to an ideology, instead of a personal encounter with the Savior.”  In those words, we find both the diagnosis of our current state and the solution to it”€”but knowing what that personal encounter entails, are “conservative” American Catholics and other Christians willing to put down their swords, take up their cross, and follow Him?


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