Unfamiliar Voices

Tony Sig

One of the books I read over the summer was a travel memoir by William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain. In it, Dalrymple follows the footsteps of a Byzantine monk, John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist, who traveled through the Empire from Mt. Athos down to the Egyptian desert oasis Al Kharga. The book is a totally fascinating and engaging description of the very complex situation Christians are finding themselves in in the Middle East. Mostly it is a tale of the degeneration of Christianity in her historic home — an often tragic and brutal tale. Eerily, the book, written in 1997, already seems out of date. The situation is almost certainly more grim now.

The second part  of From the Holy Mountain takes place in Turkey. After a brief respite in Syria, being at the time the most stable and safe home for Christians, Dalrymple moves onto Lebanon. The book to this point was unrelentingly strange to my world. Turkey, though officially a secular state, has systematically suppressed Christians there, including especially a physical and historic genocide of the Armenian Christians. By ‘historic’ I mean that the authorities literally travel around to towns and destroy any physical proof of Armenians: their churches, their homes, their graveyards, their monasteries. I found it very difficult to hear described. One thing I wasn’t expecting was for this memoir to challenge my pacifism. It doesn’t take any sacrifice on my part to say that I affirm a non-violent Kingdom here. Upon hearing these stories, perhaps for the first time in years, I became quite sympathetic to the felt need to defend oneself, one’s family, church, and home. Some monasteries that were taken over or destroyed had been there for well over a thousand years. A thousand. years.

In Lebanon, Dalrymple gives a brief history of the the Maronite eastern Rite Catholics. A shockingly bloodthirsty and cruel band of Maronite gangs had waged a long ‘civil war’ with other ethnic and religious groups in what is now Lebanon in an effort to defend what was seen as their own country — aided in no small part to a close relationship to the French. There is one particularly dark incident where Dalrymple is having a conversation with a certain Christian about the Maronite leader Samir Geagea. This man was comparing two towns, one Christian the other not:

“You can eat in Ehden, but make sure you sleep in Bsharre. Sleep in Ehden, and they will shoot you while you are asleep.’ [Bsharre was a town under the authority of Geagea. Dalrymple proceeds to question this man, listing many of the more gruesome crimes of Geagea, including the night murder of a Christian rival, the killing of women and children, a church bombing, and others.] “Geagea is a very honourable and very holy man,’ he said. ‘We are very proud of him in Bsharre…You must not believe what people say about Samir Geagea,’ said Ch’baat. ‘But you can hardly call him holy,’ [Dal.]

‘Certainly yes,’ he said, quite serious. ‘He went to mass every day and prayed by his bed every night. He had a church built wherever he was, where he fought. Every Christmas his troops expected money as a present, but instead he gave them prayer books and rosaries. Of course he went to confession ever week. He never went into battle without his cros. In his office, he always had a picture of the Virgin and a cross: never any picture of Che Guevara or anything like that.”

Another strange phenomenon was reported on multiple occasions. In some places in the Middle East there was a strange fusion of Christianity, Islam, and paganism that I found, to be perfectly honest, curious but repugnant. Apparently there are several churches, monasteries, and Mosques, where people of both faiths will come and pray to saints for healing, or for a job, to get pregnant, or for good weather. This is itself not too disconcerting, though it seems like it has potential problems. Far more troubling is that if the prayer is answered, that person will return with a goat or a sheep and the (Orthodox!) priest or Imam will sacrifice the animal in thanks to the saint! How strange! How utterly foreign to me, and foreign to the strong anti-sacrificial polemics of the Church fathers and New Testament.

I kept going over these sections in my mind. In the end, I found them impossible to understand. I couldn’t wrap my head around this man who praised Geagea, or this, well, gang leader, who could shoot a woman and child over 24 times one day, and go to Mass the next; or the animal sacrifice for saints. I was beginning to question myself strongly. In what ways has my Christian life been truly normative, and in what ways has it been exceptional?  According to how I’ve been taught to understand the Gospels and the witness of the persecuted Church, even under severe pressure, the Church shouldn’t be reacting by taking up arms, but caring not about the risks, they should be testifying to another kingdom. Is that simply a position that one in my position can take? Or can it truly occur? Luckily for my sanity, I found several stories that filled me with joy and relief. Perhaps these Christians are not so strange after all?


  1. Tony,

    Interesting post. Glad to see you are reflecting seriously on your choice to embrace unmitigated pacifism. I understand and appreciate my pacifist Christian friends, but I think they are mistaken in believing that pacifism somehow follows from the general Christian ethic represented in the bible or the principles of traditional Christianity.

    There are many unjust pursuers we will face in our lives, and to allow them to commit grave injustices unopposed–even sometimes by force–seems a demonstrable moral failure on the part of Christians. Sometimes the value of the absolute dignity of persons requires defending those persons against unjust pursuers, and a failure to do so is a moral failure on the pacifist’s part. Unfortunately this force must in circumstances be lethal. But, this lethality is consistent not only with the dignity of the innocents we protect, but the dignity of those who would seek to harm them. When ‘pacifism’ is appealed to for the sake of ignoring such principles it is more appropriate that it be referred to as what it is: cowardice.

    Of course, a better state of affairs would be if we never faced the decision to take up arms to defend the innocent, but such is not the world we inhabit. All must choose, and choose wisely whether the battles they face are worth fighting. I am convinced that there are some battles which, if we fail to fight them, in doing so we stand by for the sake of preserving a life no longer worthy of living.


    1. Greetings Cautious,

      Welcome to the blog. I appreciate the comment. As it happens, I understand and appreciate my just war Christian friends, but I think they are mistaken in believing that just war somehow follows from the general Christian ethic represented int he bible or the principles of traditional Christianity. 😉 More seriously, I have very deep sympathy for a thoroughly theological understanding of just war, and that’s why for those who aren’t convinced of non-violence, it’s great that there are Oliver O’Donnovan’s and Daniel Bell’s in the world. I myself feel the need to explore the non-violent tradition with more strength and creativity than it sometimes has been. I feel that my theological heroes sometimes focus exclusively on non-violence without working out a more expansive social vision. +Rowan Williams and William Cavanaugh, I think, are really moving the conversation forward in that way. An important development with someone like Bell is that all of a sudden, Christians might need to consider the issue with the possibility of real consequences in church discipline. I’m fairly certain that there’s not a single war we’re fighting right now that could in any way be considered ‘just’ according to normative standards. And the advancement of technology considerably obscures new problems, like drone bombing (or coming period!). That said, I wasn’t planning on offering a full defense of pacifism today. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  2. What a disturbing and fascinating memoir.

    My thoroughgoing christologogical pacifism was similarly challenged when I watched the film about the Jewish resistance starring Daniel Craig (the name escapes me).

    Though I must say that part of this is a feeling of hopelessness that settles in on me. Cautious’ thinking is also disturbing and fascinating to me in that when I am among the people of God and remembering the great saints and Martyrs (canonical or not) it is great courage and not cowardice that I find there.

    Your problem with what to do with our own Western experience of Christianity and just what is normative…great questions.


    1. Josh, the most explicit and straightforward example is the theology of Hebrews, on the end of sacrifice and the fulfillment/sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. More broadly I believe St. Paul’s polemics against “works” fits in here. More clear is Jesus’ own denouncement of the Temple system and the Jesus/Pauline understanding of “the Temple” now being Christ’s body the Church. In such a temple, sacrifices have come to an end. This gets extended in the Church fathers as they engage in apologetics against the Empire and idolatry.


      1. I read these passages similarly. I was curious because I continue to struggle with atonement theory that seems to miss the NT’s criticism of sacrifice–as if Jesus completed something that worked rather than ended something didn’t.


  3. Interesting post. Thanks Tony.

    I know this is slight aside, but…do you all think I am right in saying that the only two stances a serious Christian can take toward war are either just war or pacifism?


  4. I just listed to a podcast at Homebrewed Christianity. They were interviewing Graham E. Fuller, who is author of ‘A World Without Islam’. Part of the discussion was that these conflicts do not have anything to do with religion but more with tribes, and nations, etc.

    It is something to ponder when contrasted with your post.



  5. My guess on the comingling of church and mosque has to do with preserving the site, when one religion has control over the area. Probably the best example of this is St. Catherine’s Monastery contains the Fatimid mosque.

    On the offering of the goat or sheep couldn’t it be read as a form of ancient tithing? Fiat money after all is a rather modern invention. I’ve see chickens given as part of the collection in Catholic churches in Mexico. No they weren’t killed on the altar as a blood sacrifice, that would be very disturbing.


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