Sunday, August 21, 2016

What of the rest of us?

Indignant. That’s what I felt, at first, as I overheard a dear Christian sister, truly innocent as one of Christ’s doves (her husband is probably the cunning half of that couple) recount to a priest and his wife how she had been robbed when on a recent pilgrimage to Holy Russia. Yes, you heard me right, to Holy Russia. You know, that huge country that was under Godless communism for seventy years and is now making a comeback as the world’s Orthodox Christian superpower. Despite taking the usual precautions, somehow the money belt in which she was carrying her cash was discovered and secretly slashed, the packet of bank notes craftily extracted. She discovered it when going to get some cash to make a purchase. The police, when she reported the robbery, shrugged and commented, ‘Another happy customer,’ referring not to my friend, but to the thief.

It doesn’t help that my friend is Lebanese, in other words, someone perceived to be an Arab. I told her confidently, ‘Don’t worry. That money isn’t gone. It will come back to you, maybe even with interest.’ She looked puzzled and doubtful. I reiterated, this time quoting the Bible, ‘Cast your bread on the waters. At long last, you will find it again,’ and continued by testifying to her and to the priestly couple and another bystander, ‘As I live, there is nothing that was taken from me that hasn’t been paid back in some form or another,’ and I inwardly reminded myself, ‘There is no loss with Jesus.’ I didn’t say those last words aloud, because I sensed that I was pushing the envelope of several people’s faith. Love knows when to stop. Christ doesn’t push us past our limits, ever, only to those limits, so He can show us what lies beyond, always, always, according to the measure of our trust.

In my audacity, I dare to think and even say aloud, that if the new Russian Empire knew how a Christian pilgrim was robbed, she would be reimbursed by the Czar himself—but wait, the Romanovs haven’t been restored yet, but if one were seated on the throne, like Nicholas II the Passion-bearer, he would surely have righted the wrong as soon as he heard of it. The incident brought to mind another matter over which I feel indignant, not just at first, but always—the treatment dealt out to Arabic-speaking Christians, in their countries of origin, in these United States, and especially by Western ‘missionaries.’ Starting in reverse order, don’t these missionaries understand, when they go to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, or Iraq, that the people whom they are trying to ‘bring to Christ’ are already in Christ, and the survivors of fourteen centuries of systematic Islamization? Well, apparently, they don’t.

In these United States, Arabic-speaking immigrants are lumped together with Muslims in the public mind, and why shouldn’t they be? From a public that equates Arab and Muslim, what else can be expected? Fortunately—and I heard of this only today—there are Arabic-speaking Christian churches in America that are trying to help the new immigrants. One Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox) congregation in southern California has a full-fledged program to help new immigrants, to teach them English and job skills, to give them material assistance, and to integrate them into American life. In my local parish, in the Antiochian Archdiocese, we are planning to conduct ESL classes starting in October, which will help at least to begin the process of integration. Every ethnic group has this problem. They come to the land of opportunity, but they find the doors shut to them because of language.

In their countries of origin, Arabic-speaking Christians suffer indignities unimaginable to us here in the West, even when we hear about them, and so we suffer, nationally, from a different malady—ignorance. We take this ignorance to the ballot box and vote into office other ignorant people who legislate and create national policies that work against Arabic-speaking Christians, both here and abroad. These politicians have created a ‘newspeak’ environment in which, literally and openly, good is called bad, and bad is called good. Islam, we are told constantly and without the possibility of contradiction, is a ‘religion of peace,’ and other such lies, boldfaced to anyone who reads even rudimentary history. We are told there is no danger to America in admitting untold numbers of Muslim immigrants. Well, this presidential election year in America, and the Brexit in Europe, have ‘let the cat out of the bag.’

Yes, the cat, Muhammad’s favorite animal I’m told—he hated dogs and, by extension, us. The truth that we all know about Islam is coming out into the open, where we have a chance—maybe our only chance—to avert calamity by using the democratic process of the vote to expel it. Why have I carefully worded my description of Christians in the Middle East as ‘Arab-speaking’ instead of just calling them ‘Arabs’? Well, this is a hard one. Egyptian Christians are Copts, yet they speak Arabic, and some of them are even calling themselves ‘pharaonic’ to make the point that they are not Arabs. Lebanese Christians, I think, have struggled with this for a long time, being classified as Arabs because of their language, yet they are not Arabs ethnically. Islam, an Arabic politico-religious movement, conquered their ancestors and they were forced to change their language from Aramaic to Arabic.

This doesn’t make them Arabs anymore than my speaking English makes me an Englishman (though I wouldn’t mind being one). The famous Lebanese poet, philosopher, writer, playwright and language reformer, Said Aql, designed a Latin-based ‘Lebanese alphabet’ made up of 36 letters. Had it been adopted, the language spoken in Lebanon, though an Arabic dialect, would have been accorded the distinction of being a language in its own right, Lebanese, much as the Maltese language, an Arabic dialect written in the Latin alphabet, is recognized. My musings are now returning me to the concrete events of daily life, in which Arabic-speaking Christians are often regarded with barely hidden contempt, subjected to unjust suspicions and scrutiny, both clearly racist without ever being so identified, in their home countries, in America, and in other countries, such as the Russian Federation.

Perhaps my Christian sister going on pilgrimage to Holy Russia, and then to Greece and Asia Minor, should have been more careful. Perhaps Russia isn’t very ‘holy’ in Saint-Petersburg. Perhaps she should have visited only Moscow, or the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius nearby, or restricted her visits to places where one can reasonably expect not to be robbed, such as ancient cathedrals and monasteries. Maybe that would have spared her the indignity of finding herself penniless in a foreign land—thank God for bank cards! But what then of returning home, to ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ to find oneself still, racially and religiously profiled in an environment that resists change until it is near the point of extermination? ‘All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’

The authors of the American Declaration of Independence have a lot of wise things to say, don’t they? Too bad, personally and nationally, we don’t listen to them, or to their source—holy and divine scriptures—anymore. This too has to change. From small to great, in Christ Jesus all our losses will be made good, personally and nationally. I didn’t say, ‘all our losses will be made good’ as if I were a pot-headed, chronic optimist, nor would I say to just anyone that a financial loss would be restored. No, I said, ‘in Christ Jesus,’ and that’s the only criterion under which all restoration, even resurrection, is possible. You see, our Christian faith, the message of the Holy Gospel, is boundlessly universal in its application—Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs…’ Yes, if even tomb-dwellers’ losses are restored, what of the rest of us?

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