What Happens When a 1,600 Year Tradition Ends?

Persecution Iraq Christians ISISThere are two traditions that have recently ended.  The contrast between them is astounding.

Traditions are interesting things. Our traditions anchor us to the past while guiding us toward the future. They act as handrails along our paths, offering us both security and a sense of affirmation as we continue walking life’s road. Too often, in fact, we are so comfortable in this walk that we forget—or simply fail to realize—the presence of tradition.

And then something happens. The tradition is threatened, or taken away. Our senses are shocked, as we experience the full, paralyzing thud of a tradition ended.

A couple of years ago at Auburn University, a tradition was threatened when Harvey Updike, a rabid Alabama fan, poisoned the live oak trees at Toomer’s Corner. The tradition of rolling the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner after an Auburn football victory moved from “threatened” to “altogether lost,” as the Spike 80DF poison which Updike used did its work, leeching the life from the root system of the trees.

Before the trees were completely dead and taken away, the university along with the city of Auburn—indeed most of central Alabama—held one last rally to roll the oaks at Toomer’s Corner.  You can see the spectacle of this tradition ending by watching the video below. (I believe my daughter, an Auburn student, is somewhere in the mass of humanity captured by the robotic camera.)

No one knows when or exactly how the tradition of rolling the oak trees began, but how it ended is now obvious to all. And most folks—even the Auburn Football Traditionsmajority of Alabama fans—understand that something precious was lost when the live oak trees at Toomer’s Corner finally died.

Yet, it must be said (despite the images in the video) that throwing toilet paper into oak trees in central Alabama is a small tradition. The tour guide who introduced me to the trees (when they were still alive) suggested the tradition was at most 100 years old (probably less). And the tradition had to do with football, which, contrary to the primitive emotional purgations of Saturday afternoons in the fall, is not a life or death matter.

The tradition of ringing church bells in Mosul, Iraq, on the other hand is a life or death matter. It has to do with the life and death of Christ.  This tradition has been incalculably more significant than rolling oak trees with toilet paper.

First, the tradition of ringing the bells signals the serving of Mass—an Orthodox Christian tradition—in a predominately Muslim culture. At the very least such service is courageous. At its best, the service is an offering of Christ to those who understand their need for an atoning sacrifice.[1]

So, second, because the tradition concerns the gospel of Christ, it is a matter of life and death—eternally speaking. The church tradition also represents a heritage and a way of life for thousands and thousands of Orthodox Christians who have inhabited the Middle East for more than a millennium.

Third, the tradition of ringing the church bells for Mass in Mosul, Iraq, has been a more significant tradition because of its age and endurance.  The tradition began closer to Paul’s ministry than to ours. There was no hint of a USA or a Soviet Union or France or even England when this tradition began. Week after week, the bells have rung.  Week after week the Mass has been served.  These church bells have been ringing for one thousand, six-hundred years–that’s 83,200 weeks. And now they’ve stopped.

As of June 15, church bells ring no more in the ISIS-controlled[2] area of Mosul, Iraq. Violence against Christians there has almost ensured that the Orthodox Christian tradition will soon no longer be found in that ancient place. Over the last decade, approximately 90% of Christians have fled from their homes, business, and church buildings in Iraq as a result of the intense persecution they’ve suffered.

And yet, the bells went quiet so silently. There was no last hurrah to say good-bye.  Indeed, the scene in Mosul was the exact opposite of that found at Auburn. At Auburn, people swarmed in masses to make the final TP offering. In Mosul, people ran away by the thousands.  At Auburn, TV crews parked with satellite towers and provided aerial coverage. In Mosul, like the church bells, everything got very quiet. No one seemed to notice. But the Orthodox Christian tradition ended.

The Chaldean Catholic Church’s Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in Kurdish-governed northern Iraq, is reported as saying that for the first time in 1,600 years there was no Mass said in Mosul on Sunday June 15.   



[1] I am neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. Thus I do not ascribe to the presentation of the Mass. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the Mass is—in one sense or another—a presentation of Christ (either in offering or, as in my tradition, a remembrance).  It is a weighty matter of eternal significance.

[2] ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Coptic Christians in the Egyptian Culture Clash

This piece from GetReligion is asking the same questions we have been asking: What about the Christians in Egypt?  There are Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians living in Egypt.  Granted, they are a minority, but they do exist and have suffered worse than the Muslims marching in the streets.

This article from GetReligion is helpful in its links to other news coverage relating to Christians, but as the article demonstrates, there is not much coverage out there.  Particularly, it seems the New York Times must be ignorant of the presence of Christians in Egypt or completely unconcerned for their welfare.

The Pity and Praise of Coptic Christians

Coptic Christian Persecution

Politically speaking, pity might be the right word to describe how we ought to respond to the plight of Christians living in Egypt and other Arab lands.  That is the argument in Fouad Ajami’s Newsweek article concerning the plight of Christians in Egypt (“Who Will Protect Christian Arabs in Egypt?”).  After recounting the glorious history of Egypt and the openness Christianity had to embracing Islam when Islam first arrived in Egypt, Ajami then offers a depressing look at what tolerance of Islam has gained for Egypt and for the Coptic Christians who once flourished there.  The nadir of Christian-Muslim relations came when Muslims in Egypt attacked a New Year’s worship service that killed and injured dozens of Coptic Christians.  Pitiful indeed.

Perhaps more pitiful has been the retreat of Christian nations from the courage that once helped these (and other) Christians in an Arab land to have the hope of freedom to worship.  Ajami recounts an earlier time when the U.S. and other freedom-loving nations would have gone to great lengths to protect Christian worshipers in Muslim lands, but those days appear to have disappeared, like the runway and airport disappears behind a departing flight.

One may think this is progress.  After all, a plane taking off is in fact heading somewhere as it leaves the airport in the distance.  Ajami says otherwise: “As the dream of modernity in Egypt has faded, there has settled upon that crowded land a deep sense of disillusion—and bigotry.”  Ajami explains,

“In times past, Western gunboats and envoys and the educational and religious missions of Western powers had concerned themselves with the fate of the Christians of the East. Consulates in the Levant provided a shield for local Christians. Jerusalem was dubbed a kingdom of the consuls. But the world has been remade, and the Christians of the East have to fend for themselves.”

The times have indeed changed, but not for the better.  Progress has been made, but in the wrong direction.  Who is to blame for the bathos of Egyptian progress?  In Ajami’s words, “The radical Islamists, and the multitudes that wink at them.”

Ajami’s article is sober and accurate, not sensationalistic.  He is right about the cause and right on the mark concerning the present plight of Coptic Christians.  You may recall that their plight was the subject of the Pope’s sermon of encouragement—which subsequently led Muslim dialogue with the Vatican to cease.  So, radical Muslims will be more emboldened to bomb other worship services with a sense of security that Muslim leaders won’t allow the Pope (or any Christian leader) to bring up the subject.  And the current administration in the U.S. will give a wink and a nod in the name of tolerance (of Islam).  Ajami has painted the scene all too well.

But Ajami’s piece lacks one significant note to complete its arrangement harmoniously.  He needs (as the Pope tried to provide) a theological perspective of hope.  From a theological perspective, these Christians are blessed.  They are presently suffering, to be sure.  But Jesus talked about what happens to the “non-sufferers” and how much better they are who remain faithful to him even while being persecuted.  Lazarus, you recall, went on to recline in the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man entered Hell (Luke 16:19-31).  These Christians in Egypt are persecuted, but surely (like the Apostle Paul) they know they have not been abandoned (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus.  In other words, there is an answer to the question raised in Ajami’s title, “Who Will Protect Christian Arabs in Egypt?”

For more on Christian Arabs in Egypt, see here.

Destroying the Destroyer

I can’t really say I want you to go to the Huffington Post.  I guess I don’t.  However, there is a post located there today that will probably anger you and cause you to grieve.  The title of the post is “Bush: The Destroyer of Christians.”  In it, Franky Schaeffer–yes, he’s the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer–blasts President Bush and all evangelicals for being political junkies with a junky theology of “magic” conversions.  Years ago, Franky left the ranks of evangelicalism and went to Eastern Orthodoxy.  He is right that the Eastern Orthodox Church faired much better under Saddam Hussein.  Saddam supposedly allowed the Eastern Orthodox to operate liquor stores in Iraq (because the Muslims were too pure to own the stores, even though they may have been loyal customers).  Now, the whole thing is a mess, and the Eastern Orthodox have been displaced.  This certainly is not good, just as it is not good that the Eastern Orthodox have worked against evangelicals who have tried to evangelize Iraq.  These are not good things, but one can hardly blame George Bush for these failures, and it is certainly irresponsible to charge him with destroying Christians.  Come on, Franky!