Statements this week illustrated two very different perspectives by churches towards their nations. One from Syrian prelates condemned Western strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities and embraced Assad’s dictatorship. Another, from the Church of Norway, addressing their prime minister, chirpily insisted its nation accept more Mideast refugees.
Syrian church patriarchs immediately announced they “condemn and denounce the brutal aggression that took place this morning against our precious country Syria by the USA, France and the UK, under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.” They claimed there was no evidence Syria’s dictatorship deployed chemical weapons and called upon America, British and French churches to “fulfill their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the Gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace.”
And they offered full-throttle enthusiasm for Assad’s regime and armed forces along with its Iranian and Russian patrons:
We salute the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army which courageously protects Syria and provide security for its people. We pray for the souls of the martyrs and the recovery of the wounded. We are confident that the army will not bow before the external or internal terrorist aggressions; they will continue to fight courageously against terrorism until every inch of the Syrian land is cleansed from terrorism. We, likewise, commend the brave stand of countries which are friendly to the Syria and its people.
Their declaration offers no hint anywhere of prophetic critique towards their rulers or nation. Regime enemies are terrorists. The regime’s soldiers are heroes and martyrs. Of course, Syria’s Christians are a small and shrinking minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Their government is a brutal dictatorship that squashes all dissent. Church prelates can’t criticize the regime without imperiling themselves and their flocks. They also regard the relatively secular rulers, however murderous, as preferable to direct Islamist rule.
We who aren’t in their precarious position cannot judge and condemn the obsequious Syrian prelates. But their unqualified support, at least publicly, for Assad is a model of how churches ideally do not witness to their nation. Justifiable fear and historical circumstance have forced church shepherds to become reliable parrots of their dictatorship.
In contrast to the Syrian hyper nationalism is a statement on immigration from the Church of Norway demanding its democratic government accept more Mideast refugees. Like the church in Syria, the Church of Norway is shrinking, but not due to war and persecution, but due to its own collapse of doctrine in favor of liberal secular accommodation.
The Church of Norway declaration is full of exclamation points, starting with “Welcome the stranger!” It insists: “Jesus was a refugee. He is a stranger, hungry, thirsty, and displaced. In our time. In our world.” So the immigration issue is therefore very simple. Y’all come!
These Norwegians denounce “xenophobia” and “fences” while breezily demanding: “The church must be a protest movement against injustice. There are many people living in fear, but the resurrected Jesus said to his disciples: Fear not! Be courageous!”
The Church of Norway implores congregations to ‘Welcome the Stranger!” and politically advocate for refugees. It tells Norway’s prime minister:
Be brave! Show hospitality in words and deeds. Ensure a decent public policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me, Jesus told us.
The Church of Norway is upset that Norway, like other European nations, has slowed its acceptance of refugees in response to concerns about primarily Muslim immigrants melding successfully into Norway and about potential Islamic radicalism leading to violence. Are these concerns based only on irrational xenophobia and fear? Or do governments not have an obligation to safeguard the interests and security of their own people? Is government’s primary obligation hospitality?
Congregations are rightly called to minister to all whom they can reach. But governments have very different God-ordained duties. The declining Church of Norway seems indifferent to these distinctions and instead regards its state and nation as cornucopias available to all.
These respective declarations from Syrian and Norwegian church officials showcase how Christian social witness ideally should not operate. The church should not reflexively support the state and demonize the state’s enemies as its own enemies. And the church should not pretend that it has no special responsibility for the health and safety of the nation where it resides.
The church is both universal and local, transcendent and rooted. It should speak independently but also seriously, with prudence, not with multiple exclamation marks and superficial sentiment.