The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, recently came to visit the UK offices of Open Doors International, the ministry to persecuted Christians at which I serve. Not that he doesn’t covet our briefing on the persecution of Christians worldwide, but we don’t puff ourselves up too much since we are in his constituency and he is a politician who needs to meet, greet, and win our votes.
I happened to converse with him for about 50 seconds. What do you stay to the Prime Minister on religious conflict that he has not heard repeated a thousand times? I gave up, and maybe gave him the same short briefing for the 1001th time.
“It’s about vacuums, villains, and violence, Prime Minister,” I said. “All extremists come from a vacuum. As the leader of a state, you have the power to change the villains and meet violence with violence, but what you can’t do—and no state can do—is get rid of the vacuum that allows extremists to flourish, at least not by yourself! ”
Of course, we were talking about Islamic State, which has successfully internationalized its unique combination of violent jihadism and digital appeal in 2015.
A monastery overlooking the front line of ISIS. The twist of black smoke shows the fighting happening below. Photo Credit: Open Doors International
Villains you can bomb to smithereens. But then the extremists elect or appoint new ones. All you can do is change the faces, but sometimes that helps. Leaders can be irreplaceable.
Violence you can meet with violence. And Western states are good at violence, with their massive defense budgets and sophisticated weaponry. It is quite possible that even from the air Western forces could push Islamic State out of parts of Syria. Problem is, the fighters go elsewhere, and this year Islamic State been setting up Libya as a new base.
Vacuums, though, are the key. This is the most important advice any leader—political or otherwise—should remember: Extremists flourish only after the forces of moderation fail!
It always comes back to the vacuum. The present vacuum is a vacuum of hope, meaning education and jobs. States, no matter how powerful, can never get rid of a vacuum alone.
They need allies. Allies like . . . the church! And Christian NGOs (non-governmental organizations).
To fill a vacuum with moderation, peace, dignity, and cohesion, it takes literally all the elements of society, especially those that bring the social capital that glues a society together. I am continually disappointed at the political elite’s inability to see the vital role churches and faith communities can play in restoring this stability. There is too much talk of bombs, and not enough talk about building.
After all, Christ keeps building the church anyway, underneath the chaos and the blood. Persecuted Christians are always reminding us of that.
With that in mind, there are three great untold stories in the Middle East today that show how mission is at the heart of all that is going on:
- The astonishing resilience of the Syrian church. There is a lot of talk of an exodus, but to be honest, most Christians are staying in the region, even if they are unable to stay in their own country. Syrian believers are exhibiting a new unity in the face of this five-year civil war. Ancient denominational enmities are falling away.
- A surprising turning to Christ among Muslims. One church pastor in Syria told his congregation recently, “Don’t come to church next Sunday. I don’t want you taking a seat away from a Muslim enquirer.” It is significant in scope, though details cannot be given as one does not wish to give the persecutor any intelligence gifts.
- A new rapprochement between Christians and Muslims, especially at a neighbourhood and local level. Sometimes this is due to aid being handed out without discrimination by the churches. But it is remarkable to see both communities drawing together, seeing the commonalities they affirm in the realm of human rights, and trying to press for peace. They are creating the future Syria in a way the world’s leaders are not.
When you serve persecuted Christians, you learn that perhaps most of all, God is never stymied in his purposes. Not by civil war. Not by a ruinous arms race. Not by bloodthirsty extremists. Not by indifferent superpowers. His promises continue to be fulfilled. As a Christian leader in Iraq told me, “I’d rather have peace; I’d rather be in my own home, but I have to admit, chaos does not faze God, and his kingdom has grown in ways I have never seen in 40 years of ministry during this time—a time I hope never to see again.”
Perhaps vacuums are made to be filled with Christ, who is the meaning and hope for all of us.
Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan is the head of research and strategy for Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry to persecuted Christians. He is also the author of Faith that Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2006).