Dangers of the Diaspora
by Bar Yohanon
Fr. Dale A. Johnson is a Syrian Orthodox Priest
formerly a clergyman of the United Methodist Church
Recently I did a thought experiment in Christology. I asked myself what would happen if we found the DNA of Jesus? How would this affect the theological formulation of the Son of God? First of all, what would his chromosomes looks like? Most humans have 46 chromosomes, twenty-three from the mother and twenty-three from the father. Would half the chromosomes of Jesus be human and the other half of the Holy Spirit?. In other words, "Conceived of the Holy Spirit" fully human and fully God.
With these questions one can see the Christological dialectic emerging. But in this case we have scientific facts before us. If we had the DNA of Jesus we would know once and for all if He were fully God or fully man. Or would we know. Would we recognise the DNA of God? From the standpoint of natural reason we would have all the evidence before us. But is it possible that there might be information that lies outside of the natural paradigm? If our paradigm is not correct them we can not interpret the evidence correctly.
I bring this question before us to suggest how it is possible that we might not recognise evidence before our very eyes. It is one of the problems Christians from the Middle East who have migrated to the West. They may have a view of the world that does not correspond to the realities of the western world and thereby not perceive correctly.
In a Syriac dispute poem, there is a dialogue between Joseph and Mary. Mary informs Joseph that she is pregnant. Joseph asks who is the man who violated her. Mary tells him it was not a man but an angel. Joseph cannot believe this. He warns Mary not to tell this to him again. Again he asks who led her astray. Mary gets slightly angry and insists that Joseph believe her. But Joseph cannot believe her and is greatly troubled. Not until in a dream that night does he understand that Mary is carrying the Lord of the Universe. His natural mind could not see this possibility even though Mary told him, a firsthand witness. Mary's information does not fit into his natural view of the world so he does not recognise the evidence before him.
I say all this to suggest how it is possible to not recognise the dangers to Syriac Christians in the Diaspora in Europe and the west. Christians who come from the Middle East have lived for centuries in the context of an Islamic dominated society. They have faced hostile governments, religious and ethnic bigotry. The paradigm of their reality is formed before they move to the West and it does not always fit the New World in which they now live.
In Europe and America, members of the Syriac Diaspora no longer live in a Moslem dominated culture. For the most part they live in a post-Christian culture primarily Protestant. In the Middle East it was easy to identify the enemy. He was the one who called you "gower". He was the one who said it was illegal for you to repair your churches and speak your language. He was the one who kidnapped your children and confiscated your property. In the West the dangers are far more subtle and pernicious. The trouble is that we do not recognise the dangers even though they are in front of our eyes.
Generally among Christians in the Middle East there is solidarity. On the most fundamental level Christians of any denominations are recognised as Christians. As a monk in Turkey once told me, "If you are baptised then you are a Christian and we are brothers." In the West this may not always be so. Many evangelical Protestants do not look upon Syriac Christians as "saved". This means that they do not view Syriac Christians as Christians at all. Unless one accepts Jesus Christ as his or her personal saviour by praying the sinner's prayer, one cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This specific formulation is characterised in the four spiritual laws of Campus Crusade for Christ, which is an evangelical organisation in Universities and Schools all over the world. Anyone who listens to Billy Graham, perhaps the most famous preacher in America will hear at the end of every sermon a call for people to come to the front of the podium and give their heart to Jesus. Even though Syriac Christians in the Diaspora have been baptised, this makes no difference to the evangelical Christian. Infant baptism does not count. You must be of "the age of accountability". This means that you must be old enough to consciously understand that you are a sinner and must repent and ask God for forgiveness. The reason for not recognising the form of Christianity that Syriac Christians bring to the West is that evangelical Protestants do not have a sacramental view. Their paradigm of reality blocks out seeing the spiritual miracle in the Syriac people( I shall comment on the spiritual miracle of the Syriac people later in this essay).
Syriac Christians often view Protestants in the West as one and the same. Many, if not most see Protestants as fellow Christians because they are baptised. This is precisely where the problem lies. This paradigm works in the Middle East because most Christians come from sacramental Churches except for a few protestant groups. But in the lands of the Diaspora, Protestants vary greatly and we must relate to them differently.
This naivete has been evident in Russia where the Russian Orthodox Church opened its arms to missionaries from the West. They saw them as fellow Christians coming to help them. But in fact the Church experienced a terrible assault from evangelical Christians and other groups not even considered by Protestants as Christian. The Russian Orthodox Church thought that this fellow Christians would respect their spiritual heritage and identification. What they did not realise is that Protestants did not view them in the same way. They felt free to pillage the church by planting doubts and questioning the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church.
There were also Jehovah Witness, Mormon, and Seventh Day Adventists who brought their doctrines into Russia. These groups savagely attacked the Christians of Russia in the same way they attack the Christians of the Diaspora. They use scripture to prove that their particular theologies are correct and convert Syriac Christians to their denomination. For the most part, Syriac Christians of the Diaspora are poorly prepared to defend themselves against such Bible based arguments. Knowledge of the scriptures is very low among Syriac Christians and because Syriac Christians love the Gospel they are particularly vulnerable to the predatory nature of some Protestant and cult groups.
Recently I visited a Syrian Orthodox priest in Switzerland. I was happy to see him teaching several bible study groups. He admitted that some of his families had been divided by influences from what he called "Protestants." Upon further questioning it was clear that he made no distinction between the various protestant groups who were impacting some of his congregation. Through his clergy associations he was familiar with Calvinist and Reformed Protestants. He thought they were all like these Protestants who were quite liberal. He could not understand how some of the evangelical protestants were so aggressive with some of his people. He appreciated our discussion for it helped to clarify for him the differences he was beginning to notice.
Mainline Protestant groups for the most part will not directly encourage Syriac Cbristians to leave their churches. But in some ways they are more dangerous to the Syriac Diaspora. Liberal social attitudes invade the Syriac Church through contact with the young people primarily. Issues such as birth control, abortion, sexual relations outside of marriage, homosexuality, divorce, and euthanasia are considered to be broadly permissible in varying degrees. Syriac Christians coming from the Middle East have very conservative and historic mores. Because the Church out of modesty and cultural conditioning, they have been relatively silent on these subjects. It has put our young people in conflict and created doubts about the authority and relativity of the Church. These cultural mores of the West seem enlightened to some of our youth and a dichotomy arises in their minds so that they feel they have to choose between the secular culture and the Church. The mainline Churches embody of these secular views. In ecumenical councils there has been conflicts between the moral and ethical perspectives of the Orthodox Churches and Churches of the West. Some Orthodox Churches have pulled out of the World Council of Churches for this very reason.
The Roman Catholic Church is much more in line with the social mores and sacramental perceptions of the Syriac Christians of the Diaspora. Fortunately, the Catholic Church is less of a threat to the Diaspora. The theological arrogance of the past suggesting that they are the one true church has given way to more enlightened acceptance of the legitimacy of the See of Antioch and the Churches associated with it.
The more sacramental a church is the more it is aligned with the views of the Syriac Diaspora. Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist Protestants have varying degrees of sacramental perspectives. Although protestant, they are vastly different than groups on the other end of the spectrum such as Assembly of God, Pentecostal, some Baptist denominations (There are 42 Baptist denominations in the USA), and cult groups previously mentioned. In the middle are Calvinist groups such as the Reformed, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and Covenant churches.
The miracle of the Syriac Christians is that they have been saved by God through centuries of oppression and persecution. By my own count at least 38 ethnic cleansings have occurred in the regions of the Fertile Crescent. Syriac Christians have faced the sword and the bullet, the politicians and the police yet somehow survived. They rebuilt their churches and villages again and again. They migrated to new lands and still the language of Jesus is heard in their homes and in their hearts. The danger of freedom in the West threatens Syriac Christians as never before.
Drugs, divorce, and the very nature of the Diaspora are pulling families and the religious culture apart.
I believe God has saved the Syriac Christians for a reason. Syriac Christians are a holy remnant. To go back to the thought experiment I used at the beginning of this essay, we can say that some of the protestant groups would look at the genetic data of Jesus purely in a scientific and materialist way. There would be no supernatural considerations and therefore even if presented to the sense it would not be perceived. In the same way Joseph did not perceive the miracle before him in the pregnancy of Mary.
Only when Mary came to Joseph in a dream did he finally "see" the miracle. The Syriac Christians can be to the post-protestant culture of Europe and the West a new light. We are the Angel and the Diaspora is the dream. It is a dream that came true for the people of the Diaspora, finding a land of freedom. But it can be a dream come true in another way. It can be a dream for the West to awaken them out of their naturalist and materialistic hallucination. We have an obligation to proclaim the Gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps in the third millennium, a light from the East will appear once again through the Syriac Diaspora. So whether we are looking at the chromosomes or Christ or even the chromosomes of Christ we can see the miracle of creation and the creator himself.