Washington, D.C. -- "The West must shift from reactive to proactive, from crisis management to crisis prevention." The target of this advice, given by Aram I Keshishian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was Washington, D.C., but it also happens to be good counsel for the average citizen.
Keshishian was speaking at the inaugural In Defense of Christians summit. Five patriarchs came to this country to demonstrate what an essential, conciliatory presence Christianity is in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East in general, where Islamic extremism is threatening the lives of Christians and the future of Christianity. While the summit was, for the most part, a political success, its positive message was overshadowed by a regrettable rhetorical dust-up.
At the summit, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas,) chose to talk about Israel. His remarks began somewhat innocuously enough, but he was soon telling the crowd that everyone present had to stand with Israel. This audibly upset some in the audience -- it doesn't require an expert in regional politics to know that there might be some political sensitivity about Israeli policies in a room of Arab Christians. Cruz took the reaction as anti-Semitism, expressed this fact and promptly left. As you might imagine, the partisans of social media, abetted by the voracious appetite of the hype-driven 24-hour news cycle, had a field day.
As it happens, the "mission" materials of In Defense of Christians, an umbrella group that organized the eponymous summit, include an explanation that IDC does not "seek only to protect the human rights of Christians, but all religious groups.
Speaking on Sept. 11 this year, Patriarch Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Rai reflected on a visit he made to Ground Zero in New York, and "the mystery of evil" he was confronted with there. "We are children not of death, but of Resurrection," he said. The Arab world is in the midst of a difficult birth, he said, and Christians need to be there to "nurture Arab humanity." But when all most Americans see of Arab Christians is footage of a crowd of them hissing at Ted Cruz and Israel, the importance of that message and its radical love is muddied, if not lost.
Reactions to Cruz that night in the room ranged from perplexed and rattled to disappointed and angry. Some wondered if the senator knew who he was talking to -- maybe he thought it was a foreign policy conference about the Middle East, maybe he thought it was a pro-Israel evangelical group? The cynical among us gave the clinical Beltway analysis: The new group had invited the presidential aspirant in the hopes of getting some buzz, and Cruz used the opportunity for the same.
And what started off as an attempt to spotlight the importance and vulnerability of a specific population became just another ugly political fracas. Cruz supporters dubbed him a hero on social media, the IDC was derided, and that little matter of Christian genocide was forgotten once again.
Bishop Angaelos, a Coptic who lives in London, acknowledged that a truth was spoken during the Cruz kerfuffle, even as the IDC was "misrepresented."
Cruz had said that hating Jews does not reflect the teachings of Christ. That happens to be absolutely true. But Cruz's remarks were upsetting to the majority of people I spoke to because the admonishment wasn't one they needed to hear. "We are not people of hate. We speak in defense of Christians, of Jews, of Muslims, of those of no faith," Angaelos protested. That said, no one is perfect, and where did the impulse to heckle a speaker come from? The PR headache and disappointment can also serve as an examination of conscience.
You can talk about something, but people have to see it. And if a Christian approaches the world with anything other than true love for the heart of God, what the world is going to see is not his or her best intention, but the obstacle in the way of a world of good.
Boos and brawls are what make news, if we let them. So we must direct the focus elsewhere.