In Eastern societies, Christians are a minority. This position gives them an experience of faith quite different from what many Western Christians know. They are often overlooked, shunned, and persecuted for their beliefs.
As much as their rich and troubled histories have shaped them, Eastern Christians find their identity in their current experiences. This trial of faith is a test of fire which burns the chaff while it tempers the metal. What emerges is a living witness harking back to the fidelity of Jesus earliest followers.
Rather than merely defining their faith in terms of doctrines, they express their faith in their actions. Their distinct liturgical expressions are ancient and honorable traditions which maintain their identity, revealing who they are and where they came from. Just as it is important how they express their faith within their own communities, it is equally important how they express their faith within the larger community of the national culture, which may be dominated by other faiths, such as Islam or Hinduism, or by atheism. They may be forbidden to preach or to gather for worship.
Without protected and privileged positions, some Christians in places dominated by other faiths find reason for conversion to the majority. They give in to social pressures and cultural norms. They allow their Christian identity to be diluted and absorbed in the vast sea of popular beliefs.
Yet for those deeply rooted in their faith, the situation forces them to reevaluate its meaning in their daily lives. They open themselves to this experience with confidence in the Spirit to guide them. They clarify their identity through reflection and prayer, and respond in obedience to the Spirit.
These true followers of Jesus put their faith in the context of a timeless Church, the mystical Body of Christ. Without the special powers and privileges supplied by political and economic structures, they proclaim the Good News by imitating the actions of Jesus and His early followers. They care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the elderly, the orphaned, the widowed, the homeless, the victimized, the dispossessed, the mentally ill, the disabled. These are the ones overlooked when people and societies are more concerned with building a worldly kingdom.
By joyously accepting the inferior position in their societies and by willingly casting their lot with the disadvantaged, these Christians remove themselves from the conflicts and competition which divide people. History shows that conflicts to establish or extend earthly kingdoms merely create insufferable hells, as the violence in Lebanon, in Iran and Iraq, and in Afghanistan shows. As imitators of Jesus, Christians do not get caught up in the rise and fall of worldly empires. Instead, they serve the peaceable kingdom of the One God.
Christians in the East find a liberating comfort and strength in their difficult position when they view it in light of Scripture. Their situation among the disadvantaged lets them be among those most loved by our Lord. Here they have an opportunity to serve, which in turn disarms those they encounter. Their expression of their deep conversion touches and awakens others to the beauty of following Christ. They allow people of other faiths to un-learn prejudicial notions of Christianity based on antagonisms dating back to the Crusades. These contemporary Christians reveal the true meaning of Christian ministry. In their spirit of humility, which allows them to meet each person as a brother or sister in Christ, they are released from fear. Rather than building on differences, they nurture spiritual kinship through respect, dialogue, and cooperation.
Certainly their path is not smooth. Suffering and death are to be expected there. Christ told us, If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too (John 15:20). His prophetic challenge to His followers, however, was not without hope. His resurrection gave full meaning to His words, to His suffering and death, and to our own suffering and deaths.
For the people of God, it is an endless quest to follow Christ faithfully, that is with a full knowledge and full acceptance of suffering and death as a prelude to the true resurrection and life. To be in the world but not of the world, like Christ, is the challenge not just for Christians who live as minorities. It is the requirement of all who are offered the temporary allures of worldly comforts and power. Christ said, You cannot serve two masters.
The constant struggle within each generation of Christians and within each individual who would accept that name is to put on the ever-new person of Christ. Before Christians can be the yeast transforming the dough of modern society, they must give up their identity as something else. Once they put their shoulder to the plough, they should not look back.
Contemporary models of true Christian fidelity whether in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, or in Islamic or Hindu cultures are faithful to Scriptural traditions. They give affluent Western Christians a model for expressing their faith in a culture dominated by faith in science and technology, especially in its military systems. Nor are they distracted from their calling by the fantasy of entertainment. By experiencing life in the small, poor places in our society and by identifying with and serving those most in need, we will find our spiritual liberation.
Monsignor Nolan is national secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and president of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.