Review: And Freedom Became a Public-Square (Red Egg Review)


(Note: this was originally published in the September 2013 issue of the now-defunct Red Egg Review. Reproduced here in full with permission from the editors.)

There is a popular idea among Orthodox Christians that the Church benefits from special recognition by the state. This follows from the assumptions that godly emperors ruled Byzantium and Russia before being overthrown by interlopers and that the Church lost its power and influence thereafter. American Orthodox Christians, who are forced to inhabit a scattered and irregular ecclesial reality, often find this narrative especially appealing. A state that recognizes a united Orthodox populace would seem to be a sign of strength and vitality. Surely, the idea goes, Greeks and Russians were holier, purer, and freer from sin before the encroachment of Muslims and Communists.

But in the Arab world, where Christians have been a minority for centuries, the Church tells different stories about itself. A Syrian or Egyptian Christian would be hard-pressed to imagine a golden age of unity between church and crown that resonates with their own historical experience. Instead, for Arab Christians nearly all memories of religiously-mandated rule are painful. They have faced a unique series of challenges by the state, from marginalization under the Ottoman Empire to the threat of total exclusion by modern Islamist political movements. They have also had to face troubles that they share with their Muslim neighbors. Just in the last century, these have included the rule of heavy-handed and dictatorial police states, economic stagnation, the traumas of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and numerous wars with all the upheaval and dislocation that they bring to ordinary citizens.

Since late 2010, the risk has been amplified. A wave of revolts seeking to replace despots with democrats has led to a chaotic series of power struggles in Egypt and the election of untested Islamists in Tunisia, while other rulers’ responses have ranged from peacefully relinquishing power (Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen) to doubling down in efforts to put down dissidents (the ruling Al Khalifa family in Bahrain). But in Syria alone, Bashar al-Asad’s crackdown on demonstrators has led to a bloody and protracted civil war. Christians who have long counted on the regime’s protection are now being targeted by certain elements of the rebellion, including the two metropolitans of Aleppo whose fate is still unknown. And as I prepare this review for publication, Western powers are weighing the option of military action to punish the regime for the public use of chemical weapons in rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus. Such circumstances demand a Christian response to the upheaval that threatens to extinguish their historical presence in the region.

In And Freedom Became A Public-Square (LIT Verlag 2012), Najib Awad attempts to give such a response. As a Syrian-born Protestant theologian, Awad is in some ways uniquely suited for the task. The book may be the first full-length work to articulate an Arab Christian response to the uprisings of the last few years; it certainly is the first in English. While it has a particular focus on Syria, Awad deals with the physical and spiritual security of Christian communities from Iraq to Palestine to Egypt.

There is plenty to commend in Awad’s work, which is sure to inform other writers for decades to come. But unfortunately, American Orthodox readers hoping for clarification and instruction may be disappointed.

First, Awad’s English is wildly uneven. There are numerous spelling and usage errors, he does not adhere to a standard transliteration system for Arabic, and in general it is apparent that English is not his language of greatest fluency. This is even the case to the point of distraction: there is at least one mention of “gorilla fighters,” and the rather peculiar title And Freedom Became a Public-Square is never fully explained. I fear that any further critique will be one of a message garbled in translation.

Second, Awad is writing for an audience that is familiar with the entirety of his broad scholarly background. I am sure that some of his readers are as fluent in modern Protestant political Christology as they are in 19th-century Arab intellectual movements, but many others will likely be lost or put off through their own lack of expertise. When combined with Awad’s occasionally unclear writing, it can be daunting to comprehend the full scope of his arguments.

The third major obstacle is simply that Awad writes like a contemporary Protestant theologian. This is not innately bad, but it does mean that when the book attempts to encompass themes of theology, history, and politics, the first becomes overly dense and the latter two are left to contend with vague generalities. Orthodox readers may be largely unfamiliar with the theologians to whom Awad refers, very few of whom wrote prior to 1900 and who generally have little to say about the Orthodox Church’s particular condition in the region.

In the lengthy section entitled “The Arab Christians and the Promise of a Contextual Discourse,” Awad seeks to develop a novel theological approach to the uprisings in the Arab world, with a particular focus on Syria. Awad is among those Syrian Christians who keep hope in a just and equitable overthrow of Asad’s regime and he believes that Christians can and ought to position themselves in a way that secures their safety in Syria’s future. Comparing Syria to the rest of the Arab world, he suggests that the Christian population is part of what makes Syria unique, and their presence in the new Syria is indispensable. Therefore, they must confidently live the Gospel and take their place in the evolving public sphere, without defensiveness or a narrative of victimization. Those familiar with contemporary Arab theologians may note that Father Georges Massouh has also been a proponent of this approach, drawing richly on both Orthodox and Islamic sources. [1]

While this message is compelling and provocative — offering a direct response to the Christian voices we often hear defending Asad as the better of two evils in Syria — its execution is that of a specialist. This section of the book is built on reflections concerning Jesus and politics that draw upon Karl Barth and Hans Küng, among others. The focus here is almost exclusively on the example of Christ’s preaching and ministry, arguably at the cost of His redemptive Passion and Resurrection. [2] Awad concludes that Christ’s quiet subversion of the power structure in Roman Palestine is a call for Christians to redirect politics away from the control-based paradigm suggested by the Arabic word for “politics,” siyāsa, and toward the communal life suggested by the Greek politeia.

From there, Awad moves on to a lengthy discussion of Near Eastern Christians’ duty to embrace a theology of religions that enables substantive and constructive dialogue with Islam. (Readers may note that Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where Awad teaches, is known for its efforts to foster dialogue between Muslim and Protestant theologians.) He urges the construction of what he calls an “Arabic contextual theology” that brings a Biblical understanding of violence and peacemaking to the unique political and social clashes found in the region.

On its own terms, Awad’s theological reasoning is sound and satisfying. But needless to say, this is an easier suggestion to make in the Western theological academy than in the bloodied streets of Aleppo or Homs. However much Awad may invoke Christian leaders in the Syrian opposition, the fact remains that Christians have suffered disproportionately in the clash over Syria’s future, and often at the hands of rebel groups. For many of Syria’s Christians, their reluctance and fear to overthrow the dictator they have known — brutal though he may be — is more than just the trauma shared by all Syrians in the face of state thuggery and rebel backlash, though that is undoubtedly a part of their experience too. It is a uniquely existential worry, and their approval of an allegiance between church and state comes from a desperate desire to survive. This state of affairs simply cannot be ignored.

This has become especially true in recent months. Awad’s picture of the Syrian conflict comes, at the latest, from the summer of 2012. Since then, it has become more apparent that the civil war will permanently alter Syria’s social fabric, especially with the looming threat of Western military involvement. The number of prominent Christians voicing support for the opposition has dwindled, and many “liberated” territories have seen rebels commit atrocities such as the execution of a 15-year-old boy on charges of insulting Islam. [3] Awad’s optimism in Syria’s future may be admirable, but it is quickly coming to resemble naïveté.

Readers who are interested in Christians’ role in the politics of modern Arab nationalism and revolution will surely find much of value here. Awad mentions many rich historical tidbits, such as the Lebanese Orthodox philosopher Charles Malek’s role in drafting the UN Declaration on Human Rights. There are many stories waiting to be told on this topic, and many debates left to be had about religion, identity, and the limits of a multiconfessional society in the Arab world.

But those who are interested in Christians’ struggles in a changing region should also inform themselves about the harsh political reality on the ground. I recommend the latest issue of Middle East Report (focusing exclusively on Christians in the Middle East) [4] and Samuel Tadros’ ongoing investigations of Copts’ legal treatment in Egypt. [5] Both provide sobering insights into how a bright new world can quickly become murky and threatening.

And what should be the view of the concerned Orthodox Christian? Certainly unlike Byzantium and Russia, the churches that cooperate with Syria’s Baath Party are under a special condition of protection, not one of imperial symphoneia. But from my own time spent in Syria before the war and knowing some of its Christians, it is clear that this position of favor came at the price of collaboration with a darkly coercive regime. Of course, Christian clergy and laity can and do support the regime for reasons other than the pragmatic consideration of protection against the Sunni majority. For some, Baathist ideology aligns with Arab nationalist sentiments, while for others, the military has proved a valuable channel for social, political, and economic advancement. It is an understandable if imperfect choice, especially when the likely alternative is martyrdom.

I am not a theologian, and it would be absurdly cruel to urge anyone to embrace death. All Syrians have faced immense suffering in the last two years. Most view the future with fear and trepidation. Amidst such chaos and ruin, I surmise Awad would agree that the only Christian response is to live the Gospel in hope and forbearance. In the face of turmoil, Christ does not offer any straightforward solutions. He only offers Himself.

Peace and order may yet prevail in Syria and elsewhere; nevertheless we must bear the full burden of the truth. The solution lies neither in the obedient yoking of the church to the state, nor in its bloody subjugation. Let us rather pray for true freedom today and in the age to come.


[1] Samuel Noble has translated a number of his works into English, such as this article.

[2] Whether this emphasis is meant to engage with a particular strain of Protestant theology, or to offer an opening for dialogue with Muslims who respect Christ as an honorable but mortal prophet, remains unclear.

[3] Hannah Strange, “Fifteen-year-old boy executed for blasphemy by Syria jihadists,” The Telegraph, 10 June 2013.

[4] Accessible here.

[5] Notable publications include “The Christian Exodus From Egypt” in The Wall Street Journal and “Egypt’s Draft Constitution: Religious Freedom Undermined” in National Review Online. One of the significant challenges for scholars of international religious freedom, and not only those focusing on the Middle East, is gaining public attention outside of conservative or explicitly Christian media outlets.