The question erupted into the news in the USA last week based in part on the comments of Dr. Ben Carson, one of many candidates of the Republican party. Could a Muslim serve as President? Reactions were swift and varied. The idea that having a believing Christian as President and therefore that having the pinnacle of political power will change the nation, or “take it back”, is not something that I subscribe to. We could have a lot of discussion around that and I’m sure some readers will disagree with me. But simply based in the USA constitution, Article 6, it is clear that there should be no “religious test” of a candidate. It is not specified that it would only include Christians, whatever the original intent of the founders. You can read it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Article_Six_of_the_United_States_Constitution
But what does that have to do with Timothy I of Baghdad, the Patriarch in the 9th century of the Church of the East? Last week I wrote a post that talked of the importance of this little-known Christian leader in Asia. Today I want to write about the lack of political power that he and his Church had, yet the scope of their influence even on the Muslims around them and their monastic mission spread across Asia. The Church of the East lived in the shadow of the Cross. They did not have power at the center of the Abbasid Empire, the Muslim rulers who had taken over in 750 and ruled until their destruction by Mongol armies in the 1260’s.
It can be argued that throughout history when the Church has had political power its inner life and outward reality has been corrupted. Yet time after time Christians still seek to be in the place of dominion, rather than living at the Cross and persevering in loving those around them. Timothy I modeled life as a leader who did not give up his commitments even in the place of growing surrounding pressures. I’d like to bring out five ways Timothy and the Church of the East can speak to us today related to witness and political power.
First, Timothy had personal relationships with Muslim leaders around him. He served under five different Muslim Caliphs (rulers) in his lifetime. In his 59 existing letters (up to another 150 are lost) he has references to these different Caliphs. In fact one of them, Caliph Mahdi (ruled from 775-785), had a two-day debate with Timothy in the royal court in Baghdad in 781. For those readers interested, it is a fascinating description back and forth of some of the key issues of similarity and difference between Islam and Christianity. You can read it at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/timothy_i_apology_00_intro.htm
Secondly, in these relationships Timothy built trust, as evidenced that these Muslim rulers permitted the Christians to participate in majlis (gatherings) for the purpose of religious debate and discussion. These were held with different sects of Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Christians. They were held at the royal court as well as in the Christian monasteries in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
Third, Timothy was not able to depend on political power, but continued to faithfully represent his people and their interests to the Muslims around them. In another post I may elaborate on how Timothy was a “master politician”, with a strong subtlety in how he went about things. But that can also be called wisdom in the positive sense, and is greatly needed of course in many places around the world today where Christians are a suffering minority.
Fourth, Timothy continued to push forward in mission even though his Church did not have political power. As I wrote about last week and in earlier posts, the Church of the East was a missionary Church. It grew across Asia to China and India, to Central Asia and Southeast Asia. At its height around the year 1000 C.E., it may have had 12 million adherents in Asia! Yet this was without any political power or favor. It is a fallacy that having more power will create more strength in mission. Much more can also be said on that point.
Last, Timothy and his Church showed great perseverance in increasing suffering and pressure. This was not a “golden age” for the Church in Asia, if there has ever been such a thing anywhere. The Asian Church never had a Constantine as the Roman Empire did in the fourth century, a ruler who virtually overnight turned the Empire from paganism to the Christian faith at least in name. Yet just as the they have done over the past 2000 years up until today, the Christians of West Asia (the Middle East) and throughout have continued to live out their faith and sought to be a witness to those around them.
No one can foresee where Christianity is going in the USA and the West, or anywhere else for that matter. But no matter what happens, a Church that lives in the shadow of the Cross and indeed the power of the Cross will survive and influence those around them. It will not be an influence of top-down power, but of mustard seed faith. Not of having favored seats at the table or world capitals, but of following a Master who staggered to the Cross and died.
For me the question is not who could or should be President or leader of a given country. To me the question is will we as Christians be faithful to the calling we have, not to seek power and influence, but to follow Jesus to the Cross. To let God bring resurrection His way, and in His timing. To let Him bring the harvest from the seed that goes into the ground and dies. To live faithful lives of love and service to those around us. That may lead some of us into places of political service. Or not. But it will be from that sense of calling to die daily, following the Master. The Church of the East still survives today. May they in all their continued sufferings find the grace to walk in this way. May all of us.