Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Conference: "Telling the Story of Today's Christian Martyrs"

Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life is hosting what looks to be a wonderful conference in early November:  "Seed of the Church:  Telling the Story of Today's Christian Martyrs":

The conference intends to raise consciousness inside and outside the Church
regarding the widespread persecution of Christians around the world and to
explore how the Church has responded and might respond vigorously and
faithfully in the future.

It is striking how little attention the secular world pays to this injustice,
despite the fact that the persecution of Christians is one of the largest
classes of human rights violations in the world today.   The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community estimates that some 100 million Christians are victims of severe persecution.  Yet governments, human rights organizations, the global media, and the western university pay little heed.  For example, of three hundred reports that Human Rights Watch has produced since 2008, only one focuses on a case of Christian persecution. Similarly, despite the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act by the U.S. Congress in 1998,
neither U.S. foreign policy nor civil society has ever made the persecution of
Christians a high priority.

A central objective of this conference is to rectify this lack of acknowledgment
of this persecution by the secular media and Western academia, and to
communicate to the world the extent and character of the persecution.  Yet the purpose of the conference goes beyond raising awareness.  It is also to explore
how the Church can respond to the persecution of Christian believers
prayerfully and liturgically, out of the depths of the Church’s spiritual
theology.  In the most profound sense, what does it mean to be in solidarity with brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer violence for their faith?


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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I suppose this will be one of the topics discussed at the conference, but I'm curious about whether it makes sense to discuss persecution of Christians as a separate phenomenon from the persecution of other religious faiths or atheists. Is persecution of Christians simply more common because Christians form larger minorities in those countries prone to religious intolerance, or is it actually different from other forms of religious persecution in important ways?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 7, 2012 12:33:31 AM

At Rick explains, persecution of Christians is different only to the extent that it is systematically excused by "right-thinking" apologists.

All Christians recognize our duty to come to the defense of the persecuted -- Christian or not -- by effective means. Many, many Christians are busy living their Christianity in other ways and are not needed on the front lines, but no one has the right to simply pass by burying his head in his books. To close our eyes is to condone. To condone is to cooperate in injustice. How we resist is not entirely clear. Different men and women will each find their own best way, and god willing they will not require armed conflict, but to ingore is to condone.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | Sep 7, 2012 7:33:54 AM

Andrew, why wouldn't it make sense to study Christian persecution specifically? We study many specific manifestations of persecution. Is there something specific that you feel distinguishes Christianity as undeserving of the sort of special and focused study which is accorded in the academy to other varieties of persecution?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 7, 2012 9:10:38 AM

Marc, I think you're misunderstanding my question. When divide persecution into categories, it is my impression that we try to do so in a way that explores meaningful differences and distinctions in persecution. If, say, a country persecutes all individuals who are not of religion X, and persecutes them all in the same way, then it seems to me that there is something wrong with focusing on that country's persecution specifically of *Christians* rather than its persecution more broadly. Hence my (genuine) question: is there something about persecution against *Christians* that makes it interestingly different from persecution against other religious groups, other than the shared religious sentiments of those who are studying it? I honestly don't know much about this field, which is why I'm curious.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 7, 2012 11:42:24 AM

Andrew, it seems to me that I have not misunderstood. The way things generally work in the study of any subject like this one is that the particular history and cultural background incident to that study is always relevant to understanding the shape that the subject has taken over time. Religion, and the interaction and place of religion in that historico-cultural setting, forms a part of the subject of study and informs it. So, for example, one can study the history of the religious persecution of Jews in a particular time and place, and it will be entirely relevant that the history is of Judaism, and not of some other religious tradition. We do not, as you say, "make meaningful divisions in persecution" in a vacuum, or by classifying genera of persecution in the abstract. We make them by reference to the particular civilization, time period, cultural setting, and, of course, religious tradition (if that is what we are studying) that the subject demands. That is why I am perplexed by the question that you are asking.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 7, 2012 12:02:15 PM

That is exactly the question I'm asking: whether there are aspects to the persecution of Christians generally that distinguish it in meaningful ways from other religious persecution. At least to me, that doesn't seem like a given. My very limited knowledge about modern religious persecution suggests that while it varies importantly from place to place, it doesn't oppressed-group-to-oppressed-group. Since there are obviously illegitimate reasons to focus only on oppression of one group, I was curious (knowing relatively little about this, as I've said) what the characteristics are of persecution of Christians that make it interesting to study in itself.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 7, 2012 1:57:38 PM

Maybe this will help clarify my question: suppose that there are some Presbyterians among those Christians persecuted (the exact denomination doesn't matter here). It would seem silly, without further evidence, to hold a conference about the problem of persecution of Presbyterians, since there wouldn't (seem to) be any reason to separate that persecution from persecution of Christians more generally.

Moving up, maybe there would be a reason to look at persecution of Protestants and Catholics separately. Maybe there would be a reason to look at persecution of Christians separate from religious persecution more broadly. Or maybe it's all so interwoven and stemming from the same place that it only really makes sense to look at religious persecution from the broader perspective. The issue of determining the proper level of generality seems, to me at least, to be an intensively fact-specific problem.

I'm curious, as someone who doesn't know much about the facts here, what makes us think that "Christianity" is the proper level of generality at which to examine the problem.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 7, 2012 2:44:24 PM

Andrew, your points and questions become more and more baffling to me. I should think that there would be ample reason to have a conference (or many conferences) about Presbyterian persecution -- as a special manifestation of Christian persecution -- if the particular history warranted a special focus on Presbyterian persecution. There may indeed be a special reason to be interested, as a matter of academic and intellectual, as well as of humanitarian, inquiry as to the particular persecution experienced by Presbyterians -- as distinguished from other Christians -- on account of their religion.

The questions you are asking cannot be answered as you seemingly would like them to be answered: in the abstract and removed from the particular history that they belong to. One cannot understand, for example, the history of persecution of Christian Copts in Egypt without inquiring into the special reasons that Coptic Christians were (and continue to be) oppressed there, qua Coptic Christians. One cannot understand the reason that the Turkish genocide of Armenians occurred without an understanding of the relationship between Islam and Christianity in those countries and at the turn of the century. There is no one history of religious persecution, to be studied as a single, monolithic, trans-temporal phenomenon. There are many histories of persecution, each of which depend upon and are informed by the cultural contexts in which they occurred, and which, in turn, demand an understanding of the religious traditions in conflict.

I should think these points would be obvious. So, as I say, I am baffled (also genuinely) by your questions, and by your general view of the way in which academic inquiry proceeds in these matters. As I said before, it is taken as a given that it would be appropriate to have a conference about the persecution of Jews, or Muslims, or countless other religious traditions, within a specific cultural context. I cannot imagine that it is your view that these conferences need to be justified by some overarching trans-temporally universal religious persecution conceptual paradigm.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 7, 2012 8:12:23 PM

I'm confused about why you keep thinking that I'm interested in an "abstract" answer "removed from the particular history." My questions have from the beginning (and I thought clearly) been specifically about that "particular history." Perhaps it's obvious to those who know more about the underlying facts here, but it's still not obvious to me why "Christianity" is the proper level of abstraction for this inquiry.

Perhaps my confusion is prompted in part by statements like "persecution of Christians is one of the largest classes of human rights violations in the world today" and "It is also to explore how the Church can respond to the persecution of Christian believers prayerfully and liturgically, out of the depths of the Church’s spiritual theology."

The first makes it sound as though "persecution of Christians" can interestingly be considered its own category. That sort of claim is certainly based on the "particular history" not "abstract" consideration, but it would seem to require a more overarching theory than the specific examples you began to cite in the last comment. The second seems, at least, to suggest that the response of the Church to persecution of *Christians* should be different than the response of the Church to other religious persecution. Once again, that could make sense based on the particular facts and history of Christian persecution, but particular facts and history defining a broader theory.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 8, 2012 1:05:43 PM

I thought that when you referred to the question of why "Christianity is the proper level of generality at which to examine the problem," (as in your two latest comments) you were looking for a "general" explanation for why Christianity and its persecution, as a conceptual matter, is an appropriate subject of study. That sounds to me like you are searching for an answer which is abstracted away (it is "general") from the particular history to which it belongs. That is, your question (so I thought, at least) was about why we should think that persecution of Christians as such deserves its own conference, study, and so on.

I responded by claiming that this is, in my view, not a useful way to think about the scope of a conference like this one. The right way to think about it, I believe, is to take the statement that "persecution of Christians represents the largest category of human rights violations in the world today" as a statement of fact, which it is. That statement of fact does not imply (it never does, in any of the several conferences I have attended on the subject of religious persecution) that the papers will be studying the "persecution of Christians" as a "general" matter, or by focusing on the category of Christianity and just calling it a day. That statement of fact also hardly "require[s] a more overarching theory than the specific examples" I cited or many others that I could have cited. It means that the various scholarly contributions will be focusing on specific instances of Christian persecution around the world. What else would it mean? What else does the study of persecution ever mean?

As for why Christians would have a particular interest in the persecution of other Christians around the globe, it does not seem to me in the least that this is either a surprising or objectionable phenomenon. Again, it hardly demands any general "theory" of persecution to understand why this might be so, and I do not understand why you persist in insisting on one. It is perfectly consistent for the Church to be concerned about the problem of religious persecution generally and to have a particular and specialized concern for the religious persecution of its co-religionists.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 8, 2012 1:51:04 PM

When I said "the proper level of generality" I wasn't asking for an explanation that abstracted away from the facts on the ground. I was asking why, given the facts on the ground, it makes sense to organize the inquiry around Christianity rather than around some other characteristic.

Unlike you, it seems, I would find it objectionable if the reason for focusing on Christianity (and excluding similar persecution of other groups based on religious belief) were solely based on fellow-feeling for coreligionists. There is a difference between choosing a topic among many topics because of group sympathy and constructing and delineating a topic based solely on that group sympathy. The former reflects legitimate diversity of interest, the latter (it seems to me) biases inquiry based on unrelated factors. "Persecution of Christians represents the largest category of human rights violations in the world today" is not merely a statement of fact, because the act of categorizing things in a certain way implies certain underlying judgments.

As it happens, I suspect there probably are good reasons to delineate Christian persecution from other forms of persecution. It seems plausible that there are some things about persecution of Christians that make it importantly different from other religious groups — not in some abstract or theoretical way, but given the facts on the ground. But plausible does not mean obvious, and I think the questions I'm raising are still a reasonable threshold inquiry.

To try to clarify one more time: I think an inquiry into "anti-Semitic persecution" is reasonable, because the history of anti-Semitism suggests that it has been rooted, at least partially, in a wide-ranging, cross-cultural prejudice against Jews as Jews. On the other hand, my (to repeat, very limited) knowledge of Christian persecution points more to very localized and culture-specific conflicts. That is the sort of question I mean when I talk about general theories that are still fact-specific.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 8, 2012 4:26:56 PM

Well, Andrew, it seems that there are a great many matters about which we disagree, but as to at least some, I am becoming less certain.

- It seems we disagree that even if there is a unifying, trans-historic reason that is completely context independent and that explains why Jews have been persecuted, that such a unifying trans-historic reason is the only justification for holding a conference about the persecution of Jews, and that conferences dealing with Jewish persecution must be justified according to those criteria. But I am not certain that we disagree here, because you wrote, in your most recent comment, that the history of anti-Semitism has been rooted "at least partially" in trans-historic reasons. Even if I were to agree with that position, it would still leave open the possibility that anti-Semitism could be profitably studied for what are "at least partially" non-trans-historic reasons. I take it that a great many conferences dealing with the persecution of Jews involve such non-trans-historic reasons, and there is, of course, nothing illegitimate about them.
- We seem to disagree (I guess) that there is any categorical difference between Jewish and Christian persecution with respect to the trans-historical criteria that you favor. I put this in uncertain terms because it seems that you actually do believe that there are reasons which would distinguish the study of Christian persecution as an independent subject. But if there are such reasons, why begin this comment thread at all?
- We disagree that a proper reason for organizing academic conferences is the concern that co-religionists may have for their oppressed fellows. You have stacked the deck -- unfairly -- by putting the matter in terms of what a conference is "solely based" on addressing. But there may be many reasons for organizing a conference. Do you claim that concern for the persecution of one's co-religionists is an illegitimate reason to organize a conference devoted to their persecution? Is it a reason *not* to organize such a conference, even if there are also other reasons which, in your mind, would justify such a conference?
- We disagree about whether the statement, "Persecution of Christians represents the largest category of human rights violations in the world today," is a statement of fact. I believe it is, on its face, quite obviously a statement of fact. You maintain that it is a classification with some implied subtext. But you have not explained why what is a prima facie factual statement is anything more than that. Why is that, exactly?
- Finally, and most importantly, it seems to me that we disagree profoundly about the nature of the academic enterprise. You believe that conferences require pre-articulated thematic unity, and possibly trans-historical thematic unity. I do not believe this. People hold conferences for all sorts of reasons that do not demand an overarching conceptual coherence. In fact, to my mind, some of the most interesting conferences lack that systematization. It seems to me that the academic enterprise would be much the poorer if it was felt to require the kind of conceptual unity that you favor.

I believe I've said what I want to say, and will bow out.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 8, 2012 7:38:48 PM

Marc, thank you for the engaging discussion. To close by responding to your bullets in order.

(1) I'm not sure that what you're referring to as "trans-historical criteria" is the same thing I mean to be identifying, but assuming that it is, I do think that organizing an inquiry around "persecution of Jews" that isn't justified by some criteria that explains including all persecution of Jews within its gambit and excluding all other persecution, would be illegitimate.

(2) I've tried to express my uncertainty about whether there are any such criteria at play in Christian persecution. It seems plausible that there are, but I was trying to ascertain whether those who knew more about this issue than I had anything to say about it.

(3) I'm trying to draw a distinction between concern for coreligionists that prompts one to choose one particular topic versus concern for coreligionists that serves as the only reason for delineating a topic. Thus, organizing a conference around "the persecution of Copts in Egypt" that is motivated (partially, presumably, but even fully) by concern for those Copts as coreligionists, doesn't seem objectionable to me, because the topic is clearly delineated by relevant cultural and historical facts. Organizing one around "persecution of Christians" does seem objectionable, if the only reason for separating Christian persecution from other persecution is that concern for coreligionists.

To put it another way, choosing a topic is a matter of both inclusion and exclusion. Concern for coreligionists seems like a legitimate reason to include certain topics that already make sense as topics. It doesn't seem like a legitimate reason to exclude certain parts of topics, or to define the boundaries of a topic.

(4) "Persecution of Christians represents the largest category of human rights violations in the world today," is a statement of fact in the same sense that I might say that a certain piece of computer code contains more '1's than '0's. But on that level it's not a very meaningful statement. To carry the value that it claims to have, it has to also inherently assert that "persecution of Christians" is a meaningful "category".

(5) I don't think that conferences necessarily need to be thematically unified. I think that when they have a stated theme that defines the inclusion and exclusion of topics, the theme has to have a certain coherence to justify its role in defining a topic of inquiry.

Thanks again.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Sep 8, 2012 11:41:00 PM