I’m currently reading David Frye’s good book entitled “Walls: A History of Civilisation in Blood and Brick” and he uses the construction of walls to demarcate between ‘civilisation’ on one side and the ‘wilderness’ on the other. This got me thinking about the disposition and historic residence of the Church along these lines.
Walls create space for cities to emerge, they are necessary for this Frye argues and this is evidenced by his extensive historical reflections but perhaps best typified by comparing the state of Sparta to that of Athens. The Spartan rejection of walls went hand in hand with their violent lifestyle. The only people who contributed to any material culture were the slaves of Sparta. This is in contrast to Athens who was known for her philosophers, religion, culture, trade, and craft. We know more about Athens today than Sparta thanks to those walls. The problem for Athens, however, and cities like it, was that when it came to fighting you want to be the Spartan. Walls, unfortunately, don’t help when it comes to improving your ability and resolve to fight.
The broader point behind this is that walls have a civilising influence thanks to their ability to control an environment. They were designed to protect people inside the walls as much to keep people out. Yet this made people more vulnerable than those without walls when they went beyond them or lost them altogether.
The Church’s predisposition for walls
The Church was also born into the Roman Empire which made great use of walls, around both its cities and borders. These walls afforded the literary and engineering marvels of the Empire to flourish. Something the Church subsequently used to spread quickly. Yet by the time of the 1st council of Nicea we begin to see the description of a Bishop overseeing a region to be known by titles like ‘Metropolitan’. Which is interesting because this occurs in a context in which the majority of the population was probably still living in rural environments.
From the outset, the Church also denounced the violence it saw in the world around it. Justin Martyr in his apology for the faith stated…
We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.
Justin Martyr, First Apology
Yet it’s debatable that one only has the luxury of speaking as such because the environment one lives in has its peace maintained. It’s hard to imagine Justin Martyr living amongst the Germanic barbarians beyond the Pax Romana. Julius Caeser wrote of them…
It is a matter of the greatest glory to the tribes to lay waste, as widely as possible, the lands bordering their territory, thus making them uninhabitable. They regard is as the best proof of their valor that their neighbor are forced to withdraw from those lands and hardly any one dares set foot there; at the same time they think that they will thus be more secure, since the fear of sudden invasion is removed.
Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, Book 6, Chapter 22
The Germans instead of using walls decided to fight until they secured their homes by removing all surrounding opposition. Another Roman, Tacitus wrote of Germanic settlements…
It is a well-known fact that the peoples of Germany have no cities, and that they do not even allow buildings to be erected close together. They live scattered about, wherever a spring, or meadow, or a wood has attracted them. Their villages are not arranged in the Roman fashion, with the buildings connected and joined together, but every person surrounds his dwelling with an open space, either as a precaution against the disasters fire, or because they do not know how to build. They make no use of stone or brick, but employ wood for all purposes. Their buildings are mere rude masses, without ornament or attractiveness
Tacitus, Germania, Chapter 16
Which makes them sound relatively similar to the aforementioned Spartans in this light. So would the Church simply not take root in such a place? Or if it did would it change the culture of the Barbarians to some degree? The answer seems to be the latter. Yet the degree to which this happened was tempered by the continued reality of conflict.
Wherever the Church went a degree of centralisation necessarily seemed to follow. This is in order to change a culture or environment to make it more amenable to the Gospel, its expressions and the regulation of violence. Practically even when Christians began to fight it was always framed out of necessity rather than desire. Gods kingdom was ultimately not of this world. Yet in order to maintain that centralisation, limits had to be imposed and these limits often (but not exclusively) came in the form of the arrival of walled settlements and borders where before none had necessarily existed. Thus Christianity has arguably always been predisposed to urbanising, civilising and centralising tendencies.
Early Islam as a Sparta to Christianity’s Athens?
By way of contrast, I tentatively want to offer that Islam at least initially was a religion rooted in nomadic and warrior peoples, without walls, and this fundamentally shapes the earliest expressions of it as a religion. Perhaps even affects it today.
Islam, we all know, has gone on to found great settled civilisations but the earliest followers of Muhammad were nomadic tribespeople who were a combination of nomadic pastoralists, traders, and raiders. The culture was predominantly oral, at least initially. Frye in his book describes how cultures without walls, whether they were: Irish pirates, Viking Raiders, Mongol Hordes, or Germanic Barbarians treated settled and walled populations as a form of renewable resource. Extracting what they wanted and needed from them in the form of tribute or in sacking settlements. The aforementioned doesn’t seem all that different to the doctrine of Jihad and specialised forms of taxation reserved for non-Muslims living in occupied territories.
Just as Slaves in Sparta were the main contributors to the material culture of the nation, non-Muslims (dhimmis) distinguished by their distinct legal and religious categories went on to play an extensive role in the economic and cultural output of Islamic societies. They did so because they were exempted from military service by the distinct tax system applied to them. Warfare was, therefore, the exclusive domain of the Muslim and was articulated in explicitly theological categories in both the Quran and the Hadith. Christians, by contrast, had to wait several centuries until it had anything approximating a doctrine and framework for understanding warfare. Augustine, in particular, being attributed with providing the Church with its doctrine of “Just War” which stemmed fundamentally from the distinction between Church and State and the Christians responsibility to both. Islam by contrast arguably collapsed the two categories into one.
What does this mean?
The practical impact of these distinctions, to me, highlights some relative differences between the two faiths. Islam is predisposed to being decentralised. Christianity is predisposed to be centralised. This comes from the context in which both emerged and the beliefs from that context. Wherein the latter is capable of generating depth the former is arguably more predisposed to generate breadth. This translates to the missionary success and social cohesiveness of Islam and the religious complexity and industrial success of Christianity in turn.
Now it’s fair to say I might be generalising here. I am and am aware of examples that might be given for each that show the traits I have associated with the other religion. Despite that, I think the historical track record of both of these faiths bears up with what I am saying. Yet given the scope and scale of both of these religions its fair to say that both contain examples of incredible diversity within them even if we do acknowledge these broader trends.
Historically wherever Islam has gone Christianity has tended to suffer over time. The current state of much of the Middle East and North Africa is Testament to this. Yet what could Christians do to become a more effective missionary faith to Muslims? I think the answer lies in the volume of people coming to faith from a Muslim background. The overwhelming majority seem to be, to me, coming into various forms of Protestantism. One source states…
The U.S. is a magnet for MBBs, which is why about 477,000 lived here in 2010. Roughly 60,000 were Catholic, 40,000 were Orthodox, and the rest are almost all evangelical Protestants. There were approximately 180,000 Arab-Muslim background Christians and about 130,000 Iranian MBBs in the U.S. six years ago. What is especially stunning is to realize that the pace of MBB growth has dramatically accelerated since 2000. Dudley Woodbury, a Fulbright scholar of Islam, estimates that 20,000 Muslims in the U.S. become Christians every year.
Which can be put down to the dominance of Protestantism in the US but I believe this trend bears up wherever we look into the rest of the world. Why? Well, I hypothesise that Protestantism, particularly its lower forms, has exchanged some of its traditional strengths for those we have associated with Islam in this piece. Namely, it is more decentralised, willing to operate without its historically supporting infrastructure (self-contained or even cultural), and as a result is less exposed to reprisals. Today it also takes advantage of new technology to reach out to potential converts which is even working for non-Protestants who adopt these techniques.
This form of Christianity is volatile. This means that without the supporting infrastructure it may stray into theological error but it can also adapt very quickly and is capable of operating in environments that would persecute more established forms of the faith out of existence. Even if a Church is shut down, that broader missionary effort is more akin to a cultural movement than an institutional effort of more centralised traditions. Centralised traditions who are arguably more fragile on account of their sacramental structures necessitating the central role of clergy. Evangelical Protestants can afford to experience more losses and a higher turnover on account of martyrdoms which leaves them better equipped as a missionary faith. If a missionary gets expelled the work can continue on the part of local converts or the missionary giving support online from another location. Ultimately, Evangelicalism whilst it greatly benefits from all that comes from the use of ‘walls’ can function and even learn to thrive without them.
However, success in the short term needs might not translate into success in the long term. I imagine that Evangelical Christianity, particularly in Muslim majority countries, will need to become more akin to classical forms of Christianity in order to sustain itself if it grows past a certain tipping point in the local population. This is in order to reduce the volatility of the movement in exchange for coherency and longevity over time. This, unfortunately, exposes it to more effective suppression by the dominant culture and even attrition from existing classical forms of Christianity that can offer a more robust articulation (in practice if not necessarily in reality) for its existence. Something we see more in the West today being taken up by both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox traditions. In order to overcome this, I think the Church will need to continue its emphasis on breadth over depth until it is no-longer persecuted. Historically we see this, I believe, in the early church. Centralisation only stepped up once persecution seemed to ease off. Yet the willingness to change with the changing circumstances will be crucial for the Church’s ongoing success in Muslim majority contexts.
This is, of course, if God wills such a thing to come to pass.