Creating "the Last Christians" in Iraq

by Craig "Dusty" Katzenmiller Recently, my wife and I ventured to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a family wedding. As we walked around Sylvan Lake one morning, we reminisced about our past selves and our own journey to marriage. Inevitably, in such moments of reflection, we reach the conclusion that had we met each other in college we would have despised each other. So much of life is timing.

While in South Dakota, I read Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity; in my judgment, it’s impossible to overstate this book’s importance. I finished the chapter chillingly titled “The Last Christians” while lying in our cabin the morning after our walk. It’s a sobering chapter, chronicling the decline of Christianity in Asia, in the Middle East particularly. Christian communities, Jenkins tells us, thrived in Asia well into the fourteenth century. (This relatively unknown millennium and a third of thriving constitutes part of the “lost history.”) The decline came as a result of various factors—changes in states’ religious zeal and changes in climate are but two examples. Even into the nineteenth century, there were still Christian-minority communities of substantial importance in Asia and Africa. These were decimated in various ways: Copts in Egypt were persecuted at new levels; Armenians were victims of systematic genocide; Iraqis experienced backlash because of invasions at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

That last observation struck me especially hard because we did that invading. We Americans. And largely, we Americans who think ourselves great Christians contributed directly to the demise of a fellow Christian community. As I read, I recalled, during the invasion of 2003, being in a hotel in Tampa, FL, on vacation with my family, and, to my lasting shame, I recalled my excited reaction to news of the bombings in Baghdad. My excitement over that deadly invasion betrays the main reason my wife and I would not have gotten along at the time.

About a year later, in 2004, I read the book that would change my life—Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By—under the tutelage of my now-dear-friend Richard Goode. Later, in 2005, I would get to know Lee Camp, our Tokens Show host. These two gentle-men exposed my allegiances as neigh unto idolatrous, and that exposing shook me to my core. Everything had to change. Through much self-examination, I realized that my god was not the God who is Trinity, but the god who is American military might, the god who is Fox News, the god who is Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

That may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. My hope for salvation was bound up in “the spread of democracy.” For me, and I dare say for many other American Christians, our gods were on full display during the invasion of Iraq—and it was awesome in our sight.

Now, over ten years later, I am still trying to work out just (a) what it means to live a life free of such idolatry, and (b) how I could have been so idolatrous in the first place, while thinking myself such a great Christian.

While the answer to (b) traces its roots back to my religious upbringing in a tradition that, at least in places, has wholly capitulated to the might of the state as its source of hope, the answer to (a) has remained more elusive. That elusiveness weighed heavy on me in that cabin in South Dakota, itself a place where wholly capitulated Christians systematically exterminated entire cultures not so long ago. Idolatries run deep, especially in American Christianity, and I have been reminded of that—and of my own hopefully former idolatries—as I read Jenkins’ words on the ruin of Christians in Iraq.

Lee used to say, quite often, that we Christians in America have more in common with the baptized Iraqi than with the unbaptized American. May this elusive truth grow ever more deeply in our hearts, and may our idolatries cease, and may we live lives worthy of the name of Christ.

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Craig D. Katzenmiller is Social Media Editor for Tokens and a soon-to-be stay-at-home dad.