If Not You?

by vaughn_admin  //  

June 30, 2016

On the heels of our discussion of Christian persecution, we explore why this issue should matter to broader society. Daniel Philpott kicked off the conversation with his piece, “Why Christians Deserve Attention. In it, he laid out a new joint initiative between the Religious Freedom Project and Notre Dame’s Center of Civil and Human Rights that will focus on Christian responses to persecution. 

By: Christopher Tollefsen

Occasionally, I receive an invitation to review a book from a journal that must be among the last to make use of snail mail. The sheet of paper detailing the request always includes a small handwritten note from the journal editor: “If not you, then who?”

I thought of that question when I was asked by Cornerstone to respond to this week’s blog prompt: “Should scholars focus on the religious freedom of Christians? Is this a special pleading?” The impetus to these questions is, of course, the collaboration between Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project and Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights on the project “Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christian Communities Respond to Repression.” Recent events should surely make the questions seem academic; yet there is unfortunately still ample reason to address them.

Significant threats to the basic goods of human persons create obligations of various sorts to those who are situated to respond to those threats. Those obligations depend, of course, on what kind of response is possible. When a child is drowning, and you are nearby and able to save her without disproportionate threat to your own well-being, then you have an obligation to do so.

But what if you are farther off—too far, perhaps, to go to her aid, yet a witness to the ignorance or unconcern of others closer by? Surely you still have an obligation, in this case, to loudly draw attention to the child’s needs and beseech those who can to act.

Now suppose further that this particular child is beyond rescue, yet it is clear that the area in which she is swimming will continue to pose a threat to the community. Once again you have an obligation: to make the waters safe, or, if you cannot do so yourself, to encourage the cooperation of others to do so.

Finally, suppose you simply cannot impress on those witnesses most proximate to the drowning the necessity of taking the situation seriously and going to the child’s aid; then you clearly have an obligation to publicize this fact. By doing so, you make it possible for others to aid the child; for further pressure to be put on the unhelpful bystanders; and for others who are unaware of the gravity of the situation to become aware.

In today’s world, Christians are that child. Consider only one instance, the most recent and in some ways most grievous: that of the intense persecution of Christians by ISIS in Iraq. This persecution seems the culmination of an ongoing pattern by which Christians have more or less systematically been driven from the Middle East. As Dan Philpott notes, the 10 year period from the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 saw the loss of approximately one million Christians from the area. And ISIS has made no bones about its willingness to use force to effect religious conversion, and violence against those who refuse. What is happening right now in Iraq is a “drowning” of children—Iraqi Christians—on a massive scale.

Who are those most proximate to the situation and with immediate obligations to provide aid? We should include in our answer the United Nations; other nations, both near and far, with interests and responsibilities in the region, including the United States; and the world’s media.

Yet until just the other day, it can fairly be said that few to none of these players were attending to the specifically religious and anti-Christian tenor of events in Iraq. Writing in USA Today, Kirsten Powers laid out a time-line of events in Iraq beginning with the June 10 capture by ISIS of Mosul, a home to Christians for two thousand years, and now, thanks to ISIS, a home to none. From that point until August 7, there was no word from President Obama on the plight of Christians in Iraq; and when it did finally come, it was in the context of a focus on the plight of the Yazidis.

Let me give a very different example of the world’s inattention to the plight of Christians in Iraq from my own profession of philosophy. The take-over carried out by ISIS coincided with the upsurge of conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. A search of the most prominent philosophy blogs reveals that this conflict received considerable attention; most of that attention focused negatively on Israel. Yet little to no attention was given to ISIS, or even to the eventual US military engagement. On what is perhaps the most trafficked and influential philosophy blog, there was no mention of ISIS at all until they banned chemistry and philosophy.

Moreover, the title and taglines suggested that ISIS was not being taken seriously: “Religious crazies ban teaching of chemistry and philosophy” was the title, and “Texas Taliban Alerts” a tag. Both suggest that what ISIS is up to is more or less the same as what US “religious crazies” are doing. (A less charitable interpretation is that they suggest a moral equivalence between conservative Christianity in the US, and the Islamism of ISIS.)

So the failure to engage with the reality of the threat posed by ISIS to Christians is pervasive, as is the broader failure to engage with the reality of anti-Christian persecution throughout the world (as Philpott’s essay makes clear). It is not just political and journalistic, but also academic.

Such a failure thus requires, among other things, an academic response by those who are in a position to provide it. They are the bystanders, too far away to directly help, but aware of both the threat and the failure of others to take the threat seriously. The scholars associated with the Georgetown-Notre Dame project would be seriously failing in their responsibilities were they not doing what they are doing. Until other academics, journalists, and political leaders also are meeting their responsibilities, the answer to the Cornerstone prompt is, “If not you, then who?”

Christopher Tollefsen is a professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. 

This piece was originally authored on September 3, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affair.