Letter to a Non-Christian Nation
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published an op-ed by Orban in which he claimed that he was defending European Christianity against a Muslim influx by stopping thousands of refugees from leaving Hungary. […] “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim… That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots,” he wrote. (From Muslims threaten Europe’s Christian identity, Hungary’s leader says by Rick Noack, The Washington Post, September 3, 2015).
Dear Mr. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary,
I know you grew up in a former communist regime and that you were educated as an atheist. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why you display a certain view of Christianity that could be questioned by the very sources of Christianity itself.
There is no such thing as a Christian culture or nation. True, this is a provocative statement that needs some clarification and nuance. It would be better to write that, from a Christian point of view, some cultures are Christianized and others are not. If you want to know what that means, you should take a look at the Gospels, Paul’s letters or, in short, the New Testament as a whole. These writings are about a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who approaches his own Jewish culture in a particular way.
First of all, this Jesus, considered by many as a great spiritual leader, has great respect for the habits, traditions, scriptures and laws of his people. Hence he says (Matthew 5:17):
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
However, by claiming that he wants to fulfill the cultural traditions of his people, Jesus already implies that these traditions are not ends in themselves but that they are directed towards a goal surpassing them. In other words, the cultural traditions are means relative to the goal they should help to accomplish. Jesus is very clear about that goal in a conversation with a lawyer (Matthew 22:35-40):
A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The priority of neighborly love implies that the existing culture is tested against the extent to which it helps to avoid making victims and to which it allows for authentic human lives. According to Jesus of Nazareth, man should not live according to rules, as if preserving a (cultural or social) system and its rules would be an end in itself, but according to the demands of neighborly love. Rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27):
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Christians are convinced that the salvation of the world lies in the imitation of the way Jesus, a Jew, lived his life and approached his own culture. Because of his salvific character, at least in principle, they call him “the Christ”. As a Jew, Jesus reached for the sources in the Jewish tradition that hierarchically structured the relation between neighborly love and the particular culture of his people. To imitate Jesus means that you should look within your own culture or social organization to the sources that allow you to make your cultural or social traditions relative to the goal of neighborly love. Note that Jesus never competes with existing social, political and cultural systems. He does not abolish these systems. The following scene magnificently illustrates this (Matthew 22:15-21):
The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
According to the Jesus of the Gospels, to serve God means to love one’s neighbor, and this can be done in a myriad of social and cultural ways. Christianity is universalist but this universalism in no way implies a monoculturalism. It is universalist and transcultural because it challenges every culture to question itself from the perspective of neighborly love. On the other hand it is also multicultural because it does not compete with nor merely abolishes existing social and cultural systems but transforms them by (re)orienting them to the goal of neighborly love. Hence, from a Christian point of view, cultures, communities and societies are Christianized or they are not Christianized, meaning that they do or do not question themselves from the perspective of neighborly love. This also implies that so-called Christian communities are called to question themselves from this perspective. A Christianity that imposes itself by merely suppressing or destroying particular cultures and communities betrays itself. We all know that it has done so, many times during its history.
Of course, in order to practice neighborly love like Jesus we should know what he means by it. Once again he is very clear on the issue in question (Matthew 5:43-48):
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Well, how about that? Our neighbors are not just our own people. They are also “other” people, not of our own, “strangers”. Jesus even considers our “enemies” to be our neighbors.
Throughout the Gospels it becomes clear that Jesus criticizes the universal tendency of human communities to structure themselves according to the identification of a common enemy or a common victim (be it an individual or a group). So on the one hand, concerning the group people are part of and that often manifests itself at the expense of a common enemy (for instance an adulteress who is about to be stoned – see John 8:1-11), it is no surprise that Jesus sows discord. It is no coincidence that he claims (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” This intention of Jesus, to create conflict where there is a certain order, is actually and paradoxically a plea against violence. Family members who slavishly obey a pater familias, tribe members who harmoniously feel superior to other groups, criminal gangs who blindly pledge allegiance to the mob boss, cult members and fundamentalist believers who are prepared to fight for their leader till death, anxious employees who sell their soul to keep their job in a sick working environment, (youthful) cliques who strengthen their internal cohesion by bullying someone, whole nations who bow to the demands of a populist dictator and execute so-called “traitors” – Jesus doesn’t like it one bit.
Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrinations, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus likes it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says. Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical.
In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. That’s why he can say on the other hand, eventually (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
So, dear Mr. Orban, if you want your nation or Europe as a whole to act like a “Christian” nation or continent, you should not build a peace and order based on the exclusion (or even destruction) of a people because of their culture or religion. To quote Jesus once more, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Maybe we could challenge each other to discover our own cultural resources that criticize our all too human tendency to build communities and cultures at the expense of victims and sacrifices. To speak to you once more, from “our” shared paradoxical cultural resources (as a Christian “culture” does not really exist because Christianity belongs and does not belong to any one culture), from one Christian to the next (Colossians 3:8-11):
Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.