Mar 22, 2012

Why the sudden love for Coptic Christians?

Monophysite is not a word you know if you're not a theologian. Not a specialist in early church controversies or the history of heresies.

Unless you're a Copt.


The ones I knew, at least, in Philadelphia -- second generation Egyptian immigrants, all members of the Coptic Orthodox Church there -- were very aware of the term. They could say what it meant, how it was a question of whether Christ had one nature which is divine and human or two, divine and human, and how that was the term used after the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 to define them and their church out of orthodoxy.

They knew, too, that they didn't think they were monophysites, but miaphysites, which is technically not considered a heresy, or at least, anyway, is considered compatible with the orthodox Christian conception of the incarnation where Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. It's a different way of articulating the same thing, officially. Except that the other historic forms of Christianity rejected that they, the Copts, are miaphysites, saying they weren't they were monophysites, and they said, no we're not, since this is how these things go, but there were lots of language barriers and politics and, even today, tricky questions revolving around issues as hard to elucidate as the difference between "of" and "in."

This wasn't academic. Not merely academic.

For the Egyptian Christians in the 5th century, it meant being defined out of Christianity, considered heretics, loosing a fairly significant political battle and facing serious persecution.

For the people I knew in Philadelphia, it was the term signifying their alienation from the rest of Christianity.

They felt that, in addition to being relatively new immigrants and regularly mistaken for Muslims, they were also alienated by this term. By the fact that they'd been ruled heretics more than 1550 years before. The term meant, for them, the alienation and rejection they felt from other Christian churches.

It's odd, in this context, to see the response to Pope Shenouda III's death last weekend.

The late head of the Coptic Church is being hailed. Praised. Honored. In general treated not like a heretic who betrayed the faith by denying the incarnation, which is how the Copts I knew thought they were wrongly seen by Christians the world over, but like a colleague in the work of Christ.

Christianity Today called Shenouda "one of the world's most revered Christians."

Pope Benedict XVI said Shenouda's death was a "sad departure to God."

The Orthodox Church in America -- which does not affiliate or associate with the Coptic Orthodox Church -- said in an official statement that Shenouda "fell asleep in the Lord" and expressed solidarity with the Egyptian Christians.

The Christian Post went with solidarity, too, drawing attention to concerns Copts in Egypt are in a vulnerable position as the government is in transition and they're, for the moment, without a leader.

Perhaps this is all just general respect for the dead, but it seems at odds with how the Coptic Christians I knew experience their relationship to other Christian churches. I wonder if a more significant shift hasn't happened here. Where's all this love for the Copts coming from? Has something changed in the last six, seven years?

Perhaps church politics have changed, and collegiality with distance is the norm.

Perhaps world politics have produced this shift, so common alliances against Islam soothe concerns about heresy.

Perhaps ecumenicism and common purpose has come to have greater priority that creeds, even such creeds as Chalcedon.

Or maybe the Copts I knew were wrong, and their estrangement from fellow Christians had nothing to do with religion, really.

It's not really clear to me. How should one read this response to the death of the Coptic pope?

Update: Christianity Today has an article directly addressing this topic: "Why Pope Shenouda's Death Matters to Egyptian Protestants." Their answer: he was the "pope of the Bible," and demonstrated an active commitment to interdenominational understand. Perhaps more significantly, they reference the political situation, and how he headed a coalition opposed to "Islamists."