In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
Those of us involved with foreign policy, national security and international relations tend to focus most of our attention on the immediate threat or short-term trend. Some of us involved more on the military or diplomatic wing rarely look at religion, except for the contemporary focus on jihadism emanating out of the Islamic world. Lost in this is the planetary view that attempts to identify titanic, or potential shifts, in world politics.
On Sunday, Pope Francis attended the Divine Liturgy celebrated by the patriarch at Etchmiadzin, the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He reiterated his much used word, “scandal,” to describe Christian disunity. Much has been written about Pope Francis’ attempts at reform, his possible views on immigration, climate change and economics. However, far above all of this are indications that this pope has a renewed interest in Christian unity. Those who watch and study this know all too well that we have seen this before, and it came to naught. However, there are signs to indicate that we may be witnessing a more fundamental desire.
It also may be that the usual focus points of international relations such as the current wars and acts of terror may help to motivate the Christian community. In an unprecedented meeting between Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in Havana, issued a joint declaration which stated:
“Orthodox and Catholics must learn to give unanimously witness in those spheres in which this is possible and necessary. Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change. Our Christian conscience and our pastoral responsibility compel us not to remain passive in the face of challenges requiring a shared response … We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.”
Some have reported that a meeting and declaration like this has not happened since 1054 AD. Talk of unification from both Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church about unity, and finding a common Easter date could in part be caused by the persecution and killing of Christians in the Middle East. One hopes that they feel when Christianity is under siege in its birthplace, now is a good opportunity to cast aside differences whose fire had cooled long ago. Francis has made statements of rapprochement indicating that reunification would “not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.” Bartholomew has stated that Christians “no longer have the luxury of isolated action.”
The papacy’s actions and statements towards Protestants may be even more revealing. It is best summed up by the pope’s declaration to an ecumenical gathering in June 2015: “If the devil unites us in death, who are we to divide ourselves in life?” Francis has called the separation of the Christian community a “scandal,” especially in light of the threats posed by Islamic jihadism and militant atheism. Although there is some talk of lesser issues, such as allowing priests to marry, there are more strategic decisions, not least of which is his planned celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s reformation in a church in Sweden, as well as apologies to various protestant groups for sins committed against them, such as the Lutherans and Waldensians.
Protestants are divided over many overtures made by Francis, with evangelicals more skeptical than mainline denominations. As the first pope from the Americas, he has a keen interest in the region and in reform. Sixty-nine percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of him as well as the vast supermajority of all Roman Catholics.
Perhaps we are witnessing a similar nexus of forces as we did in the 1980s with the election of the most anti-communist conservative president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, at the same time as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the only pope from Eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II. It was at this moment that the evil empire was ready to fall into the dustbin of history; unwittingly managing this decline was Mikhail Gorbachev.
Should Francis’ efforts begin to prove successful and palatable to Orthodox and Protestant Christians, there will be no greater story in international relations in the 21st century. Those of us wired to the hard politics of war, diplomacy and trade forget that all of this pales in comparison to the power of God and the church. If Christendom were once again to have unified positions on all of these ideas, it would be an unstoppable force for good in a world rent by the evils of terrorism, human degradation and political tyranny. The shift would be incalculable to the current mindsets of international relations, to both theoretical academician and political practitioner alike. Perhaps we are bearing witness to the truly most transformative political story in centuries.
Many will denigrate this as old wine in new bottles, but then again who would have believed a Roman Catholic Mass would be held for the first time since 1550 at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace? C.S. Lewis famously wrote in “Mere Christianity” that the divisions in Christianity should best be understood in the following way:
“It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals … You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling.”
Christians around the world have been horrified by the acts of brutality against fellow Christians. They are saddened at the mocking of their faith in arts, letters, education and pop culture. They have placed less than biblical divisions between each other. Perhaps at one of the greatest times of chaos in Christianity, events are unfolding to force reflection on those differences and focus on how Christian unity can change the world for the better.