‘So when did your family convert to Christianity?’ asked an American General early on in the occupation of Iraq. ‘About two thousand years ago,’ replied the Iraqi.
The Middle Eastern culture and context of Christ is something that the Western Church seems happy to forget. That Jesus was very specifically a Jew is something we have found even more difficult – as Christianity’s uncomfortable bouts of anti-Semitism have shown.
It is because of this that the new Archbishop of York’s claim this week in an interview with the Sunday Times that ‘Jesus was a black man’ is so unfortunate.
The plight of Middle Eastern Christians should be a matter of outrage for the Western Church. Their population has fallen from 20 per cent of the Middle East to 5 per cent in the past century. 3 million were killed in one genocide running alongside the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; another saw Christian populations expelled, exterminated, or forcibly converted by Isis.
We should be outraged. But we’re not. It has hardly featured in our national press. There have been no protests. It may be because so much of this has happened on the back of Western action (especially the Iraq War). Perhaps it is because Westerners are inclined to think of Christians as ‘oppressors’ and not ‘oppressed’ in some global hierarchy of privilege. Whatever the reason, with a few notable exceptions (among whom we must rank the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been very strong on this) Western Christians have been happy to ignore the horrors inflicted on Christians of the Middle East, and consciously or unconsciously have furthered the view that Christianity is a Western religion.
Into this complexity comes a heightened awareness of racial disparities, especially between black and white populations of the United States and Europe.