by Rupen Das
As the reports have trickled out of Syria of the horrific torture, abuse and indiscriminate killing by all sides in the conflict, it has been easy to sit in the safety of the sidelines in Lebanon and damn those who perpetuate evil. The luxury of distance and separation that the border between the two countries provides, hides a sickening reality.
Over the past week the following news items were broadcast here on several news outlets consecutively:
1. As the latest group of the 18-20,000 newly displaced from Syria crossed the border, this time because of the escalating violence in Damascus, we learnt that armed men on the Lebanese side were only allowing Syrians with cars to cross the border. Those on foot were not allowed through, because it was blatantly stated they were “poor”.
2. Then we were given a statement by the Minister of Tourism explaining, how the influx of refugees was really good for our economy in this tourist season that has otherwise been dead, because now the hotels everywhere are full! Then, as if to make his statement more palatable, he assured us that the hotel industry was offering special discounts for Syrians.
Some in the Government made the case that Lebanon does not have the capacity anymore to house and feed the poorer refugees, while those who were better off could take care of themselves.
We as a society seem to have lost our moral bearings when we decide who can flee to safety on the basis of wealth, and then reduce the wretchedness of human displacement and suffering to an economic indicator. Have we lost our God-given humanity when we cease to see the poor as people needing protection just like anyone else?
Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani slammed the Government for such callous attitudes and demanded action. He reflected the ideal within Islamic tradition in that every person is treated with dignity. Ibn Majaah quotes Muhammad the prophet of Islam; “God has not made anything sinful except that a person violates the honour/rights of his fellow man. This is (a greater) sin.” (Sunan of Ibn Majaah). Interestingly, there were no other voices that spoke up against this abuse of the poor.
Why should this latest incident of discrimination against the poor surprise those of us who live in this region? 28.56% of Lebanese live below the poverty line, out of which 7.9% live in extreme poverty, meaning they have enough food for one day. These numbers do not include the refugees and migrant workers who live either in abject poverty, or on its margins. Yet the country prides itself with its rebuilt downtown, the revived nightlife and party scene, and a vibrant hospitality industry. Poverty is not part of the national dialogue even though the poor are so pervasive throughout society, yet are somehow hidden. Poverty in Lebanon is a human rights issue and yet it’s not part of its conscience.
Latin American theologians, struggling with brutal dictatorships that concentrated power to a select elite, coined the much-misunderstood term, “God’s preferential option for the poor”. It would seem that God’s value system is very different than that which most of the world lives by.
Human beings are unique in all of creation, as only they bear the image of God. They embody the mystery of a God, who said “let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1: 26). Inspite of our fallen sinful nature, traces of it are still evident in each person. They have the capacity of being holy (set apart for service and to be able to worship; belong to God; of divine origin; the root word implies “wholeness”).
When we abuse, destroy, disfigure, dehumanize, discriminate against, torture and kill human beings, we blaspheme (showing irreverence towards things that are holy) against God. James 2: 9 takes this further and says that if we show favoritism we sin. If we prefer one human being to the other on the basis of wealth, culture, creed, race, nationality, gender, ability or talent we break God’s law – we sin. Every person is to be valued and treated as having worth.
Are we not as a community, who worship the living God in Jesus Christ, asked to be a people living by different values? James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphan and widows in their distress…” (1: 27). Their neglect represents the fact that the Church and Christians have forgotten to fulfill their responsibility towards the most vulnerable in society.
So how are we as a community of Christ followers to respond? First and foremost, we need to get beyond political and religious interpretations of the crisis in this region. While part of the Arab Spring is about democracy, there are religious and ethnic fault lines that are fracturing with horrific consequences. It is easy to take sides with who we think are the “good guys”. Instead, as followers of Christ we are called to walk with those who have lost homes and families, who live in terror of the next bombardment. We also need to recognize that one of the roots of the present crisis is that large segments of various populations are marginalized from the mainstreams of society and pushed to the edges of poverty. As followers of Christ we need to be a prophetic voice and be prophetic in our actions.