By Martin Accad
Sometimes, Lebanon is charming! When you approach the Lebanese coast as your plane takes position for landing, the beautiful mountains gushing out so close to the glassy sea captivate your attention. When you drive up the windy mountain roads of the Qadisha valley, you are taken by surprise with striking natural beauty at every turn, as the valley below unfolds and reveals ancient churches and monasteries carved into the rock. Then as you take one more turn, the two-thousand-year-old cedar forest reserve appears before you like a mystic revelation in all its majesty, standing proudly as the only surviving vegetation at this altitude. As you keep driving up, you reach the top of the mountain range; and when suddenly the whole expansion of the Bekaa valley reveals itself beyond, the scenery nearly takes your breath away. Even at night, as I sit on my terrace overlooking the city lights of Beirut, guessing the dark and mysterious Mediterranean in the background, I can be entranced by the idyllic serenity of that sleeping city. Heck, according to most tourist books, you can even ski in the morning and take a swim in the sea in the afternoon of the same day! Not to mention, of course, our hummus and tabbouleh that have attained a mythical reputation!
But if you look closely from aboard that plane as you land, you will also notice the tiny illegal structures dotting the coastline far too close to the airport, and so close to the sea that from time to time one of them collapses over its inhabitants. If you were lucky enough to make your way across the city in less than two hours through the suffocating traffic, you might still be ready to enjoy the mountain scenery; if only those sand and rock quarries did not come and slap you in the face as you drove along devastated vegetation and landscape flanking the mountain sides. As you slip into real life if you are here longer term, or if simply you are a Lebanese who happened to be born here, it is the daily struggle for those small commodities like water and electricity, those double bills you have to pay, this state within the state, that micro safety net you have to construct around you, that wears you down… It is the slow internet, the ridiculously expensive mobile services, the crazy driving, the absence of the rule of law, the oblivion to any sense of a common good, the never-ending bickering of our politicians, the road-side bombs, the influx of over 1 million refugees, the daily injustices, and I’ve only begun my ranting and I’m stopping here, because there is also the great hummus…
We do not choose where we are born. Many do not get the opportunity to leave. Most who do, have left. There are about three times more Lebanese immigrants around the world than there are inhabitants in Lebanon. There are two types of Lebanese living in Lebanon: those who have not (yet) gotten the opportunity to leave, and those who have decided to stay for a cause. If you could leave but do not, then you have chosen to stay. My family and I belong to that second category, at least for the time being… Well, my children don’t have the choice. One day they will have to make that decision for themselves. But I have discovered over the years that if the staying is to make any sense, it has to be supported by a ‘theology of staying.’
Now theology of presence is a theme that has been explored to some extent in Christian spirituality as well as ministry. The presence of God with us through his Spirit, in turn inspires our own incarnational ministry alongside other human beings. Such thoughts may be straightforward enough. They are directly inspired from the incarnational model of Jesus, who lived his life alongside the poor and the outcast of society. Jesus walked with the needy (read: those who recognized their own needs) as they journeyed towards inner freedom, freedom from sin, and moved closer to God. They discovered God’s Fatherhood as they experienced being his children. As the Apostle Paul put it, ‘in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19). God, then, by his continual presence among us, powerfully manifested historically in Christ, is our great model of incarnational presence as we seek to serve our sisters and brothers in the world around us. But if thinking theologically about presence is fairly straightforward Biblically, what about a theology of staying? As important as it is to have a solid foundation to BE somewhere, it seems just as important as well to understand why we stay.
Staying is not a very exciting word when society seems to be collapsing around you. Who wants to stay when you cannot be sure you will not be one of the passers-by at the next roadside bomb? I am sure I could write a book on this, but at this point, I just want to share four ideas that come to mind, which may form the starting components of a ‘theology of staying.’ Before I do this, though, let me just add a quick disclaimer: this post in no way intends to be judgmental of those who feel that God is calling them to move on from a place of conflict or hardship, nor do I minimize the tragedy of being a refugee, which is often the alternative to staying. At the end of the day, staying or leaving will always be a subjective decision that no outsider can judge. But for anyone faced with the dilemma, here are a few thoughts that may help them as they seek God’s guidance.
First, a theology of staying is rooted in a fundamental trust in God. It reflects the recognition that God is Master of all, that my life first and last belongs to him; that I am primarily a steward of it. Of course I am invited to develop a healthy sense of ownership over my life, one that will motivate me to take care of it and put some reasonable structure and order into it, but I can never really ‘save it.’ Jesus put it like this: ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will save it. What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?’ (Luke 9:24-25). Risk is all around us, wherever we live. I incur risk when I cross a street in Switzerland, but I manage that risk because I know it is safer to cross on green than on red! We do not flee risk, we manage it.
Secondly, a theology of staying is founded on a fundamental belief in the equal value of all human life. I always find it slightly insulting when foreigners jump on the first flight out of the country every time the security situation gets rough in Lebanon. When well-meaning members of NGO’s and mission organizations, who have come on a mandate to offer physical and spiritual support to those in need, are only able or willing to do so in times of peace and stability, it becomes slightly demoralizing for those who stay back. At a deep level, leaving at times of greatest need communicates to those staying – no doubt unintentionally – a downright message of ‘my life is more valuable than yours.’ Therefore, a theology of staying affirms fundamentally: ‘my life is as valuable as every other life, not more and not less.’
Thirdly, a theology of staying is rooted in a mature acceptance of the mysterious nature of evil. Fleeing is a capitulation to the black and white worldview. It explains away the source of evil by avoiding asking the tough questions underlying the reasons for danger. ‘People around me are bad and they are doing bad things; therefore I must leave.’ Perhaps one of the cruelest lessons of the horrifying Syrian conflict is that it offers no clarity on who is the ‘good guy’ and who is the ‘bad guy.’ Who are Syrian refugees in Lebanon fleeing from, and which/who is the evil that has driven them out? Do I really have to stay in order to find out?
This leads me to my fourth principle that is closely related to the third: a theology of staying is realistic in recognizing the all-embracing nature of sin. If I were to leave, what would I be fleeing from, seeing as I am so hopelessly interwoven in the humanity that produces all this evil that so terrifies me? Someone recently said to me, seemingly seriously puzzled: ‘We know Bashar… He’s the bad guy! But who are the good guys? Who do we support in this conflict?’ But it is perhaps this simplistic ‘good guy/ bad buy’ worldview that fosters the evil that continues to grind at our humanity. In this view, we are always the ‘good guys’ of course. And the other guys who disagree with us must necessarily be the ‘bad guys.’ If we get rid of them, then good will prevail. And we will have done this all in the name of morality and the greater good. But aren’t such statements the stuff that constitutes the rhetoric of war?
Could it be that a more healthy and mature understanding of sin and evil will only be found on less certain and less beaten tracks? Or perhaps I am closest to understanding it when I look in the mirror. Where is my part in all of this? Am I just a spectator? A victim of bad people? My theology of staying tells me that I am an intrinsic part of the problem, and therefore that my only option is to stay and try and own up to my part of the responsibility. It stirs me relentlessly to search for a solution, along with all those that are willing to do so as well.