By Lexy Airey*
This summer I had the pleasure of serving IMES as part of an intensive internship experience. As a student of political science and a young Christian, it was an incredibly educational experience for me. I had come to Lebanon seeking understanding of the Middle East and was blessed with the best kind of education: personal relationships. It has become abundantly apparent to me that no conflict situation can be properly understood unless you begin to love the people involved. It seems like the most intuitive thing in the world to me now, but it took my experience in the Middle East to fully erode the picture I had of this region and reveal the potential power of loving your neighbor.
Growing up, I lived in a fairly conservative American household. Like most young people from my background I thought little about the Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and the opinions I did have reflected a loose and underdeveloped support for Israel. As a child of 9/11 I had a general resentment towards Islam and didn’t feel the need to understand its moderate side. As a young Christian, if the Middle East ever came up in church settings, the conflicts were characterized as being a very natural battle between Isaac vs. Ishmael. I say all this because many people look at the Christian evangelical community in the US and think we are a bunch of Zionists, but I think that for my generation there is simply a lack of interest and education that perpetuates ignorance, rather than any proactive support. For many young people it only takes an informed professor to make them reevaluate the unexamined opinions they’ve been handed. For me, it was the girls from Yemen and Lebanon I met in high school who made me realize that the Middle East wasn’t a single homogeneous place with one people and that Islam was a complex worldview, not a doctrine of murder.
When I came to Lebanon this past Summer I found that many people I met had the same question: why does the US always support Israel no matter what? While it is relatively easy to identify the political motivators, lobbyist groups, public apathy, media narratives and Christian Zionist ideologies responsible for this unilateral and over-permissive support of Israel, I should rather be honest about my own ignorance on the issue and of my responsibility in allowing it to continue in my community. Because the truth is I was one of “those Americans” and, though I didn’t stay that way for long, if the right people didn’t cross my path I would probably still be walking through my life with the same assumptions, stereotypes and apathy. This once again points us to the importance of seeing the humanity affected by the opinions we hold.
Working this summer with interns from across the Middle East and interacting with people from all around the MENA region at IMES’s Middle East Consultation (MEC) forced me to reevaluate how I both discover and engage with information. Though I know my friends in the Middle East have their own biases as well, living in Lebanon has opened my ears to a whole new set of narratives that force me to seek out additional information on the actual people involved in conflict situations.
Being, for example, only a few hours removed from the Israeli-Gaza conflict and seeing the apparent intractability and mutual hatred expressed on each side, it’s not as easy to politicize and rationalize or dehumanize (intentionally or not) the parties involved. So who do you support? The side claiming to protect its citizens from traumatic fear and imminent terrorist action, or the side desperately trying to relieve a humanitarian crisis and free its people from imprisonment and a life without hope? Because human beings, same as you or I, reside at the heart of this conflict and to write them away as nothing more than “extremists” or “religious crazies” is to ignore the basic human desires, the love for family and friends and the fear and hate driving this conflict. I have begun to think about how I would feel if someone discredited my actions as a result of my own “crazy” beliefs without giving any thought to any rational decisions that went into them. So how can we change that perception and once again humanize everyone in the conflict, not simply this side or that?
It should be obvious that as soon as you humanize any issue, the problem becomes far more complex. Justice often seems easier if you aren’t emotionally involved, but this is in fact false justice. We forget too often that “acting justly” goes hand-in-hand with “loving mercy” (Micah 6:8), a synthesis at which Jesus, who always seemed to humanize any situation, was an expert. So we must remember that political systems are simply different arrangements of peoples. Therefore, to be ignorant of the people involved is to be the most ignorant politician, political scientist, political activist, pundit or opinion holder one could be. This was a major reason I came to the Middle East.
For example, it may seem easy to understand the political desire to limit the amount of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon; a nation still reeling from a civil war partially caused by the destabilizing effects of influxes of Palestinian refugees in 1948 should naturally be wary of any demographic upset that could threaten the delicate sectarian balance of the parliamentary democratic republic of Lebanon. However, when you see the families and the desperate situation of the Syrian refugees it makes it nearly impossible to sacrifice these people’s well-being for the sake of political stability. It doesn’t make “forward thinking, rational” calculations necessarily wrong, it just stops you from making them without empathy and compassion.
When people asked me why I wanted to go to Lebanon it was easy for them to understand my political interest in going. I’m studying politics and this area has extreme political salience. However, I wasn’t in Lebanon to observe conflicts or political institutions. I was there to serve people. One can’t understand the human face of a conflict unless we go and build personal relationships with the places and peoples involved. This discovery, however, comes with a lot of heartbreak. When I hear and read of how Christians and other minorities are being executed in Iraq, when I see Syrian refugee children looking for hope and education, when I listen to my Lebanese friends worry about their families in the Bekaa Valley as violence develops, and when I personally hear explosions in Beirut, a city far too familiar with rockets and bombs, my heart aches for my new friends.
I have found, however, that this also comes with great joy. Having the opportunity to interact with brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the MENA region at the Middle East Consultation allowed me to hear and be a part of the stories of the worldwide church. I cannot articulate how thankful I am for being a part of this annual gathering that IMES has put together. The testimonies and stories that I heard by listening to the diverse group of participants widened my thinking on and my love for the global church a thousand-fold. It is truly these kinds of interpersonal interactions that will bridge the gaps of ignorance, fear and hatred. It is therefore my hope that this globalized generation might begin to see themselves as not only more technologically connected, but emotionally and spiritually as well. If my experience in Lebanon has taught me anything it is that the more genuine friends you have, the more dynamic and beautiful the world becomes. Let us pray that we can be the light of Christ’s love in all places.
Lexi Airey is a student at Westmont College in Santa Barabra, California studying Political Science and Business. Lexi worked as an intern for IMES during the summer of 2014. She is a member of the Middle East Current Affairs (MECA) group and is an active promoter of interfaith discussions at Westmont.