by Elias Ghazal
If you are familiar with the politics of the Middle East, you might be disturbed by the title of this blogpost. That’s because the Party of God is not some right wing pro-Christian party that serves a Christian cause in the Middle East. The Party of God is none other than Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist organization in the US, Canada, Israel, and a number of Arab countries. So is there anything to learn from a “terrorist” organization?
Hezbollah is an exclusively Shiite political party with a military wing, invariably promoted as the Islamic Resistance. The story of Hezbollah is peculiar once you consider the history and context of Shiites in Lebanon. For decades, Shiites suffered poverty and injustice at the hands of their own countrymen. They were grossly deprived and underrepresented in the young Lebanese Republic. As a religious sect in a Maronite-Druze-Sunni dominated environment, the group maintained a quietist approach to survive. Today, Hezbollah is the leading Shiite party in the country and it represents a major power player in Lebanon, and in the region. In a relatively short period of time, Hezbollah evolved from a local Islamic militia to a highly trained and well equipped army. It transformed its image from a terrorist organization to a formidable political party. It morphed into a state within a state with increasing popularity amongst its constituents. Hezbollah offered Shiites an alternative option to the corrupt, and often-absent Lebanese government.
Hezbollah does not hide its belief in the supremacy of Islam as a governing system, but it recognizes that such a system must be implemented as a result of a direct and free choice of the people. According to Hezbollah’s doctrines, establishing an Islamic state is not an end in itself, but a means for instituting justice. This explains the party’s lax pursuit for an Islamic state, and focus on social work. Hezbollah offers services that range from basic ones such as delivering drinking water, garbage collection and snow removal, to more advanced ones like high quality schooling, affordable healthcare, housing rehabilitation, business consultation, lines of credit, and social security facilities. Having begun only in the early 1980s, Hezbollah became by the mid-1990s one of the country’s most efficient and professional service providers, rivaling the government itself! Hezbollah’s social services improved living standards of many Shiite communities. Hezbollah advanced in power and popularity as a result of people’s trust in and allegiance to the party.
So, what’s that got to do with us? The situation of Christians in the Middle East is similar to that of the Shiites. We are both religious minorities. We both have deep roots in this part of the world. Both of us strive for equitable living standards and fair opportunities. Christians and Shiites struggle to secure their place in the Middle East as indigenous and integral parts of its culture and society. How each group tries to achieve that differs, and here’s where we can learn from Hezbollah’s experience, as patron of Lebanon’s Shiites.
Hezbollah bound itself in an Islamic framework of thinking that would have typically isolated it. However, through a policy of infitah (opening up) it was able to integrate itself in the state system; most evidently by participating in the parliamentary elections, providing social services, and by building an expansive network of relationship with Lebanon’s other sects. Hezbollah did not lock itself behind dogmas that stifle its ascent. Instead, Hezbollah’s leaders reinterpreted the party’s religious-political ideology in light of the new post-civil war reality. Ultimately, Hezbollah won 12 out of 128 seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections, and nine in 1996, making it the largest single party block both times. Most certainly, Hezbollah’s re-imagination of itself in the new context secured, and even elevated, its place in Lebanese society. It survived the tide to dismantle it by exercising a degree of ideological flexibility, though without losing its core supporters.
The point is unmistakable: it is about doing contextual theology. “Context” has been the buzz word in Christian circles for the last couple of years…and for good reasons. The urgency to do contextual theology is more pressing than ever. Christians can look to the past for reference, but to make a difference in the present world we need to be free from any particular form of Christianity that hinders the spread of the Gospel. We must ask tough questions, such as: what should Middle Eastern Christianity look like in an age of Islamic militarism? How is our theology impacted by the tsunami of Christians evacuating the region? In what ways must the church in the Middle East change to accommodate the multitudes of non-Christians coming to faith in Christ? If the answer to any of these questions does not look radically different from answers to similar questions a decade or two ago, then there is a high risk of rendering Christianity irrelevant. Our theology, statements of faith, mission, and worship services should make sense in relation to our current place and time.
To be clear, the goal is not to emulate Hezbollah. Far from it. Hezbollah remains a military organization that uses violence to advance its agenda. Nor is Hezbollah the only example of doing contextual theology. That would be a gross misrepresentation. What the case of Hezbollah provides is a contemporary and unconventional example of how dogma could be contextualized to gain legitimacy, and have a positive impact on people (in this case, Shiites in particular). With that example in mind, and given the mounting turmoil in the Middle East, Christians have a responsibility to revisit their theology and revise it to speak to the spirit of the time.
Elias Ghazal coordinates the recently launched ABTS Online program, an Arabic-language, Internet-based program of study that aims to equip Arab Christian leaders all over the world for ministry. Elias also serves as an instructor with IMES’ MRel in MENA Studies Program, as part of the MENA History, Politics and Economics module.