By Martin Accad
When the global community began to realize that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was growing bloody and violent with the turn of events in Syria, many journalists and political analysts – as well as the common pun-lover – began to refer to it as the ‘Arab Winter’ or the ‘Arab Fall.’ But I seriously doubt whether anyone expected that the orange-colored tree leaves of the current Fall season would manifest themselves as they have this month of November from Beirut to Washington, DC. Orange has indeed come upon us – from the orange logo of President Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement to the vastly mediatized orange hair-do of President-elect Donald Trump.
It’s been an over two-year long, arduous, and at many junctures embarrassing, road for both elections. Lebanon remained without a president for two and a half years. And the US presidential campaign has manifested itself in crass, way past midnight racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic twitter wars, television debate drama, and perfectly timed Wikileaks releases. The lines between reality TV and the reality of life have been blurred. We’ve all wondered a million times a day, ‘This can’t be real, these can’t be the best candidates to be president and rule our nations.’ Now both journeys have finally reached their outcome. Many of us, both in Lebanon and in the US, were faced with excruciating choices, particularly as the campaign rhetoric often ran clearly against many cherished moral principles.
But some of us are beginning to ponder whether it is possible that so much of the population in both countries actually agrees with much of the negative messaging that has accompanied both elections. More seriously still, is it possible that so many in the Evangelical church find in the current outcome an adequate representation of Biblical values? The social media network of which I am a part at least seems to point in this direction, though it seems clear to me as well that in both countries most have voted for what they saw as the lesser of two evils.
I am doing my best not to be disrespectful to either candidate in this post. My purpose is not to demean the democratic process either – however faulty it clearly is in both Lebanon and the US. Some, too, may consider this post irrelevant at this point, given that the race is over. But as I ponder on the results and on some of the current debates, I am convinced that there are still lessons to take away, not in denial of the outcome, but in the hope that the outcome and the coming years could perhaps lead to some soul-searching and growth.
In the final days before the elections, many held on to their candidate in a sort of ‘leap of faith,’ and were inviting others to do the same. I would like to explore briefly the rationale behind this invitation and draw some moral lessons from what I believe would be a Christ-perspective.
The first ‘leap of faith’ that some were taking was the belief that candidates that have stood for certain questionable values and moral positions for the past 20-30 years will suddenly do an about-face and ‘surprise’ us with entirely new positions. ‘Who are you to judge!’ I have been told off a hundred times. ‘Give the man a chance!’ others have chided me. But is this really what the Bible asks me to do? Besides admonishing us, ‘do not judge, or you too will be judged’ (Matthew 7.1), Jesus also affirms in the same chapter 7 of Matthew’s Gospel that a tree is recognized by its fruit.
Although Jesus was talking about the identification of false prophets in Matthew 7, I believe that the proper Gospel principle to have applied, given the situation, was to evaluate whether individuals who have not shown Gospel fruit over the past 20-30 years could possibly suddenly start to bear good fruit. Aoun’s political bloc has repeatedly affirmed in no uncertain terms that the Syrian refugees represent a danger to our social fabric. They have done much to lobby for a closing of borders and for a hardening of the processes by which refugees will be allowed to remain safe from danger. There is a difficult and complex history in Lebanon that would justify such a position, particularly when parallels are drawn between the situation of Syrian refugees and that of Palestinians in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. But what rational justification can morally be used to impose communal punishment on millions of suffering people in the name of fear and xenophobia?
‘Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?’ Jesus asks rhetorically. ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.’ ‘Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them’ (Matthew 7.16-20). Does Jesus ask us, then, to believe that xenophobia (fear of foreigners) will suddenly turn into philoxenia (love of stranger/neighbor)? Does he ask us to believe that a racist and misogynistic discourse will suddenly turn into embrace and compassion? Does he ask us to believe against all likelihood that a man who has stubbornly believed that the language of violence and sectarianism are legitimate means to an end, and that all means may be used towards reaching the presidential position, will suddenly yield kindness, fairness and equality, transparency and accountability, when they become president? I am quite convinced that the Gospel does not invite us to take such blind leaps into the unknown with any other than God himself.
The second rebuke that some were addressing was that we should demonstrate loyalty and respect to the persons who will be sitting in the presidential chair during the next 4 years (in the US) and 6 years (in Lebanon). We were given the impression that less than that is a form of treason. The Apostle Paul’s admonishments in his first Letter to Timothy, chapter 2, and in Romans 13, have been quoted to me a number of times:
‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2.1-4).
Clearly, this is not a Pauline command to demonstrate blind loyalty to our political leaders, otherwise the early church might just as well have pledged allegiance to the Roman emperor by sacrificing to Caesar. The key question to ask is this, will my loyalty actually bring salvation to more people as they come to a knowledge of the truth? The moral decay that is likely to follow from the current elected leaders may do just the opposite of this, as our societies realize that we are prepared to turn a blind eye to our fine morality when we think it might lead to some ‘greater good.’ This is utilitarian ethics at best. Since we are unable to predict whether political developments will lead to a greater good, such as whether Trump will actually appoint conservative supreme court justices, or whether that would necessarily be for the better of the country even if he did, then God would require us to do what is right today, such as not turning a blind eye to racism, prejudice, and misogyny.
Furthermore, it is this same Apostle Paul who invites us to practice some healthy skepticism towards ideas that are put to us (2 Corinthians 11.4). In Galatians 1.8, he affirms: ‘But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!’ Granted, Paul is dealing with quite a different subject here. But this man is not one who would have us submit blindly or swear loyalty to worldly authorities at the expense of the Gospel and of the values of the Kingdom of God.
Where does this leave us? Should we lead a rebellion or work towards a coup d’état? That is certainly not the way of Jesus either. This past Sunday, I sat with my 4-year old son through the Sunday school lesson about David’s long-suffering attitude towards king Saul, and I found the answer to my political pondering. In graceful manner the Sunday school teacher concluded that though God asks us to respect those in authority, he also invites us at the same time to protect ourselves. I was happy for my 4-year old to receive this important lesson. I teach my children to obey and respect those in authority. But I sure teach them as well to protect themselves and the sanctity of their bodies and minds from anyone in authority who might try to harm them. I teach them what is appropriate behavior, touch, and language, and what is not; even – or especially – from authority figures within their closest family circles. When it comes to those in political power in our countries, we are invited to protect and work for peace by being obedient to the law and being good and loyal citizens. But obedience and loyalty in a democratic system is due to the country and its people, and to our leaders only inasmuch as they show respect and loyalty to the country and people as well. Anything other than this will quickly slide into abuse and violation of morality and human rights. If this lesson is good enough for my 4-year old, it’s good enough for me.
So as we move into this new phase of our countries, or as our Lebanese politicians and media outlets are now ironically, yet overwhelmingly calling it, the ‘new covenant,’ let us respect our new leaders and pray for them fervently. But at the same time, let us remain vigilant and recover our moral compass as we respond prophetically to political developments with wisdom, humility, and compassion.