By Martin Accad
Judging from the opening seventeen years of this new millennium, I expect the twenty-first century to be one of major social and political transition. We have entered an age where world religions are having a key role in the rise of global conflicts, and in which therefore people of all faiths will have to play a key role as peacemakers. If we do not rise to this unprecedented challenge in the most robust ways, we will have failed in our most fundamental divine calling to be agents of God’s reconciliation and transformation in the world.
In the years 2015 and 2016, we witnessed a degradation of fundamental values of human decency at a global scale, which many would say they have never seen before. The rise of ISIS in the summer of 2014 triggered a global reaction that must have stunned most people, except perhaps the leadership of ISIS itself. In the Muslim world, there has been an outcry against the horrors committed by the group. Numerous conferences have been organized by Muslim organizations and nations to condemn their behavior as un-Islamic.
The reaction to ISIS in the western world, on the other hand, has been dramatically different. Popular fear has given way to an astonishing rise of paranoia across Europe, North America, and Australia. These societies, which seemed to be moving towards greater maturity and unity in diversity throughout most of the twentieth century, have been regressing over the past decade and a half since September 11, 2001, and considerably more rapidly over the past two years. Today the loudest voices are not for unity and the embrace of diversity, but for self-protection and self-preservation.
In the present post, I would like to reflect on a key piece of scripture and consider its implications for disciples of Jesus who are called to a new revolutionary lifestyle that will challenge the current status quo. Micah 6.8 encapsulates God’s fundamental driver for transformed human behavior, and for the sort of public policy that can lead to peace globally:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
‘Mercy Triumphs over Judgment’: A Call to Social Action
No doubt the most tragic phenomenon of our time is the massive forced migration that refugees are being subjected to as a result of the regional wars in the Middle East and North Africa. In such times of upheaval, our basic instincts of self-preservation drive us inwards into places of exclusion, whether at the individual, communal, or national levels. Our fears lead us to suspicion of those who are different from us and to the building of walls of separation. We develop complex arguments based on moral judgment in order to justify such behaviour. Arguably this is exactly what ISIS has been betting on as it begins to lose the war on the military stage. What religiously-violent groups need in order to recruit large numbers into their ideological ranks are not so much victories on the ground, but rather the progress of the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality. Fear is the best recruiter into the ranks of extremism because of its great capacity for the justification of violence.
Therefore, the victory over religious extremism will not be won on the battlefield of guns and heavy military hardware, but on that of knowledge and rectification of information. And the best way to get to know the ‘other’ is by moving towards them rather than retreating from them in judgment. Therefore, God’s call to mercy through his prophet Micah is a call to social action. Numerous churches in Lebanon have miraculously understood this. They have flung their doors open to refugees and demonstrated compassion to levels unseen before. Refugees, regardless of their religious backgrounds, have been flocking into church buildings, where they have found love, compassion, and community. No institution can understand and practice the compassion of God demonstrated in Jesus like the church can. The body of Christ globally is invited to follow this example. Followers of Jesus are transforming the human tragedy around them and they are being transformed profoundly in the process.
Every year, our Institute of Middle East Studies brings together nearly 200 followers of Christ from around the world for the Middle East Consultation in Lebanon, where we have the opportunity to reflect on the most crucial issues of our time and seek ways for the Church to act prophetically in response. This year, join us from 19-23 June 2017 in order to explore the theme, ‘The Church in Disorienting Times: Leading Prophetically through Adversity.’
The more we delay our instinct to reach out to the refugees through false justifications of self-preservation, the more we are giving space to fear and prejudice and losing the battle against religious extremism. In our present reality, there is zero time for the development of self-protective laws. There is no time for our rationalization of exclusion. The window for a humane and God-given drive to reach out to the refugee is extremely narrow. The time is now!
Justice and Reconciliation: A Call to Political Activism and Peacebuilding
The rise of ISIS and of other violent ideologies does not, of course, emerge from a vacuum. To identify summer 2014 as a significant turning point at the start of the twenty-first century must not become an attempt at identifying a scapegoat for all our current ills. ISIS is not an isolated heresy. It is the manifestation of a developing ideology which is to be understood in significant part as one of the outcomes of the major conflicts of the twentieth century. The phenomenon of religious extremism is the tip of the iceberg.
In the midst of this history, people of faith are called to be agents of reconciliation, and reconciliation begins with confession rather than with a search for who is to blame for starting a conflict. At the same time, to focus on reconciliation does not imply that we must forgive and forget. The ‘forgive and forget’ approach leads to the repression of hurt, only for it to come back and manifest itself in the form of a worse conflict later. True reconciliation is only achievable through forgiveness, and deep forgiveness is only possible after a minimal level of justice has been achieved towards the rectification of a situation of injustice. The model offered to us in the Bible, however, actually takes us a step further. In John 3.16, when we read, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,’ we learn that God ‘loved the world’ when the world was yet his enemy. The verse sums up the incarnation, the cross, and salvation in one breath, and the starting point is God’s initiated love. Paul expresses the same idea in his letter to the Romans (5.8), where he affirms that ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ The New Testament then invites us, the children of our heavenly Father, to forgive and reconcile not just after justice is done, but actually before and regardless of whether it is done or not.
The Church of Jesus Christ is uniquely positioned to understand the depth and plausibility of this process. The significance of the cross is not so much in the historical reality of a man who was put to death unjustly by the oppressive political and religious powers of Palestine in the first century. The real significance of the cross is in that, through the willingness of the only perfectly innocent man in history to lay down his life, reconciliation was achieved between human beings and their Creator through the cry of this man on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Lk 23.34).
The struggle for justice and reconciliation is therefore a call to political activism, hand in hand with peacebuilding. Followers of Christ today cannot stand idle in the face of injustice. But the restoration of justice that our Lord has taught us is only achieved through forgiveness and release in the face of oppressors. This is the only process through which victims can liberate themselves from the inclination towards revenge and the perpetuation of the cycle of violence through self-victimization.
No other agent is better positioned today than the Church to practice peace according to the model presented by Christ, in order to achieve comprehensive reconciliation and the restoration of communities. Our Lord left us these powerful words:
‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (Jn 14.27).
Jesus’ invitation for us to be peacemakers is therefore a call to courage and to confidence that the peace that we can bring to the world is the kind that no one else can bring.
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to Humility: A Call to Worship
Prejudice seems to be growing into one of the great ills of our time, and religious people seem to be among those most prone to falling into this sin. Religions have a tendency to build a sense of pride in their faithful. One of them instills the conviction that its adherents are God’s ‘chosen people.’ Another one affirms that its adherents are the ‘greatest nation that God has ever created.’ A third one affirms so vehemently that its adherents have been saved by grace that they can easily become judgmental about all others who do not seem to be living by their standards. But these are all travesties of religions’ original intent. ‘Chosen people,’ the ‘greatest nation,’ and those ‘saved by grace’ should understand their unique position before God as a calling to be a blessing to others, rather than a source of condemnation. Religious people who fall into the sins of pride and prejudice have fallen away from the presence of God. And it is particularly unforgivable for Christians to go in this direction. What I am saying here should be expected as common decency from all people of faith. How much higher should our standard be for ourselves, as followers of the Messiah who existed so fully for the sake of the destitute, the marginalized, and the unlovable of this world?
The message of Micah contains a call to humility. As we cease to compare ourselves with other human beings and start to look to God as our model, we can only ‘walk humbly with our God.’ Micah’s message is an invitation to worship. It is only as we respond to God’s invitation into his presence in worship that our deep humanity begins to get restored. As we respond to global crises with fear, we retreat and build walls, and with this we fall into the grave sins of idolatry and the worship of self. But as we respond to crises and fear by entering into the presence of God in worship, our hearts are turned to the destitute, to the oppressed, and to our fellow human beings. We abandon judgment for compassion and despair for hope.
God, through his prophet Micah, invites his Church in this twenty-first century to lead a revolution against the mainstream grain of society, by practicing mercy, justice, and humility, as we respond to his call to social action, peacebuilding, and worship.