by Wissam Nasrallah
After an overdose of podcasts, I turned on the radio in the hope of finding something “light” to listen to, as I was desperately trying to make my way through the organized anarchy of traffic in Beirut.
While zapping through the different stations, I came upon a radio program on Radio Free Lebanon called “noujoum el doher” that was hosting Moeen Charif, a famous and well-respected Lebanese singer. As a Fairuz aficionado, I usually do not linger on the latest news of the contemporary Lebanese music scene (yeah, I am a Fairuz snob) but the conversation intrigued me. Moeen Charif, a Shia Muslim, was launching his latest Christmas single Mhee hal-Layl “Erase this Darkness”- where he asks Jesus to restore the lost joy for our countrymen on the occasion of his birth. During the interview, and to the delight of the host, he was speaking very highly of Jesus, describing him as an exceptional figure in both Islam and Christianity. He even declared having a Christmas tree at home.
In a country torn apart by hostile sectarianism at worst and indifferent avoidance at best, this was a much-needed gesture and a feel-good moment.
I then soon realized that this was a common thing among Shia Muslims in Lebanon. You can read in The New York Times a story about an “Iranian-sponsored Christmas concert” in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.
However, after the initial excitement, I felt a bit uneasy and asked myself if this is what the message of Christmas is all about: a message of peace and respectful coexistence between different faith groups? This is probably a good, natural and logical consequence but neither the heart nor the essence of Christmas.
Conversations regarding how shared values and the common figure of Jesus in both Islam and Christianity should bring us together are not uncommon in many circles in Beirut and abroad and on university campuses. Mustafa Akyol’s article in The New York Times, “Why It’s Not Wrong to Wish Muslims Merry Christmas”, is an interesting read that illustrates this point.
Unfortunately, this type of discussion seems to have been polarized around two concepts, with people tending to focus on one at the expense of the other.
The first group focuses on intellectual integrity or honesty, while the second group upholds the importance of social tolerance.
For example, many evangelicals by affirming the theological and spiritual differences that exist between Islam and Christianity have, consciously or unconsciously, been socially intolerant or have been lacking love and acceptance for our fellow Muslim citizens (and other Christians for that matter).
Those in the second group, given the need for better social cohesion and harmony, have tended to dismiss the differences between both faith systems and put them into the same melting pot of shared values (a bit like what I heard during the Moeen Charif interview).
The truth is that both concepts are not mutually exclusive: a person can be intellectually honest and socially tolerant. One has the right to believe that his belief system is true, while claiming that the other is not, without having to discriminate against them.
It is not intolerant to think someone’s religious view wrong or to vigorously contend against them; it is being intellectually honest with oneself. Tolerance should not be equated with intellectual neutrality. It should be to respect the other person’s belief and to give them the necessary space and freedom to express his or her view. (For a great way to engage in interfaith dialogue, please see IMES’ Khebz w Meleh Guidelines).Atheist and materialist French philosopher André Compte-Sponville wrote in the Le monde des religions a few years back that “one has the right to be against, and even to hate, as long as this fight or hatred is about ideas, not about human beings who are supposedly inferior to others. Let us beware of the politically correct, the soft consensus, the tyranny of good feelings! All men are equal in right and dignity, but all ideas are not equal. The right to be against is part of human rights.[i]” (For the original version in French please see below.)
In our part of the world, social tolerance could involve visiting Muslim neighbors or friends in their home. It could be wishing them peace and blessings during their religious celebrations or sharing with them an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan (some of the best meals I have ever had!). It could even be learning from Muslims for the sake of our own spiritual life (see Nabil Habiby’s blog on this point: 5 things Christians Can Learn from Their Muslim Neighbours).
So, what is the true essence of Christmas?
Christianity is good news and not good advice, as Timothy Keller puts it in his book Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God. It is not a religion, but a relationship with the living God. It is a relationship made possible by the Incarnation when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). It is when “infinity [has] become finite, eternity become temporal, the boundless one who voluntarily became limited, the all-powerful one who became willingly weak for our sake”[ii]. It is when the living God, the creator of heaven and earth, pierced the darkness of our world and took human form so that we may be reconciled to Him and in doing so we may “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
This is not merely a nice intellectual concept; it is a historical reality upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. In his first letter, the apostle John writes: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:1-2).
Yes, we have shared values with our Muslim neighbors and, yes, the person of Jesus is a common figure which can bring us together. However, his claims about himself and his divine nature are so offensive and shocking for some that we cannot reduce him or the celebration of his Incarnation (Christmas) into that of a unifying moral figure that uttered profound teachings. He simply does not leave us with this option, if we are intellectually honest.
With this in mind, let us also for the occasion of Christmas be for our country the light that Christ was for us. Let us learn from his unsettling humility and his unconditional love.
I am grateful for Moeen Charif; his class and openness are much needed in a divided country like Lebanon.
With the start of this New Year, let us make ours the prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life”.
Merry Christmas and happy New Year!
[i] On a le droit d’être contre, et même de haïr, tant que ce combat ou cette haine portent sur des idées, non sur des êtres humains qu’on prétendrait pour cela inférieurs aux autres.
Méfions-nous du politiquement correct, du consensus mou, de la tyrannie des bons sentiments ! Tous les hommes sont égaux en droit et en dignité, mais toutes les idées ne se valent pas. Le droit d’être contre fait partie des droits de l’homme.
Compte-Sponville, A. (July-August, 2009) Le Droit D’être Contre. Le Monde des Religions, 82.
Retrieved from http://culture-et-debats.over-blog.com/article-34514926.html
[ii]Rybarczyk, E. J. (2016). For Him Who Has Eyes to See: Beauty in the History of Theology. Retrieved from http://books.google.com