by Mike Kuhn
Media outlets are noticing an unprecedented proliferation of uprisings around the globe—Hong Kong, Chile, Addis Ababa, Baghdad, and of course, our own beloved Beirut.
While some debate the legitimacy of Christians’ participation in these demonstrations, there is a more fundamental issue that is at stake as we witness the rage of nations. It is a piercing cry for transparent and equitable leadership. Lebanese are fed up with corruption. They are insisting that pilfered funds be returned to public coffers, that warlord leaders stand aside, that representation of Lebanese citizens be based on their human dignity and not their affiliation with a religious sect.
Though the media may never point it out, this is a moment in Lebanon’s history replete with theological significance. That assumes the best meaning of “theology”—the knowledge of God applied to every sphere of life, public and private, sacred and secular.
That reality can easily be lost in the maze of confessional identities that make up Lebanon. To assert our own theological perspective at a moment when Lebanon is going through such a traumatic upheaval may smack of religious exclusivity and hubris. Rather than assert our theological perspective on the uprising, should we not seek the common interest of all Lebanese during the birth pangs of this evolving revolution?
I venture that we can state our theological convictions in ways that contribute to the common good, not as polarizing religious talking points but as valid contributions to the Lebanese passion for justice and reform.
In a brief blog, we can only suggest a few pointers, so consider it a conversation starter. Let’s look at it through the lens of the Trinity and then the incarnation.
The uniqueness of the Biblical and historic Christian conception of God is that he exists as a unique (one) relationality of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, Spirit, one God. The Fathers of the ancient church were at pains to state this concept with great care. Some spoke of the perichoresis or mutual indwelling of the Trinitarian persons, suggesting a God whose identity/essence is shared fully and freely. The result was an ebullience of love that overflowed the divine essence in the creation of a beautiful home for humankind, bestowing the divine image on humanity and finally redeeming that humanity which had erred from its communion with God. The Trinitarian persons are never at odds, but always in harmony.
What this implies for human government is instructive. God’s exercise of power is transparent. Dominion is shared. The Trinity is not a hierarchy. Each member of the Trinity seeks the well-being of the others, motivated from a well-spring of divine love shared in an eternal community. The human subjects of God’s dominion are made co-regents and given a share in dominion, not the freedom to exploit and abuse, but the license to lovingly lead and govern.
Of course, the fallenness of humanity renders human leadership ill-equipped to carry out the divine mandate. Trust is broken. The relationship that was once the foundation and fountain of human dominion is severed. Humanity is alienated from the divine love, self and the other. Regenerate humanity therefore recognizes the need of accountability—of placing oneself under the discipline of a community as one makes faltering steps toward the leadership ideal. Thus, a system of checks and balances in government becomes essential. Wise and benevolent leaders, whether presidents, prime ministers or monarchs, willingly work under the scrutiny of a balance of power.
So, in fact, the Lebanese cry for accountability or the plea of the demonstrator in Baghdad for the restoration of human dignity has a theological foundation. It flows from God’s way of interacting with humanity—ensuring dignity, sharing dominion, restoring trust.
What might the incarnation teach us about human leadership? Too much to summarize here, but for starters, the incarnation brought the ineffable deity and his inscrutable will close to humankind. Beyond close, incarnation means God joined his divine nature to mutable human nature in the one person of Christ. This is the essence of solidarity. It is true empathy as God suffers with humanity in Christ. Unthinkable, but true.
The “ivory tower” of political leadership that self-serves through skimming public funds and political advantage is the polar opposite of Christ’s self-giving union with humanity. It is indeed a high ideal, one that we could scarcely expect of our elected leaders. Nevertheless, much as the sheep know the voice of the shepherd, the citizenry knows well when a public servant is a servant and when he or she is a scavenger.
Whatever the reader’s view of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, his resignation was a deferral to the will of the people. Perhaps his statement points us in the direction of a servant-oriented leadership:
“My call to all the Lebanese is to prioritize the interest of Lebanon, the safety of Lebanon, the protection of civil peace, and the prevention of economic collapse before everything else.”
Had the ruling elite prioritized the interest of Lebanon above everything else (including their own pockets and prestige), much of the current impasse could have been avoided.
I imagine that a cynical reader would skim these lines and shake his or her head in disbelief. “How can the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ become foundational values in the public governance of a country? Let’s get back to the real world.”
To which I respond, but this is the real world. This is the reality, revealed by God, the essence of true leadership is shared, servant-oriented and elevating of its subjects. Though the ideals may seem unattainable, I venture that every reader can recall some leader who has embodied those ideals and I wager that leader left an indelible mark on the reader.
To Lebanon and her people, many stand with you as you demonstrate, crying out for leadership with integrity and a brighter future. We hope with you for a government of self-giving service, accountability and justice and we lift our prayers for the future of your beautiful land. May she stand strong as the cedar and glorious!
The Apostle Paul indicates that after Christ’s self-giving love was expressed in the cross, he ascended to the right hand of the Father:
“Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church…” (Eph 1:20-22)
Why do the nations rage? The Psalmist suggests that it is the attempt of humanity to throw off the messianic reign (Psalm 2). Might we see in these demonstrations a grass-roots reaction against human leadership that rejects the Christ paradigm of leadership? In effect, these uprisings express a persistent longing for the kind of leadership Jesus Christ embodies and exercises for now through the church, but ultimately over all creation.
Many thanks for this. An astute piece, combining the theological and political.
One prays for a good, practical outcome in Lebanon, and also Iraq and elsewhere.
Thank you, Jonathan, for all you have done to serve the people of the Middle East.