by Wissam al-Saliby
“If you lived in Lebanon at this moment, how do you imagine you would have spent the past 20 days?” my friend asked, in a comment on my Facebook status where I shared an opinion on Christian and Evangelical engagement with Lebanon’s uprising that began on 17 October 2019.
What my friend didn’t know was that, not 20 days ago but in 2016, I had begun reflecting and jotting down notes on what an Arab Christ-centered social and political movement could look like. Today, I feel that such a movement is necessary, and missing.
A Movement that Brings Much Needed Values to the Political Discourse
In 2016, my reflections were driven by the contradiction I saw between how on the one hand Christians – whether committed believers or nominal Christians – were engaging (or perceived as engaging) in politics in Lebanon and elsewhere, and on the other hand, the Biblical call for us to act on behalf of the oppressed, to advocate for justice, to act compassionately on behalf of the poor, and to seek peace and reconciliation (in passages such as Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6-7, Psalm 82:1-4, and Matthew 5).
Some ‘Christian’ leaders in Lebanon stoke fear of the other religious communities and of losing privileges and status in Lebanon’s power-sharing formula. They demonstrate the same thirst for power and acceptance or partake in corruption like politicians from any other religious community. ‘Christian’ leaders scapegoat the refugees (which constitute 20% of Lebanon’s population), using a nationalist discourse that pits the citizen against the foreigner.
But sinful relationships work two ways.
The wider Christian population’s relationship to rulers, just like in all other religious communities in Lebanon, is transactional or clientelist (maybe even feudal) rather than principled and value driven. I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s seeing my family and community expect services from our leaders in return for voting for them every 4 years – services that, more often than not, are enabled through corruption. A large percentage of the population benefit from the systemic and widespread corruption, from the village municipality to the council of ministers. This is the true source of resilience of the Lebanese governance system.
So here I was, in 2016, contemplating how to initiate a small organizing effort, centered on shared values and purpose stemming from the Bible, and how to educated my peers on how Christian and Biblical ethics can and should inform our public and political engagement, and how they relate to human rights, social justice, compassionate action, peacebuilding, hospitality, and non-violence.
My reflections didn’t go further. Mid-2017, I applied for the position of Advocacy Officer of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) that would eventually lead me to Geneva.
Today, I can very well imagine that on 17 October, a small Christian movement would have been able to speak distinctly to those rising up on the streets “against the system,” those who were supportive of the uprising but were content to watch it on TV from the comfort of their homes, and those who didn’t know what to make of this uprising.
Rather than merging with the voices of the protesters, the voice of Christ-followers could have sought to chart a path more aligned with our values and ethics, a voice that witnesses to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, a voice that “embraces” the other.
A Movement that Embraces the Other
“There can be no justice without the will to embrace,” wrote Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace. I fear that Lebanon’s uprising sought justice but the numerous constituents of this uprising failed to lay the ground work for genuine justice achieve by embracing the other.
Practically speaking, a widely shared and discussed demand for (some constituents of) the uprising is for a transitional government that would organize the first parliamentary elections on a non-sectarian basis. This sounded great. However, what if protesters had embraced the other and created a space in themselves – as Volf puts it – to welcome the other and understand their fears, their historic wounds, and how such a reform of Lebanon’s democracy could have threatened justice as they perceived it. Parliamentary elections on a non-sectarian basis could end up sparking grievances – including within the Christian community – that would lead to violence rather than bringing about justice.
By letting our voices merge with those of the various groups behind the uprising, we have failed as committed Christians to live up to our calling, and may have contributed – inadvertently – in alienating the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who have pledged allegiance to a system out of sectarian loyalties or fear or sheer financial interest or preservation of privileges or combinations thereof. This population may have supported the uprising at one point or the other, dreaming of a better future, but would have eventually reverted to pre-17 October sentiments in part through the failure of the uprising to depict and inspire a better future for all; a failure of embrace.
As an unprecedented movement of Lebanese from all walks of life, from all religious communities, gathered in Nour square in Tripoli, Northern Lebanon to demand socio-economic justice, a D.J. and a sound system was set up. Overnight, the footage of Lebanese demonstrators dancing (in a very conservative city) were on global news channels. I asked a friend of mine, a key organizer for the demonstrations in Tripoli, “who set up the D.J. and sound system?” His wholly unexpected answer was that it was the work of a government-affiliated agency who had vested interest in preventing the demonstrators from talking to each other, the prevention of embrace.
One month into the uprising, in several cities and towns, angry men attacked demonstrators. Simultaneously, large numbers of those loyal to traditional and sectarian leaders took to the streets and blocked roads on the instructions of their leaders, in an effort maybe to co-opt the uprising.
As committed Christians, we need to take time and make the effort to embrace all of them. Embrace the Shi’ite, the Sunni, the Druze, the Alawite, the Christian… Embrace the beneficiary and the victim of the current system of governance… We need to build the relationships and trust that would assuage their fears of the “sectarian other” that I represent. And we need to explore jointly how there can be a sense of justice, dignity and decent livelihood outside of the clientelist and transactional economic-political system that the formation of Lebanon in 1920 only covered but never challenged (except maybe for the period between 1959 and 1962).
A Movement that Generates the Will to Embrace
But before engaging with the ‘other,’ much work is needed on our will to engage.
As soon as the uprising began, pastors drew conflicting visions of Christians’ attitudes towards government, gave diverging interpretations of Romans 13, advocating for support of, or passivity towards, the uprising. I wish there were more sermons on the embrace of the other as a Christian political action.
Much work is needed to form a movement of Christians so rooted in God’s promises, so joyful in our identity and inheritance in Jesus, with clarity regarding how the Bible translates in socio-political life, that we could overcome our own fear of the “other” and become able to reach out to fellow Lebanese, engage with them and work together towards rule of law and governance that responds to the needs of all.
This is not an easy feat as many Christians have placed their hope in the “nation of Lebanon” as a refuge, and we need to restore the primacy of the hope and shelter of God’s promises.
I dream of a movement of Christians so rooted in Jesus that they are able to embrace all, Lebanese and non-Lebanese, in imitation of Jesus, so as to genuinely be able to bring about healing for the historic wounds and present grievances in Lebanese society(ies), and build a stronger society, breaking with the transactional and feudal relationships, that would ultimately bring about a stronger, more just and less corrupt government.