by Robert Hamd
We are living through historic times. If you are reading this, whether you live in Beirut, Bangkok, or Baltimore, you are well aware we are all witnessing massive shifts in culture, economy, environment, and political conditions. For us Lebanese, not a day passes that doesn’t reminds us that our sectarian system is broken, and our political elites gamed the system–making off with enormous wealth, leaving the economy on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, a new government looks at ways to reduce interest rates and recapitalize banks with painful austerity steps in order to avoid a financial meltdown. I’m all for pressing our officials and finding responsible ways to get the economy back on track. One thing is clear–we Lebanese have grown tired of the past political arrangement of power preservation, and we are seeking a new way forward. We are indeed living through interesting historical times.
Speaking of historical times, we often perceive past events with a sense of textbook detachment. We mention November 22, 1943, and remember Lebanon’s Independence from the French mandate, or April 13, 1975, and know that was the start of the Lebanese Civil War. Those events are past but carry importance because things changed afterward.
And we know all too well that those historical events impacted our family histories. Perhaps thinking about history in terms of family history and the juxtaposition of family history with a historical event may be too painful; however, we all share one thing in common — loss and grief. Identifying historical events through our family narrative makes history less of a detached textbook experience and something more palpable.
For example, I distinctly recall back in the 1970s listening to my late Uncle recount the stories of the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon under Ottoman Rule (1915-1918). I heard those stories as a youngster on the veranda of our family’s summer home. It was a history lesson taught by my Ammo (paternal Uncle) of family trials and triumphs as they survived the famine. I was transfixed hearing about the horrors of war and violence on the one hand while, on the other hand, being filled with a sense of pride, hearing how my family survived crushing economic and military conditions inflicted by the Ottomans during WWI.
Now, as an adult reflecting on those events, I see the result of the Great Famine of 1915-1918 as massive human displacement and the tragic loss of life. My own family was displaced and migrated to Damascus because of violence and starvation. They wandered throughout Syria with my infant father (b. 1916) in tow, with one over-riding drive: survival. Some family members did not survive the journey, and it makes me wonder if my ancestors received any mercy and help along the way. Indeed, when family history can be attached to a historical event, it gives us a different perspective on the consequences and details of those events.
New Decade–One for the History Books
Over one hundred years on, this new decade, fraught with displaced peoples and dire circumstances, is starting ominously for us in the region. Protests, economic meltdown, wars, and assassinations all have the power to impact the region and the families in the region with painful and long-lasting consequences.
The leading economic predictors are not promising. Global debt has reached an all-time high of $184 trillion, and the UN estimated 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, while more than 3 million have fled to countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Meanwhile, 119 billionaires were in attendance at Davos 2020 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting to discuss ways to improve the global economy.
What is the present connection between history and economics? A recently published article by The Economist points out that the US Dollar has become weaponized. The US controls the financial grid and is using the dollar geopolitically. According to the article, “America now has over 30 active financial- and trade-sanctions programmes” in place controlling the balance of payments of countries such as Iran and Iraq.
What does this all mean? Think of it like switching off the lights, but you do not have any control of the power. Politically the US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, announced the US will “cut off billions of dollars of support to the Iranian regime” (that is billions of dollars of legitimate Iranian funds held in New York). And “[t]he State Department, meanwhile, said that Iraq could lose access to its government account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” In other words, the dollar has become a weapon and opened a new vista for doing battle in the new decade.
What does all this signify for us Lebanese and the Church?
We should buckle up and get ready for a rough ride. On the one hand, there is great discouragement and dismay as our political leaders need to work out a deal with the IMF and the World Bank to bail out our heavily indebted economy by placing austerity burdens on the general populace. On the other hand, there is reason to be encouraged. I see more and more faithful Christians shedding former idols that they once held dear (power preservation and political alliances) and turning their attention instead to participate in the mission of God’s love and serve the Lord.
As Christians, we can find numerous passages in scriptures, reminding us that God’s people have faced dark and gloomy times throughout history. Part of the purpose of those passages in scripture is to remind us not to lose heart. For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles, encouraging them that their LORD “will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jer. 31:13b). The Bible is clear; as faithful followers of our Lord, God calls us to engage our world despite all the doom and gloom. We are called to demonstrate God’s incomprehensible love in Jesus Christ by practicing justice (Jer. 9:24) right here and right now. We are called to participate in God’s mission, and by participating with active love and service, we’re making history. That is what I see happening in Lebanon and Syria.
God is raising up a new generation of faithful Christians who are tired of the status quo of the past arrangements and who have decidedly chosen to follow Jesus’ mission to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with …God,” (Mic. 6:8) and these missional actions can have a profound effect on our current situation.
Here are some examples: Christians are providing free to low cost medical care for scores of refugees, migrants, and poor Lebanese. They are going into refugee camps to provide education for Syrian children. They are working on confronting modern slavery by putting pressure on perpetrators who abuse migrant workers. Others have given migrant workers safe houses and places to gather while others are preaching and teaching the gospel. In other words, their mission can be summed up in the concept of loving our neighbor and doing justice.
In the New Testament, the apostle James exhorts his readership about true worship of God. He cites true worship as “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas. 1:27). Jesus’ sermon on the mount calls us “blessed” when we serve as “peacemakers,” seek to be “merciful,” act in “meek” ways, serve those who “mourn;” calling us children of God (Mt. 6:3-9).
It is easy for us to fall prey to fearmongering in today’s world. To imagine lasting peace, security, and prosperity, many leaders call for erecting walls, be they political, economic, or militaristic barricades. But for Christians, the temptation to return to a Christendom mentality, whether from the time of the Edict of Milan (313 CE) to the present, is only creating an illusion of safety. According to the late theologian and missiologist Orlando Costas …” the church has not been called to manage the world but, rather, to bear witness to the kingdom of God in the world.” Christians anywhere in the world who are advocating for the barricade mentality only cut themselves off of the life-giving Spirit, creating alienation from all of life.
History is going to write about how Christians demonstrated the gospel in this new decade. From the record of ministry occurring in Lebanon and Syria, I am confident that Arab Christians will lead the way in demonstrating their love for the Lord. Their children and grandchildren will remember the stories of their parents and grandparents, who actively showed the love of Christ, despite the dire circumstances. They will remember them participating in the power of the Cross rather than the power of the sword. And that hope should turn our gloom into joy.
 Mbaye, Samba, and Marialuz M. Badia. “New Data on Global Debt.” IMF Blog, January 2, 2019. https://blogs.imf.org/2019/01/02/new-data-on-global-debt/. Accessed February 7, 2020.
 “America’s Aggressive Use of Sanctions Endangers the Dollar’s Reign.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. Accessed February 7, 2020. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/01/18/americas-aggressive-use-of-sanctions-endangers-the-dollars-reign.)
 Costas, Orlando E. Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005, page 182.