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May 28, 2020

Our Gods Are Burning

By Robert Hamd

All of us are affected. From the beginning of the popular protest, to the current collapse of the Lira, all of us are affected. What sets this time apart from the bloody era of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991) is that now we can’t stand behind our respective religious or political alliances and wait for them to come to our rescue and save us from doom. No amount of wasta (powerful leverage) can get us out. It seems our gods of sectarianism, militarism, and elitism are burning up on the floor of the Central Bank. Since late April, dozens of branches of the bank have been torched and burned by protesters.

All of us are affected. No one in our tiny country has the “get out of jail free” card; we are all imprisoned in this economic crisis. At the time of this blog post, roughly 220,000 people have lost their jobs (in a population of 4 million), and experts believe the number will continue to climb. Food prices are up 58% because our Lira is weakening against the dollar. And according to the Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh, 75% of us Lebanese need assistance of some kind.[1] Yes, our gods are burning.

How did we get here?

Isaiah the prophet gives us some keen insights as to how we got here. In the book of Isaiah, chapter 44: 9-20, the prophet tells us about the absurdity of idols. The prophet reminds the readers that idolatry is not just a challenge of biblical times but a perpetual hurdle that all peoples in every generation face. Yes, our gods, like other gods before them, are burning.

In this brilliant section of the text, the prophet is masterfully hinting back to the creation narrative found in Genesis. Scriptures teach us (Gen. 1:26, 27, echoed in 5:1; 9:6) that God made man and woman in His image (imago Dei). We are not carved statues to be worshiped, but we reflect our creator, who calls us as stewards of His creation and invites us to recognize Him as the true God; our response is to love our neighbor as ourselves.

On the surface, the prophet explores idolatry: images, idols, and false worship. But when we dig deeper, the prophet is saying much more. He is critiquing an economy out of whack that favors a select group while the broader community suffers. This point is further found in Acts 19:23-41. The Ephesians worshipped the goddess Diana, whose image supposedly fell from heaven. An entire economy was built on the idols. In this context, those who stood to lose fiercely attacked the preaching of the Gospel that introduced Jesus as the only way, the truth, and the life, thus challenging the status quo. Back in Isaiah’s context, he addresses the economy of the idol-making, the artisans (v 11) the ironsmiths (v 12) and the carpenters (v 13), and the production of his day—all vital for the economy.

The prophet Isaiah was very concerned with fraudulent economic practices, injustice, and the impact they have on all. His book opens with a judgment on the injustices that flow from corruption. “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Is. 1:23). God cares deeply about truth, integrity, and He calls us to care for His creation as stewards and to protect the powerless.

When we make profit an idol and believe that resources will “[s]ave me, for you are my god!” (v 17) that reinforces a faulty economy and distorts what God intends for society as a whole–an economy that is just and works for all. Isaiah calls the idol a “fraud” and worshipping it creates economic practices that “warm” the oligarchies by justifying their exploitation by “make[ing] a god [out of fraud] and worship[ing] it…bowing down before it” (v 15).

Our gods are burning.

The economic system in Lebanon is compromised. The banks have failed. Our elite class have “warmed themselves” with money plundered from Lebanon’s treasury. According to a recent Al Jazeera article, “dizzying levels of corruption and mismanagement have emptied state coffers for decades, while leaving infrastructure and services to crumble”.[2] Now the average Lebanese is told they have to pay for this fraud; the Central Bank is seizing their US dollar accounts and devaluing the Lebanese Lira against the dollar.

To understand how we got here, we should remember that since 1997, the Lebanese Lira was pegged at one thousand five hundred Liras for every US dollar. A key point to note is that all imports (and Lebanon imports almost everything) are bought with US dollars and then sold for Lebanese Lira. Our debt to GDP ratio is one of the worst in the world: between 150% to 170% of debt to GDP. Simply put, our officials knew the status quo was unsustainable in the long-term but kept the system in place, heaping more debt to GDP ratio on Lebanon’s balance sheet, causing the country to borrow an enormous amount of US dollars to keep the Ponzi scheme going.

The dollar-pegged system worked relatively smoothly since banks attracted deposits from the diaspora and foreign depositors by offering high interest rates. According to a New York Times report, “maintaining that rate required continually bringing new dollars into the country, usually by enticing wealthy investors to make large dollar deposits for high-interest rates. A strategy that some economists have compared to a Ponzi scheme.”[3] This fresh money scheme produced a toxic financial system that “warm[s] themselves,” and “makes a god and worships it…bowing down before it” (v 15) based on mismanagement, corruption, and fraud.

To make matters worse, the region is suffering from the prolonged Syrian War that has a knock-on effect to the region’s economy. In September, an economic state of emergency was declared, and the government used a proposed tax hike on WhatsApp to cover government expenditures. Beginning in October, massive protests erupted, disrupting the economy, followed by banks limiting the withdrawal of US dollars, creating more demand for dollars, and for the first time, Lebanon defaulted on a foreign currency debt payment. Later on, our economy, or what’s left of it, was shut down because of the coronavirus. That’s where we are now. Yes, our gods are burning.

Courage To Change

For a lasting change, we need a higher revelation to give us courage to confront our fraudulent gods. The story of Jesus sitting on the shore roasting fish comes to mind (John 21: 1-19.) The scene opens with the post-resurrected Jesus disrupting the daily life and work of the disciples. We see Peter, willing to be disrupted, finding courage, and taking the first step to jump into the “sea” (v 7) and swimming towards Jesus, who is on the shore waiting for him with roasting fish. Thus, I see in both the prophet Isaiah’s writings and John’s gospel, the inspiration to change.

For us to see change in our country, we need courage. First and foremost, all Lebanese need to demand integrity and truth in all public sectors. Jesus teaches that the truth “will set you free” (Jn 8:32). When law-abiding Lebanese demand truth and integrity, we have the instruments to fight falsehoods, corruption, and illegal gain. Remember, Isaiah spells it out for us plainly “our princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.” Secondly, to help right the wrong, the government should track and repatriate all capital flight that “unlawfully escaped the country,” as well as “illegally obtained funds and assets, in all fields and particularly in PEPs (politically exposed persons)”[4] to be traced, confirmed, and rightfully returned to the government’s treasury.  And thirdly, we need to say no to any austerity measures, encourage the government leaders to “write down” our sovereign debts with the international community, and find other solutions to help Lebanon restart our economy.

Lebanon –our gods are burning. The book of Isaiah and Jesus’ life both invite us to take courage, overcome the obstacles we face, and turn away from fraudulent gods that burn like wood, hay, and stubble; we need the courage to “follow” (v 19) the Lord and work for structural truth and moral integrity. By doing so we can heal Lebanon from greed, wanton corruption, and violence, and continue to work towards generosity, integrity and peace.

[1] Qiblawi, Tamara. “75% Of Lebanon Needs Aid after Coronavirus, and Hungry Protesters Are Back on the Streets.” CNN. Cable News Network, April 29, 2020.

[2] Azhari, Timour. “Lebanon to Seek IMF Loan, Says It Needs $10bn in Aid.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 30, 2020.

[3] Hubbard, Ben. “Economic Crisis Looms as Protests Rage in Lebanon.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 15, 2019.

[4] Azhari, Timour. “Lebanon to Seek IMF Loan, Says It Needs $10bn in Aid.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 30, 2020.

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