The 17 October 2019 outburst of popular protests was a watershed moment for Lebanon. It effectively launched a tumultuous 12-month period dominated by three prevailing national crises: a street protest movement fueled by rapidly deteriorating socioeconomic and political conditions, a public health emergency brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the horrific Beirut Blast disaster on the 4th of August. Entrenched cracks in Lebanon’s political, economic, and social fabric have been exposed in volatile ways this past year, and the impact has been devastating on many levels. Though it is reasonable to look at such a climactic situation with despair, biblical faith compels us to respond to crisis in ways that resist defeatism and embrace hope. This is certainly not an easy task. Even so, the past year has provided valuable lessons of faith and witness as the Church in Lebanon reconsiders its role in society.
To discuss this consequential year, Martin Accad hosted Eugene Sensenig, Wissam al-Saliby and Nadia Khouri Accad to the fifth webinar in the Middle East Conversations 2020 series on 22 October: Lebanon’s Year of Meltdown: Faith Refined.
Martin Accad, Chief Academic Office of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, begins the conversation with an introduction to the current crises in Lebanon. It is beyond disorienting; the situation has gone “off the rails” as the country goes through an effective meltdown. The reality of deteriorating social, political, and economic conditions is causing many to question their ability to make a difference in Lebanon, and the desire to leave the country all together is widespread. Against such a backdrop, Martin asks, “how can Christ-followers be different in the face of crisis?” Faith convictions can easily veer us to becoming overly detached from this world and all its problems or drive us to becoming excessively consumed by a crusade for change. Both responses are problematic, and Martin challenges us to measure success not by the results of our work but by the levels of commitment to demonstrate divine kingdom values. Martin insists that even in the biggest of crises, faith instills a hope that must rule over despair.
Martin then invites guest panelists to provide an analysis of Lebanon’s year of crises from their own professional and personal perspectives.
Eugene Sensenig, professor in the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Notre Dame University in Lebanon, begins his analysis of Lebanon by making clear that all advocates for justice and change must first examine their own motives and ask if they are any better than the forces they are contending against. As a political scientist and person of faith, he argues that understanding God’s will for his people should be done with the tools of religion and the social sciences working closely in hand. This pairing of faith and science is pivotal to a Catholic Social Teaching framework, and other Christian traditions have likewise developed expressions of these concepts. Eugene contends that, relative to other parts of the world, Christian communities in Lebanon and the Middle East are severely limited in their engagement in social activism. Even more, Christians have oftentimes undermined efforts to achieve durable change. Drawing from Martin Luther King’s teaching, Eugene emphasizes the need to seek self-purification while maintaining a commitment to speak truth to power, and he challenges the Church to move beyond administrating charity and work towards efforts of human empowerment.
Continuing the conversation, Wissam al-Saliby, the United Nations Advocacy Officer in Geneva for the World Evangelical Alliance, shares his thoughts about last October’s popular protest movement. He remains skeptical of the revolutionary fervor that emerged from the event. For him, there has been a general failure to place one’s self in the shoes of the Lebanese other, to understand the fears different communities harbor, and to consider the ways particular religious-political ideologies are shaped. The rhetoric of the 17 October demonstrations (with slogans like killun ya‘ane killun – Arabic for “all of them means all of them [are corrupt]”) was not helpful as Christians missed an opportunity to embrace others in Christlike ways during the electric days of the protest’s beginnings. Wissam reminds us that addressing our own personal fears is necessary in order to reach out to others, and Lebanon’s painful history of civil war and strife has left many wounds that still need healing. Religious loyalists and secular civil society actors alike harbor complex fears, and these are not sufficiently appreciated. Many demands were made in the protests but Wissam observed a lack of consideration of how other Lebanese would receive what was being heard and seen in demonstrations. Having the heart and mind to understand others, particularly those with whom you disagree, is paramount to Wissam’s understanding of achieving progress.
Nadia Khouri Accad, Executive Director of Beirut-based Tahaddi, provides a micro-level perspective on this past year by reminding us that the current Lebanese crises come against the backdrop of an ongoing displacement crisis in which a quarter of the county’s population is refugees. This has elevated the seriousness of current events. Nadia reminds us that everyone has been affected by the ongoing meltdown; those in society who were once responding to other people’s needs are now in need themselves. The combined effects of rocketing unemployment, decreasing currency value, and rabid inflation for basic goods are proving devastating, and those working as daily menial laborers are largely being pushed to the breaking point. Nadia claims that the fallouts in education resulting from the pandemic are an area where the crisis is particularly harmful, and the potential for long-term negative impact on vulnerable children is immense. Likewise, public healthcare is chronically underfunded and increasing numbers cannot receive the care they need. Families are being overwhelmed by debt as food scarcity is on the rise. All of these contribute to growing trends of child exploitation in the labor market. It is no wonder that such conditions contribute to harmful, abusive domestic situations as well. Lebanon has long had underlying social deficiencies and these have been exposed in dreadful ways this past year. Despite this difficult assessment, Nadia encourages us by reporting that action is being taken to address the mounting challenges, and she urges us to keep our eyes on a biblical vision of justice that strives for systemic social change.
The webinar continues with an illuminating panel discussion further exploring the personal, structural, and theological dimensions of this dynamic year in Lebanon. It touches on a wide range of issues such as sectarianism vs. confessionalism, faithful Christian political engagement, and scripture’s teaching on opposing authorities. This enriching conversation attempts to make sense of a complex period of modern Lebanese history while affirming the urgency for Christ-followers to continue in hope as they focus on small life transformation even to the point of suffering and persecution.
This Middle East Conversations 2020 webinar seeks to ask questions and consider ideas with the aim of recognizing challenges and identifying opportunities for faithful witness. Watch the webinar and continue the conversation facilitated by Martin, Eugene, Wissam, and Nadia, and keep the discussion going by sharing questions and thoughts in the comments section below.