Seeking Truth in a Land of Lies: A Pathway to Peacebuilding and Reconciliation

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By Martin Accad and Tim Brys

We previously wrote that Lebanese society is defined by sectarianism. This marriage of religion and Middle Eastern tribalism leads most Lebanese to think and live according to the dictates of their sectarian (tribal) leaders, whether they be Sunni, Maronite, Druze, etc. The 15 years of violence during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) were the logical consequence of this sectarianism, which had little to do with theological differences and much with tribal dynamics. Yet even after this disastrous civil war, Lebanon failed to amend its problematic way of organizing society.

Today, Lebanon continues to live in this toxic sectarian reality, where each sectarian community – or “family” – is dominated by one or more overlords referred to in Arabic as zuama (plural of zaïm). Each sect has its own zuama, usually former warlords or their sons or relatives – Saad Hariri for the Sunnis, Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun (and now increasingly his son-in-law Gebran Bassil) for the Maronites, Walid Jumblatt for the Druze, Nabih Berri and Hassan Nasrallah for the Shiites. These are only the most powerful “family heads.” Many more subsidiary family branches exist. Each zaïm demands total subservience of his sect members – voting for somebody from a different sect or family would be considered almost as high treason. The SumTotal of this zaïmocracy represents a veritable totalitarian system. And, like the classic totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, each zaïm claims to have a monopoly on truth, especially regarding their interpretation of the history of the Civil War.

Indeed, no two groups agree on what happened during the war. Each has its own narrative of the events that justifies the part they played in the war while pitilessly relating all the horrors committed by others. In Lebanese schools, the subject is largely ignored. Understandably perhaps, the history curriculum stops shortly after the end of WWII and children are never taught the period of the Civil War. Each child is left with the dominant or subsidiary narrative of their own sectarian family. This lack of a common narrative or shared truth perpetuates Lebanon’s sectarian conflict and enables each zaïm to keep their followers under their subservient grip. Each zaïm justifies this grip through their own version of the truth that conveniently masks the violence and crimes they or their predecessors committed during the war.

Followers of Jesus will wonder about their role and calling in such a complex situation. In Matthew 5:9 Jesus tells us that peacemaking is a truly blessed vocation that earns its proponents the status of “sons and daughters of God.” How can we aspire to this blessing and status in Lebanon’s sectarian reality, where truth is so captive to the socio-political system?

In keeping with the prophetic tradition that runs through the Old Testament and culminates in Jesus, the great peacemaker whom we strive to follow, truth must be spoken to power. As Miroslav Volf writes, “secrecy is indispensable for the operation of power.” [1] This is no less true in Lebanon. As each sectarian zaïm dissimulates the truth about their group’s part in the collective responsibility for the war, revealing the truth may begin to delegitimize and subvert the oppressive sectarian system, paving the way for more peace and freedom in Lebanon.

Pontius Pilate, the original postmodernist, may interject: “what is truth?” Indeed, what is truth? Each Lebanese sect claims to possess the final truth about the civil war. Each sect produces and wields their truth as a weapon in their social struggle. [2] Do we even have access to the ultimate truth about what happened during the civil war?

Lesslie Newbigin provides us with some important insight on truth. He argues that while Christians rightfully claim that absolute truth exists, we make a mistake when we claim that we possess it. “Any community which claims to possess absolute truth must inevitably, if it gains power, become oppressive,” he writes. “But the Christian claim is not such.” Rather, we can claim that “in Jesus the absolute truth has been made present amid the relativities of human cultures,” and thus that we only “know where to point for guidance … for the common search for truth” [3] With Paul, we must acknowledge that we know in part only, even though we know that one day we will know fully (1 Cor. 13:9).

Where does that leave us then? Is every sectarian conflict narrative created equal? Perhaps. Are our efforts to speak truth to power in vain then? Not necessarily. First, note that speaking truth to power is not for the ears of the powerful alone. It is for all to hear and that is why we must speak of “collective responsibility.” Those powerless participants in the sectarian system must hear truth to escape its violent clutches. But the issue remains that we have no straightforward way of determining the truth about the Civil War.

Again, Miroslav Volf argues that what is required in such a situation is what he calls a “double vision:” “The search for truth between people and cultural groups takes place through the movement from the self to the other and back; it involves a ‘double vision,’ viewing things ‘from here’ as well as ‘from there’.” [4] A “double vision,” then, requires that the Lebanese develop the ability of maximum empathy. It means that the Lebanese will need to listen to the narratives of other groups than their own and consider that there may actually be some truth in those narratives. This may be the only way for eventually breaking out of the sectarian system.

If we desire to build peace in Lebanon, it will involve such cross-sectarian conversations about Lebanese history. Indeed, it will involve more than that. But certainly not less.

References

[1] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace : A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 181.

[2] Ibid., 189.

[3] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989, 125.

[4] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion & Embrace, 197.

1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Andrews says:

    There is a calling here for someone to address this. Big job; but we have a very big God.
    Blessings
    Jonathan

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