By Martin Accad
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it;” but “the darkness will not overcome it.”
These words are part of the testimony of John the apostle, in his gospel (1:5), concerning Jesus.
Earlier this month (on the 4th of February, which also coincided with the 6–month anniversary of the Beirut port blast), a man who was a witness to truth was savagely murdered because he had come too close – one time too many perhaps – to shedding some light through the suffocating darkness that now suppresses the air we breathe in Lebanon.
Political accusations of those deemed responsible for the murder abound in the global media. As this is not a political blog, however, I will refrain from pointing fingers. Instead, I want to reflect on the theological and practical implications of this tragedy.
Lokman Slim was murdered because he sought to shed light and some truth onto Lebanon’s nebulous past and violent history. He founded the organization Umam Documentation and Research in his family home in a southern suburb of Beirut. Slim’s initiative – and his consequent death – points to our collective responsibility. As a Lebanese people, we have failed to come to terms with our past, with all of its fratricidal violence. It is too painful, too inflammatory, and there is perhaps too much darkness in us still resisting the pain that often comes with the truth.
Lokman Slim was murdered because he sought to bring justice to those who were never allowed to grieve their loved ones, thirty years on. Slim worked tirelessly to uncover the fate of the disappeared from the period of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990). There are those who would stand to lose much if the truth came out. Because we have not dealt with our past, we have allowed former militiamen to occupy the seats of our parliament and successive governments, reelecting them time and time again since the 1990’s. This has happened because we are trapped in a web of sectarian deceit and lies, but this does not relieve us of our collective responsibility, given Lebanon’s democratic system – flawed as it may be. Sectarian lies have to be believed in order to wield control effectively. And too many of us Lebanese have fallen and continue to fall for them.
Lokman Slim was murdered because he rejected the sectarianization of Lebanon. This phenomenon happens when an entire faith community is distilled into a single hegemonic party. During the Lebanese civil war, this debilitating strategy was used pervasively by Christian, Muslim, and Druze warlords alike. The purpose is for a single sectarian party to dominate its entire faith community and control it. Anyone who dares not to align with the dominating party is labelled a traitor, ostracized, and often killed. There are numerous examples of this process in recent Lebanese history, but I will avoid naming groups and victims in order to stay away from partisan politics.
John 1:5, which I quoted at the beginning, contains the Greek verb katelaben, which can and has been translated both as “darkness has not understood the light” and “darkness will not overcome the light.” I want to retain both meanings. The statement brings a feeling of consternation but also contains a promise of hope. Consternation that there are those who live in so much darkness that they cannot even begin to fathom the light of truth. And a promise of hope that as much as darkness tries to suppress light, eventually truth will prevail over evil and lies. John’s prologue was written as a reflection on the universal Christ. Extending it to other historical persons does not lead to legitimate interpretation, and it is certainly not my intention to turn Slim into a Messianic figure. From the little I know about him, any hint of this would make him turn in his grave! It is, however, legitimate to adopt a biblical metaphor in order to reflect on a more universal principle and dynamic. Words have power, and oppressive regimes have always sought to suppress the spoken and written word because of their ability to challenge their authority.
Lokman Slim believed in the power of the word as a tool to uncover truth. He was a researcher, a historian, and a political analyst. Through research, documentation, and writing, he hoped to uncover truth, and for truth to contribute to national reconciliation.
The gospel of John teaches that the eternal Word – the Logos – gives life, and that life is the light that all people need (v. 4). Though we are dealing here with a largely secular event, I believe it is legitimate to draw an ethical principle from John that the word – even the limited human word – spoken truthfully, is powerful in its ability to bring light and truth into deceit and darkness. Yet as this process is liberating to some, it is threatening to others. If received humbly and with brokenness, truth can trigger reconciliation. We had a strong model for this principle in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process in South Africa in the 1990’s. But quite often the world cannot receive truth; it rejects it and is prepared to go as far as murder to prevent it from shining in its darkness.
If the gospel ended there, its message would be fateful. Light’s ability to shine in the darkness would be dependent on humans’ willingness to receive and accept it. Although it does sometimes feel like darkness will overcome the light, the katelabon promise of John 1:5 affirms that darkness can ultimately never do so.
Carrying over the metaphor further, we are inspired by John the Baptist, as a precursor of the light and truth that would be brought in by Jesus (John 1:6–8), to participate in bringing light into the darkness around us. But shedding light into darkness is a harsh and upward battle. If Jesus’s own did not receive him, why would those who come as witnesses to truth be received among their own?
This month, along with two colleagues, we completed the registration of Action Research Associates, a new company that will invest its energy into digging up the dark side of Lebanon’s history through a multiple narratives approach. As we reflect on the murder of Lokman Slim, three weeks on, let us be encouraged that – even at a heavy price – we can hold on to the hope that the truth of the spoken word can and will overcome the lies and deceit, the darkness of the world. But this will not come without a cost.
The birth of a new future for Lebanon will only come through community-based national reconciliation, and reconciliation can only begin by uncovering the dark corners of our history, where each side learns to hear the story of others and to be heard. My prayer is that Lokman’s life and death will not have been in vain. I am inspired by his story and see it as a model for those who wish to see Lebanon engage on the path of healing and reconciliation.
Martin is an associate professor at ABTS who engages civil society to explore innovative ways of understanding Lebanon’s problematic past in order to help build a brighter future.