by Martin Accad and Caleb Hutcherson
In an interview with Time magazine in 1963, Karl Barth recalled advising young theologians 40 years previous “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” It seems he often used variations of this figure of speech to talk about the need to think theologically about the world in which we inhabit, but also to think about the Biblical world (and our interpretation of it) in light of our present situation. The idea being that each is meant to interpret the other.
Whether we know it or not, we all face this question of how to relate our faith to the big problems facing society in every age. And the answers we give to that question are inevitably political, including here in the Middle East.
In the Arab world, Christian engagement in political life has often followed one of two major patterns. In his chapter tracing the modern history of Christian political engagement in the Arab East, Tarek Mitri points out that the first pattern followed a predominately “secular” nationalistic tendency, whether Arab, Syrian, or patriotic. Following this approach, the “feeling and situation of being a minority” was surpassed by nationalistic belonging and cause (2005, p. 859). As a result, religious beliefs are set aside in an effort to create and unite under a generic Arab or Syrian national identity.
The other option Mitri identified was for Christians to insist on, and even to exaggerate, “the specific character of a Christian community or of Christians as a whole” (p. 859). For this option, maintaining the distinctiveness of the minority group was crucial to the strategy of political engagement. The dialogue, blending, and compromise needed to work with “others” were perceived an existential threat. The community perpetually viewed itself as a victim. As a result, preserving the purity and identity of the community takes priority over engaging with the problems facing the wider society.
Though Mitri’s framework is now somewhat dated, it explains patterns that have largely shaped Arab Christians’ political engagement to the present day. A retrospective view on the Lebanese Civil War illustrates these two options well. Christian groups that fought for a Christian – even Maronite – Lebanon, thus following the pattern of Mitri’s second option, were described as right-wing militias, and now exist as political parties. Others that have continued to push for a more Arab or Syrian nationalistic model were viewed as leftist parties. The tension between these two visions of Lebanon remains very much alive today.
Christian religious leaders and clerics in the Arab world, not least in Lebanon, have played and continue to play a central role in encouraging either of these ideologies. In recent months, for example, Lebanese church leaders have voiced great concern over the disintegration of Lebanon.
Metropolitan Elias Audi of the Orthodox Church has often drawn harsh criticism as well as strong support for his vocal condemnation of Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon. During Easter Mass last month, in a way reminiscent of Old Testament prophets, he accused the entire political elite of risking “the little remaining of [Lebanon] in order to secure their interests, preserve their gains, and continue in their positions at the expense of the homeland and the citizens.” In doing so, one hears the echo of Mitri’s “nationalism” option, but with the inclusion of social justice issues affecting all Lebanese.
In similar fashion last August, another prominent religious figure, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, proposed the concept of political “neutrality” as a solution to Lebanon’s current political stalemate. And on 27 February 2021, a large rally was organized as a show of support for his cause. This more progressive development of Mitri’s second option reflects a clear tension between the attempt to rescue the Christian distinctive from dissolving into the broader Muslim social identity, while avoiding a Christian nationalist discourse.
Both Al-Rai and Audi represent newer patterns of Christian political engagement, departing in ways from Mitri’s original framework. But make no mistake, though they and other religious leaders have been exerting gigantic efforts to appeal to the youth of the October 17, 2019 revolution, many of whom have been pushing for the sidelining of religion from political affairs, it would not take much for religious leaders of all persuasions to realign with the older patterns. Nevertheless, their words remain partisan, and as such reflect the subtle seduction of political power and authority.
So, is it even possible to approach religion and faith in politics in a different way? These contextual examples remind us that there is no easy, “biblical” approach to the whether and how of our political engagement. Historically speaking, however, one thing is very clear. Everything changes when religions gain political privilege and power. The seduction of political power and authority shapes and transforms our beliefs and practices. It is a dangerous seduction. The consequences of gaining privilege and power often result in the marginalization of others. Inevitably, this is how political power games work.
In her new book The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess explores how our spiritual formation practices shape us politically, as well as how our political engagement forms us spiritually. Too often, we treat spiritual formation and political involvement as two separate things. We see them as two mostly unrelated areas of involvement, one intended for the spiritual, and the other for the earthly. But the two are connected. In making this point, Schiess picks up what Barth argued over 80 years ago when he wrote: “[the church] cannot have an inner life without having at the same time a life which expresses itself outwardly as well. She cannot hear her Lord and not hear the groaning of the Creation, the sighing of Jews and Gentiles still far from Him and yet already belonging to Him” (1939).
The point Schiess and Barth make is that you cannot love your neighbor without being political. And your politics will inevitably shape the way you love (or refuse to love) your neighbor. This reciprocal relationship calls for more thoughtful political discipleship, because as Schiess argues, “our lived theology has political consequences” (p. 15).
Perhaps too often, we have engaged in political partisanship but have not considered how the good news of Jesus shapes our engagement in political activities. Political engagement is different from political partisanship and allegiance to the cause of a particular party or leader.
If we are spiritually formed by our daily “political” habits and practices, as Schiess argues, then the question for us to consider concerning our political engagement is not merely or exclusively about “macro”-politics, but also about the politics of our small repetitive habits and practices (p.14).
For example, where do you choose to live? Where do you choose to shop? Which roads do you drive, and what areas do you avoid? On whom do you depend for help? How do you interact with the beggar who taps on your window at the stoplight or pulls on your hand while you walk on the sidewalk? All these activities, if not always political acts in themselves, are still political. They are “political” because they relate to and are shaped by power and status.
For Christians, burying our heads in the proverbial sand when it comes to politics is not an option. Because everything we do has political implications. If we are to love our neighbor as Christ calls us to do, we cannot avoid politics.
A significant part of our calling, then, is to “engage politically.” For some, this will take the form of an active political vocation. For others, it will at least take the form of high awareness about the political implications of our daily habits and practices. In both cases, we will be participating in the continuing ministry of Christ, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
With Christ’s practice as our political manifesto, our engagement in politics must refuse loyalty to any partisan agenda. Rather, it must be shaped by Christ’s own relationship to power, in which he emptied himself of the divine prerogative and used his power and authority to the benefit of those without. He included those who are marginalized. He healed those who are broken. He raised the dead. He sacrificially died for the lost. And his words that raise the dead have the power to transform people, society, and the world.For followers of Jesus, the hierarchy of authority is crucial. Christ’s words and praxis are to shape us and our political engagement in the world. Christ’s words and praxis challenge every other loyalty.
Martin is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and directs the recently launched research group Action Research Associates. Caleb is a lecturer in Historical Theology at ABTS.