By Caleb Hutcherson
The views and conclusions in this post represent the author’s opinion and do not represent the views of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary.
I wonder if this is the year that we can finally stop glorifying staying in Lebanon and idealizing leaving it. In my family’s 13 years living in Lebanon, the question of emigration has never been far from people’s minds. As Lebanese journalist Zahra Hankir put it recently, “loving Lebanon is one thing; living there is another.” Yet, those words have become the hard reality of anyone living in Lebanon these days.
The multiple crises contributing to the collapse of even the most basic services in Lebanon make it difficult for many to live, work, and provide for themselves and families. In turn, people like my natour (building watchman) and the teens working at the veggie stand and dear family friends all express a heightened urgency to move and settle somewhere, anywhere, else. People are desperate. The feeling of no longer being “at home” in Lebanon is driving what may amount to Lebanon’s 6th wave of emigration since the late 1800’s.
For Christians in the Arab world emigration raises difficult questions about how to see the situation theologically, and how to respond. This theological reflection about staying or leaving commonly surfaces two significant anxieties that I want to look at briefly: existence and faithfulness.
For as long as Christians have been leaving the MENA region, many have worried that emigration of Christians would end the ”existence” of the Church here. No doubt, the disappearance of visible churches and Christian communities in parts of the MENA region attest to this possibility historically. Yet in other areas of the MENA region the Church has persisted, despite (and perhaps because of) waves of emigration. Additionally, we also know that new “movements” of followers of Jesus have emerged in places where it seemed that the Church had all but disappeared. As such, the existential question of Christian presence in this region is, perhaps, more complex than the tradition of worrying about it ending will admit.
But there is an accompanying anxiety about faithfulness. Some Christians have emphasized the idea of mission in response to the question of whether to leave or stay. This approach seeks deeper purposes for staying. It emphasizes that Jesus’ taught that suffering is a natural result of following him in His mission in this world. Therefore, the logic goes, you should not leave Lebanon (or Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, etc) simply because it is difficult to live there. Instead, staying in order to minister God’s love to other people is the most faithful response. Staying is equated with faithfulness. But if staying is the faithful response, what does that imply about leaving?
The danger with both these anxieties is how they can drive a process of motivated reasoning in our theological reflection that idealizes staying, praising those who stay and shaming those who leave. In doing so, we risk making an idol out of suffering, just as others have done with comfort. Our idolizing of (perceived) suffering can even lead to a sense of self-righteousness, and this is the part that I have been thinking about recently.
My concern is that in the prioritization of mission or existence as the rationale for decision-making about staying or leaving, we too quickly forget empathy and compassion. Of course, we have compassion for the “other” for the purpose of witness and evangelism. We are quick with concern for the poor and needy to share God’s love with them. But compassion and empathy seem to evaporate when a brother or sister decide to leave Lebanon for any reason other than “ministry”, and sometimes even when they do leave for ministry reasons.
Sometimes I wonder though if we were to look closer at the lives of those who can leave but choose to stay, how many of us are truly suffering? How many live in the hard places with no electricity and no generator backup? No way of storing food? No fuel to cook or go to work or take the kids to school?
I ask this as a friend who migrated from the US to Lebanon. I, too, share concerns about church leaders leaving this region to settle in comfort elsewhere, rather than continuing to minister in difficult places. Personally, my family and I choose to stay, for now. Staying rather than leaving, practically speaking, is possible if you can do your work (or ministry), provide for those for whom you are responsible, and limit the impact of trauma (in its many forms) on your family. We are enabled to do those things through networks and connections that provide what we need. I think we need to be honest that oftentimes, though not always, those who choose to stay are able to do so by finding ways of living an acceptably comfortable life. How different is that from those who seek comfort and opportunity for meaning outside of the region?
For my wife and I, we realized that a red line for us is if either of us has to stop our ministerial work in order to provide education for our kids, then we would need to leave. That may not seem very spiritual to others, like a “real” reason to leave. But the point I want to chew on is how reasons for leaving are deeply personal and often more complex than they appear to observers.
This discussion challenges us to see emigration as a symptom of deeper societal brokenness and imbalance. In response to society breaking down, we all obey what Aquinas described as natural law, the fundamental desire of human nature to live in shalom/salaam. We all are making calculations around basic questions like “Can we survive here? Can I work here and feed my family? Can I live a dignified life here?”. We do so alongside our religious obligations or missional mandates. And when it is not clear to people how to live in salaam in a place, they leave. But leaving, like staying, comes at a price. One trades the difficulties and trauma of staying for a loss of one’s sense of place, belonging, relationships, memories. Either way, people are grieving.
Importantly, migration is woven into the story of God’s people in Scripture. In that story, both emigration and immigration are theological events through which God reveals Himself to His people in the process of their migration. Even God’s revelation of Himself in Christ can rightly be understood as God migrating to the realm of humanity’s sin and brokenness so that broken humanity might be fully restored to shalom/salaam when the borders of God’s realm and humanity’s are finally brought to an end. Practically speaking, God can and does use all forms and reasons for migration towards His redemptive purposes. This we believe.
This is why I advocate for a break from romanticizing the personal decisions of MENA Christians to leave or to stay. Instead, I hope those who follow Jesus might grow in Christ-like compassion and empathy for all amid this new (old) wave of emigration from Lebanon. Compassion for those who choose to leave, for the myriad of reasons that push and pull them away. And compassion for those who choose to stay, for the many reasons that they choose to do so. But even more compassion for those with no choice at all. Both leaving and staying are tough and come at a personal cost. The response I see Jesus calling us to is one of compassion.
Caleb Hutcherson is a lecturer in historical and theological studies at ABTS.