On Romanticizing Staying or Leaving Difficult Places: A Reflection about Christians and the Middle East Today

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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.

 

13 Comments

  1. Sami says:

    Nicely written article with a relatively balanced view. My contribution is similar to the author in that Christians are guided by a spiritual compass, which is the word of God and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. When we faithfully bring our current situation, options, and decisions, whether to stay or leave a place of discomfort before the Lord, and when we faithfully examine our motives behind each decision, and the resultant decisions thereafter, we come to a peaceful realization of what to do. We did that as a family and from a personal experience, the decision either way was harder than the other. We trust is God’s sovereignty and believe that in His grace all things will work together for good, for those who love God, who are CALLED according to His purpose. Each one of us will understand what His purposes are for themselves.

  2. Adam Simpson says:

    Thank you Caleb for such a well thought-out reflection on an incredibly challenging topic. The proper approach appears to be obvious/clear far too often, when the reality is much more complex, with very real – and often agonizing – tradeoffs. As someone living and working in a city that has struggled mightily to maintain a faithful presence of Christian ministry, I wrestle with how to approach this with enough compassion. How to properly lament the ease at which many are pulled to a more comfortable existence while internalizing the compassion with which I know Christ would like me to have toward others is a personal struggle I doubt will come to an end.

    • caleb says:

      Thanks for your comment, Adam! I affirm your wrestling with that tension. I don’t have the perfect answer for “how much” is the right amount…but I have some suspicions about my own ability to answer that because of how my ecclesial background has treated empathy as feminine and weak. Which, as you might guess, I think is problematic…

  3. Martin Accad says:

    Thank you so much for this profound and honest reflection Caleb. As someone who wrote on a “theology of staying” on this same blog 7 years ago (https://abtslebanon.org/2014/03/20/when-the-state-starts-crumbling-a-theology-of-staying/), I acknowledge that I am not part of those struggling to make ends meet for me and my family in Lebanon these days. As such, it is somewhat hypocritical for someone like me to be judgmental of someone who decides to leave if they can.
    We also all tend to have some selfishness in our motivation, whether we leave or stay. I stay – for now – because I do not live in too great discomfort. I also stay because I feel I still have something to contribute. It’s about me. And unlike so many, I actually have the luxury of choosing between staying or leaving. That’s a massive advantage. The day I feel I have nothing more to give to this often ungrateful country, will I still choose to stay?

    • caleb says:

      Thanks for your post on a theology of staying, Martin. Back in my 1st year of university, I remember my head spinning when my 1st year Philosophy 101 professor exposed the myth of altruism in people’s espoused motivations. Trying to understand and weigh our motivations is messy…and vulnerable. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Thank you Caleb for bringing a compassion rhetoric into this rather turbulent current debate about leaving and staying.

    I think that as we continue to discuss this topic in our homes, churches, and seminaries, we should do so with grace.

    Personally, I think the church should be a key component in one’s decision to leave or stay. Yes, there are churches all over the world. And yes, God in his wisdom will spread his kingdom through (and despite) his followers wherever they might be. But if we truly believe that our local churches are our spiritual families, then choosing to leave should be done in prayer and deliberation with them.

    I strongly agree that many of us who stay have immense privileges that perhaps 90% of those residing in Lebanon do not have. Moreover, most of us Jesus-followers still around here are not technically taking the gospel to the “dangerous” parts of Lebanon where doing so will bring suffering on us.

    May God give us strength and wisdom in the coming days. May we be ready to have “radical” faith (really the only type of faith in the New Testament) as Lebanon continues its economic and social spiral into the abyss.

    • caleb says:

      It’s fair point that you raise, Nabil, about the role of the church body in the process of discernment. Ideally the local church should play this role in discerning together. The diifficulty comes in practice, I think, when some in the church have perhaps see suffering as main criteria, or comfort for that matter, and ecclesial discernment becomes a space of judgment or shaming. Not to say we shouldn’t aspire to it, but I wonder about how to do it well. Trying to pull this out of the negativity ditch, so I’d like to say a hearty “amen” to having a “radical” faith in the thick of it.

      • Agreed. Group discernment could easily become shaming.

        Still, how does a church “send away” its leaders and flock with grace? These are tough times for local spiritual families.

        My local church has been made up of Syrian and Iraqi refugees for a long time now. We have been welcoming families only to bid them farewell after a year or so for a long time. It almost feels like our church is a train station. But if this is our ministry then be it. To be a spiritual and physical resting place for weary travelers

        • caleb says:

          An important question for us to be wrestling with, I think…even though it’s difficult. Maybe there is grace in “commissioning” all who leave, even if those remaining wonder about their reasons. I wonder about how extending grace even in those moments may shape and enlarge all of us into more compassionate witnesses to the good news of an alternate Kingdom.

  5. Brent Hamoud says:

    Thank you Caleb for this blog lending perspective to an extremely complex matter spanning personal, communal, and heavenly dimensions of these complicated realities known as life in this world. People and place present an ongoing dilemma, and no two dilemmas are the same.
    I’ve not hesitated to romanticize the decision people make to stay in difficult places, so this is a discourse that compels me.

    https://abtslebanon.org/2021/05/20/when-you-want-to-leave-but-love-to-stay-reflections-on-faith-people-and-place-in-a-world-of-migration/ Beyond the tensions and angst of individuals, it’s important to be constantly mindful of the sheer weight (even threat) of emigration on local churches and faith communities in the region. This is nothing new, but it certainly feels like the stakes are higher than ever as we take stock of the accelerating trends of movement away. Personally speaking, I’m not sure how many more goodbyes I have left in me. Each one is harder than the last

    That said, I greatly value your opinion here. You do well in challenging us to question the nature of our staying (are we seeking more to neutralize difficulties than we are to embrace them in faith?) and evaluate our attitude towards others who decide to go to easier places (do we fall into the trap of the Pharisees and consider that location in a particular place can be counted as righteousness and departing deemed as unrighteousness?).

    Few discussions are as complex as that that of people in places at certain times. It causes me to feel quite torn as well, sometimes tenderly and sometimes terribly. I appreciate it Caleb that you have given us further thoughts to further wrestle with.

    • caleb says:

      Thanks for your own wrestling with this topic, Brent. Your questions and imagining this world in a different way (where the streets have no name) has changed how I think about particular places.

      No doubt the problems of emigration for the community who remain, as you say, weighs on me. It has been an ongoing conversation in the past months, and even today on the fringes of Sunday school and church services. It is difficult to see people you have poured your life into leave. And it is difficult when you get to the point that leaving the place and people you love makes more sense than staying. The answers aren’t easy, partially because each individual and family is so unique (when we get past the easy generalizations). Lord have mercy.

  6. […] 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.” Those words have become the hard reality of … (open post here) […]

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