By Elias Ghazal
The situation in Lebanon is heartbreaking. Much has already been written about the catastrophe facing people in Lebanon. The most devastating fact about the crisis is that it is self-inflicted. Lebanon is on a course of self-destruction, and if it continues down this path unabated, the country will descend into violence and chaos. This is not pessimism, and certainly not exercising a prophetic gift. This is simply political analysis.
The Lebanese scenario is devastating, but if we look around, it is not dissimilar from what is happening in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria and other neighboring countries. Corrupt leaders usurp state resources and use their political positions to entrench themselves in power. People are left at the mercy of a greedy and pitiless establishment. It appears that unless people confront their rulers and challenge the status quo, they will continue to suffer until change is enforced from outside, and often at a high cost.
As disciples of Jesus, what are we to do? Pray? Keep quiet? Protest? Revolt? Prepare for war? Raise awareness? Emigrate? Do relief work? Engage in politics? Boycott politics? Strengthen the social fabric of society? Lobby external patrons to intervene? Wait for a regional settlement? Write a distressing blog post? The options are endless, and situations vary from one person to another. So, where do we go from here?
Faithful Christians look to the Bible to discern what God is calling them to do. This involves drawing applications from passages that speak to our situations. For instance, we see in Scripture that God is just, and that justice is the foundation of his rule. We then take it upon ourselves to model the Kingdom of God on earth and to establish a fair society. At the same time, we see elsewhere that God is sovereign and that he directs nations as he pleases. We therefore conclude that we must trust God in times of trouble and cry out for his mercy. There is no contradiction here. We understand that we have a responsibility to act, and that God uses our limited abilities to fulfill his purposes.
The point to highlight is that in following this approach, we essentially develop our response to present circumstances in light of God’s characteristics as revealed in the Bible. God is compassionate, therefore we must perform acts of mercy. God is holy, therefore we must refrain from engaging in corrupt politics. God is a loving father, therefore we must prioritize the safety of our children. God is love, therefore we must demonstrate our love to strangers. While this methodology appears biblical, it is lacking and potentially misleading.
The problem here is twofold. First, we become selective about which of God’s characteristics to highlight. Our personal experiences and biases naturally push us to focus on character traits that resonate with our own personalities and preferences. We then draw out idiosyncratic applications that ignore other people’s circumstances and tendencies. If left unchecked, this leads to ideological posturing and bitter disputes between Christians. Secondly, and more dangerously, this approach overlooks unsettling aspects about God, such as him being a judge and the one who avenges. We are tempted to downplay elements that are unpopular in our society. Ultimately, by following this approach we end up creating God in our own image.
Instead of advancing a response to modern crises that is predicated on handpicked characteristics of God, it is necessary to engage with the entire revelation of God as revealed throughout the whole of scripture. Our attitude and reaction to any conflict must be couched in biblical theology. In other words, whatever we do must be guided by the grand narrative that runs through the Bible story.
What we see from Genesis to Revelation is God working towards restoring a broken world. The world was created good, but humans challenged the authority of God and through their rebellion they distorted the order God established. Sin, therefore, is the perennial problem. Sin is the root cause of all our troubles. Fallen human nature is at the heart of every problem we encounter. We continue to experience pain and suffering because the problem stems from within us. Our desires have been tainted by sin, and in our pursuit of them we hurt ourselves and each other.
According to God’s word, the problem was always sin, and it always will be. We are unable to create a fair and just society because our hearts and minds are defiled; It is not because we have not figured out the best governance structure yet, or we have not determined the right combination of punishments and incentives. Equality and peace are elusive not because we are not trying hard enough to establish them. It is because we are self-centered creatures that love to amass power and wealth, and we love to gloat in them. We are incapable of creating the utopian world we aspire to because sin breeds in us selfishness, envy, malice, pride and all the vices that we wish did not exist. But the good news, and the culmination of God’s revelation, is that Jesus saves the world from sin. That’s the Gospel. That’s the fundamental solution to our misery.
It follows then that proclaiming the Gospel is quintessentially the best service we can offer to our divided and helpless societies. If God’s chief purpose, and thus our mission, is to glorify Christ by reconciling the world to himself through the blood of Jesus, then everything we do must conform to that. Our words and deeds must point to Christ and his work on the cross. Declaring the Gospel of Christ must underpin our entire life. It should inform our thinking and guide our decision-making. Advancing the Gospel ought to frame our thoughts and deeds. It should stand as the key criterion by which we assess opportunities and evaluate initiatives.
Practically, what does that mean? Primarily, it means that we must reorient our entire being around making the lordship of Christ known in our lives and in the lives of others. That is, we must grow in the knowledge of Christ while seeking opportunities to witness to others about the redeeming work of Jesus. Calling people to repentance ought to be our driving motivation. Beyond that, there is considerable freedom how we handle our personal affairs and civic responsibilities, granted our actions are within the purview of God.
Generally, we must strive to model the lordship of Christ in our lives and in our societies. At a personal level, however, responding to political crises can be a complex matter. Our situations are unique, and our contexts are different. The decisions to emigrate or stay, vote or abstain, protest or stay home, run for political office or boycott politics, support conservative or liberal policies, etc. are relevant but the answer will vary from one person to another. God’s mission can inform our thinking in this regard. A helpful question to ask when faced with multiple options could be: which option aids our witness to Christ’s gospel?
This approach is both liberating and empowering. It frees us from being driven by people’s expectations and demands of us. It also places God as the authority over lives, and puts the emphasis on our motives, rather than our political performance. In addition, promoting the Gospel as the target opens space for us to engage in various activities and offers us freedom to be creative and inter-disciplinary in our responses to political crises. Finally, it affixes our hope, not in corruptible human societies, but in Christ’s return and his future restoration of the perfect order.
Elias is a PhD student at Lancaster University where he researches the intersection of religion and politics in the Middle East.