By Walid Zailaa
“I’m ashamed of my country Lebanon.” This was my first thought in 2022. Born and raised in Lebanon, I always felt proud of being Lebanese, the land of the cedars. I am, nevertheless, feeling these days ashamed of my country. I’m not even willing to describe what I used to be proud of; it is not anymore worth mentioning. It is as if I was living a beautiful dream for so long and suddenly I was awakened to the ugly reality of a total collapse in everything I believed in.
What I now see is not the Lebanon of freedom and diversity. It is not the Lebanon of justice, equality, and human rights. This is not the Lebanon of languages, cultures, art, and higher education. Gone are the visions of an oasis for the Arab world. This is not the Lebanon I aspired to in my dreams. I know nothing about this Lebanon to which I don’t feel that I belong.
For two years now, the national crises are growing darker, and any hope of better days seems far-fetched. Like a Roman emperor watching over a bloody competition, the rulers of my country entertain themselves on their royal thrones in the arena, watching as their people kill each other over scraps of bread. The inescapable whirlpool of the systematic mass destruction made me, and many like me, wonder about the reasons to stay in this dark place. I have asked myself: what shall I do?
Leave or Remain?
Should I leave Lebanon? Absolutely not. I am a firm believer that the church is the core remnant through which God wants to create a new reality. The prophet Isaiah declares the pouring of God’s Spirit upon His people from on high so that the wilderness becomes a fruitful field where justice dwells, and the righteousness reigns resulting peace, quietness, and trust forever (Is. 32:15-17). This is a beautiful image about God’s people sharing His character through the work of His Spirit in their hearts and minds.
God does not fill where He does not rule. It is only when we acknowledge God’s right to rule our lives that we can experience the divine empowerment for change. I’ve always heard a common prayer recited by Evangelicals in this part of the world: “Lord, we want to work with you.” In other words, we don’t want to do our own thing away from you; rather, we want to work with you in the same space where you are actively engaging. This is a beautiful prayer, but, ironically, God is busy making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the deserts. If this is where God is working, then are we ready to stay in the wilderness of injustice and the deserts of the forsaken Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, and other places in the Middle East and North Africa?
Today, most pastors and church leaders, if not all, agree that beyond any doubt, God is actively working through the church in Lebanon. Despite this acknowledgment, sadly, the matter of staying or emigrating has become a debatable issue. Some would argue that it is totally up to each of us; to stay or leave is an individual call that cannot be supported biblically so it will not make any difference. Others would encourage anyone to move as far as possible from the wilderness of our own places to a fruitful land where we and our family can prosper. I have learned that my life as a follower of Jesus is not a journey in search of comfort and prosperity because my dreams and my future are not the ultimate goal I live for. I was bought with a price; therefore, I don’t live to myself anymore. Years ago, I spent a few years living and working outside Lebanon, but I could never escape God’s calling to come back and serve in my home country. In 2007, after years of struggle, I took one of the most difficult decisions to come back and embark on a new journey at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary as a theology student.
Shall I leave Lebanon again? Absolutely not. If God is in this wilderness making a way, easing the suffering of those in pain, feeding those in need, and changing the face of history, then I simply want to be there with Him through the work of His church in the midst of any crisis.
Shall I Wait for a Miracle?
Does remaining mean simply waiting for a miracle? Absolutely not. Resting on our laurels in the haven of our cocoons is against our nature and a form of slow death. In one of the most stunning images of nature, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar inside the chrysalis is not made to distance the larva from its environment but rather prepare it well to actively cope with its surroundings once it becomes an adult butterfly. If the church does not equip me to engage with my surrounding, it will become the graveyard of my spiritual life.
We are not living in a binary space where the church competes with the world, trying to rescue and preserve as many as possible. The church exists in God’s world as His agent to restore the distortion we have caused until the final restoration when the Lord Jesus comes again. Loving those who love us back, giving to those who can give us back, and lending to those from whom we expect to receive contradict the core of the incarnation because Christ rescued us while we were still sinners and strangers, without any possibility for paying off our debt.
The church cannot achieve its missional mandate to be light and salt if alienated from its context no matter how hard and difficult that may be. Withdrawing from the community for whatever reasons may alter the core identity of the church by making it a social club, which is like a death sentence to all that it represents. How strange it sounds that God is at work, and the church, His body, is hiding in its close circles or behind the walls of its buildings or running away.
In these challenging days, what shall I do? Shall I just wait and withdraw, tearing down my barns and building larger ones to store more grain and goods like in the parable of the rich fool, hoping to get out of the crises with the least damage possible, or shall I break my bread with my neighbor? Even if I become ashamed of this country and its rulers, I will not live in denial by closing my ears to the cry of the people. Instead of waiting for a miracle, be the miracle you want to see.
Nothing is random in this life on earth. Our God is a strategic God who works primarily through His church in its local context. Part of God’s strategy is to prepare the church for such times. If this is true, it is no more an individual call to stay or leave or to withdraw and hide no matter how hard the situation may be. If this is true, it becomes a mandate to do God’s work in the place He chooses. One could argue that serving God can happen anywhere in the world. While this seems a nice way to reconceptualize God’s plan, it is a lame argument. God’s calling demands total compliance and not a critical mind to enhance it. A military soldier does not choose where to serve, they simply are dispatched to where is needed. If we truly wish to serve with God, time and space are for Him to determine. Although deeply ashamed of my country, I am not ashamed of the gospel and its power to transform our community through the active work of the church. I pray and hope that we remain the church that God has invested in for so long for such a time.
Walid is the Academic Dean of ABTS and the pastor of Faith Baptist Church that meets in Mansourieh, Lebanon.