By Brent Hamoud
It’s voting time again in Lebanon! The upcoming May 15 parliamentary election gives those who have been blasted, devalued, robbed, and neglected a chance to steer the direction of the state. This is a democratic ritual here and other countries; a testimony to the value of republican political participation. But elections also remind us of a rigid type of exclusion embedded within a world delineating people from one another. National borders surround territories and encircle every individual on the face of the earth. Their increasing fluidity and personalization perpetuate dynamics of human division in ways that I find highly problematic to biblical faith.
The localized divisiveness of nation-states is clearly seen between my officemate and me. We’re buddies who share the same workspace, live in the same country, and endure impacts of the same confluence of crises. But we are not the same. He’s a national and I’m a foreigner. On May 15 he will express his political will at the ballot box while I casually observe what unfolds in Lebanon. (Of course, the script flips outside of Lebanon where my passport elevates my standing in front of the world to levels my officemate can only dream of.)
Lebanon, like every nation-state, is split down national lines. Election results affect all but not all are allowed to participate. This is completely normal in the political ordering of the world- although noncitizen voting is not without precedent. People dwell within the same states but massive boundaries constantly crisscross them. Borders drawn on the ground and written in laws define who we are by technically assigning insiders from outsiders, nationals from foreigners. Though nation-state boundaries are purely worldly, their impact reaches profoundly into chambers of Christian thinking and practice. This must give us pause.
The nation-state status quo emerged in the 20th century to make the world a more organized place, but is it a better place? The institution may have helped gather many into meaningful political communities of rights, provisions, and protections, but it has also created demeaning statuses of foreigner, refugee, minority, and stateless.
A global minority enjoying privilege and prosperity within good states are happy to affirm the necessity and morality of borders, but the world often fails to truly look upon the majority stuck within unkind states. How can we read about a place like Lebanon where 75% of young people want to leave their borders while the state suspends passport renewals and not question the ethics of this whole business of borders? Even more, how can we of biblical faith allow borders to critically shape our theological understanding of people and the world?
Christ followers have every reason under heaven to scrutinize nation-state borders and even subvert them when necessary. Our faith community is supremely transnational, unbounded to any politicized territorialism. The gospel of the kingdom is essentially a universal proclamation of a heavenly citizenship trumping all earthly affiliations. Historical narratives of Christianity are themselves stories of human movement, absorption, and general meshing- as is all history. A biblical vision of the world aims for realities much higher than any bordered entity.
Unfortunately, Christians too often insist on peering through nation-state lenses as borders running around the globe tempt us into troubling theological impulses. They induce blanket presumptions that God wants certain people to be in certain geographic locations. They conjure convictions that churches can embody national identities or that national identities can embody special standing within God’s plans. And they invariably make churches into places where anyone is welcome but only certain folk are fit to do the welcoming.
I am under no illusion that human divisions will disappear this side of the new creation. A fallen world will always manufacture barriers of gender, race, class, and other grounds for exclusion. However, we must discern ways in which the current international political order divides humanity in a historically phenomenal way. Fortunately, Christians should be less about determining the political nature of the times and more about living faithfully in all times. We exist now in a moment of the nation-state when bearing witness requires that we serve our states well. Scripture inspires us to do this by keeping borders in their proper places.
The Bible is a grand revelation of God’s desire to break down walls between people. This is seen most vividly in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ eliminating the barrier between God and humanity while showing us a new way to engage one another in-Christ. It continues in the Spirit-filled testimony of the early church: the Acts of the Apostles vividly reveals the Holy Spirit’s commitment to deteriorate materialistic divides by gathering people into a transcendent body of believers. Its examples are telling:
Christ’s gospel is not neutral on divisions, and it compels us to critique notions of global ordering by rendering nation-state borders for what they are: unspiritual. Life in the Spirit has a way of problematizing national boundaries even while diligently working (and voting) within them to foster human flourishing.
Part of the Good News is that the Church does this in countless ways! Examples abound of believers treating people and places within God’s economy rather than the world’s dichotomies. In doing so they demonstrate the ecclesial anatomy of Christ’s body extending beyond borderlines. The lived cosmopolitan experience of many faith communities is a preview of God’s kingdom pointing us to a time and place where all human divisions will cease when “the old order of things has passed away” (Revelations 21:4).
God willing, elections will continue to take place in Lebanon and elsewhere. These should generously enfranchise anyone with a meaningful stake in the state, but they should also stir anticipation for the passing of this old nation-state order- and all other worldly orders still to come. For now, a simple hymn can help us navigate such complexities in renewed ways:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the national borders of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace
Brent is the Program Lead for the Master of Religion and blessed to live in Lebanon while enjoying a life that spans borders.
Thank you for this article. In Australia we are also now voting for our parliament members, so it’s a timely reminder
Thank you David. Elections are interesting times for all sorts of reflections. Every few years I think about how I vote “in” my country of nationality even though I’ve lived outside of it for 15 years. Meanwhile, millions who live and contribute there are not able to participate. But it’s interesting to see how these election “borders” are thinner in some places, like New Zealand.
Nice – thanks for this article – God bless you and bless Lebanon
Thank you for this. I shared it on Facebook with the following comment: “An interesting read from a foreigner living in Lebanon. I’m glad people who have a stake in Aotearora/New Zealand are allowed to vote here, even if they’re not (yet) citizens. But we have a very hard and well-enforced border around our country (an easy thing, in a country without land borders) and I’ve often longed for that to be different. My peaceful life in a lightly populated country is made possible by guards with guns far away who control who gets on planes coming here.”
Thanks Heather for sharing the blogpost and your own reflection. You have an interesting perspective from within those borders. It demonstrates how states can be very intentional in how borders function to keep people out and to gather those inside into a civic community despite varied nationality statuses. New Zealand has interesting indigenous and settler legacies in the border mix as well (though that may not be significant in the matter of elections) showing that every nation-state is truly a fascinating case study when it comes to thinking through the shape and weight of national borders.
Thank you Brent. I don’t know if we are unique in this, but we are certainly unusual internationally in the way indigenous and settler legacies are handled in elections. For parliamentary elections, there are two electoral rolls. If you are Māori (which is simply defined as having at least one Māori ancestor in your family tree), you can choose to vote on the Māori roll or the general roll. Others all vote on the general roll. Electorate seats are determined by population size, and the number of Māori seats is determined by the number of people who choose to be on that roll – I think it’s currently 6 of the 60 electorate seats (there are also 60 ‘list’ seats which are determined by nationwide popularity of the various political parties). For local body elections (the councils that determine things like roading policy, waste disposal and a lot of environmental issues, as well as funding various cultural events and community celebrations) they are generally mixed, but an increasing number of councils are also now having Māori seats. It’s a pretty hotly contested issue at the moment.
I’m 45. When my parents were young, New Zealand saw itself as a bicultural paradise. In my childhood that began to change. Nowadays I increasingly refer to my country as Aotearoa and, along with many Pākeha, I’m trying to work out what it means to be a settler – something I never used to consider myself. Here we are also often known as Tangata Tiriti – the people of the Treaty, referring to the Treaty of Waitangi that gives us leave to be here (itself a highly contested document).
This is fascinating Heather! I will certainly read more into this intriguing electoral system of New Zealand. In an interesting way it mirrors a type of sectarian system, and I can see how such an approach is both necessary and hotly contested. I will educate myself more on this. Thanks for sharing!