By Wissam Nasrallah
This year’s election season in Lebanon wrapped up when citizens went to the polls on May 15, and oh what a mentally and emotionally exhausting spell it was. Besides the visual onslaught of candidates’ faces looking down on us from rows of giant billboards with their cheesy slogans, I was weighed down by the sense that we might not see the changes badly needed in the country. The political status quo has been disastrous, yet I could not understand what other catastrophe needed to happen to catalyze lasting change. Banking and financial collapse? Historic levels of hyperinflation? Widespread poverty? Mass migration exodus? The largest non-nuclear explosion in history in the heart of Beirut? What more was needed to stir us to change?
As I combed through the election results, I gathered that things had been shaken. It seems now that the Stockholm Syndrome plaguing us as a people for so many years is starting to fade away. It may have taken all the above to get to that. Better late than never. (You can read more on the elections here).
With that in mind throughout the Lebanese elections, I asked myself how we, as followers of Christ, should responsibly and faithfully engage with politics and public affairs. How are we to move forward after the votes are counted and the democratic dust settles? Is there a Christian way to engage the political processes?
Before addressing these questions, we need to define what politics is away from blind partisanship and power struggles. Political theologian Luke Bretherton defines politics as “negotiating a common life amidst disagreement and the need to navigate and transform asymmetries of power.” In other words, politics is fundamentally about how a group of people comes together to make, apply and change – when needed – the rules that organize and govern life within a community. Therefore, in its essence, politics can be a powerful tool towards human flourishing.
Throughout history, Christians have adopted different approaches in engaging with public life. In Lebanon I see three categories of Christian public engagement, which I refer to as the radiologists, the nurses and the surgeons.
The first group comprises Evangelicals who have adopted the exile mentality evoking how “we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). This often translates into minimal engagement with politics, something perceived as corrupt and dirty. As a result, they restrict their view of government and engagement in public life to Paul’s radical statements in Romans 13: submit to the authorities and do good for fear of punishment and for your own conscious. In other terms, their focus is on seeking to keep their “conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:11). Furthermore, some argue that because political engagement does not lead someone to faith in Christ, it should not be a top priority. Since they tend to give good diagnosis of problems surrounding us but do little in the way of treatment, I like to think of this group as radiologists.
The second group, which I refer to as nurses, have tried to go beyond atomistic individualism to apply the Christian mandate of seizing the opportunity to “do good to everyone” (Gal 6:10) by healing the wounds of society through acts of justice and compassion. This is what many call “seeking the common good”. After all, the prophet Jeremiah instructed the exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (Jeremiah 29:7).
The third group takes their engagement a step further by encouraging Christian activism to change unjust social structures. Like surgeons, they seek to tackle the root causes rather than simply binding up the wounds. This includes actions like lobbying, campaigning, demonstrating, arguing, and even running for office. Their rationale goes like this: since the early church did not have the opportunity to elect representatives or to demand accountability from those in power (similar to many Arabs today), we should seek all the legal means available to us to bring about change. Even Paul worked within the political and legal system of his day by skillfully navigating through different local political realities. For example, when charged with sedition, he exercised his right of appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen (Acts 25:10). Furthermore, there are numerous examples in Scripture of civil disobedience when the law of men contradicts the law of God (Ex 1, Dan 3, Acts 5).
As followers of Christ our challenge is to discern which approach to adopt and how to apply it: “for everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), there is a time to withdraw and a time to engage. A time to speak up and a time to work silently.
However, regardless of the season or the political system in place, as Christians, we have a duty to be salt and light. Although we should not conform to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2), our light should nevertheless penetrate the darkness.
Many would argue that engaging with politics is easier for Christians living in liberal democracies than for Christians in the Arab world. While in many respects this is true, I am observing how matters like social media, cancel culture and the tyranny of the politically correct is eroding the agora in democratic and semi-democratic countries like Lebanon.
We have tendency to lock ourselves inside echo chambers of likeminded people who reinforce our beliefs (or convictions or ideologies) instead of challenging them. This is why we seem to yell at others from our keypads instead of engaging in healthy deliberation. This is a serious problem because in healthy politics, deliberation is not recreational but rather crucial to reaching consensus and consent which eventually leads to governance. Perhaps if we lay down our hammers then we will stop seeing nails everywhere.
As Christians, engaging in politics should not be out of vindictiveness or based on the mere expediency of our own private benefits, but rather action flowing of a desire to “serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). We should “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute (Proverbs 31:8).
As history shows, believers with a deep commitment to justice and compassion-figures like William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu-have offered much to public life and the common good. Therefore, our engagement should be for the right reasons: love of God and love of neighbor.
In the end, we rest in the fact that God is sovereign over events and is in control, whether in a corrupt and rotten sectarian system or in a liberal democracy; whether we like those who the people have elected or not.
When concluding a sermon on Romans 13, John Piper stated:
“We are people of the cross. Our Lord submitted to crucifixion willingly to save his enemies. We owe our eternal life to him. We are forgiven sinners. This takes the swagger out of our protest. It takes the arrogance out of our resistance. And if, after every other means has failed, we must disobey for the sake of love and justice, we will first remove the log from our own eye, which will cause enough pain and tears to soften our indignation into a humble, quiet, but unshakeable, NO. The greatest battle we face is not overcoming unjust laws, but becoming this kind of people”.
No matter how political power plays out after elections in Lebanon, and no matter what the next term delivers to the people in this country, let followers of Christ go out in a political world as salt and light. It may unsettle people around us (especially those with power), but it will also settle us into the core principles of a vibrant, biblically-rooted faith tradition.
Wissam is Chief Operations Officer of LSESD. He is eager to see faithful Christians transforming their societies for the love of God and the love of neighbor.
Thanks for sharing, Wissam. It’s helpful to think in terms of these three categories of engagement. While the political situation in Lebanon is very difficult, and indeed forces us to think of an appropriate Christian response to the crisis, I think Christians need to maintain a broader view of their mission. In other words, if, let’s imagine, the political and economic situation improves dramatically over the next few months, will that affect the nature of our engagement in politics? No doubt that we need to be responsive to our context, but acting on a reactionary basis can send the church on a mission drift.