The Reopening of the Jordan-Syria Border and the Risk of Complacency with Empire
By Martin Accad
The reopening of the Jaber-Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria was announced on Monday the 15th of October, according to Reuters and other news agencies. If the announcement is enacted, it will allow again the flow of people and goods after three years of closure, bringing with it billions of dollars of trade for many countries in the region. Syrian government forces had retaken the area from rebel forces earlier this past July, backed by Russian troops.
The reopening of the border between Jordan and Syria is economically significant for several countries. Jordan had reopened its border with Iraq in August 2017, offering a fresh breath to its economy, and I had reflected on the renewed talks of reopening the border with Syria in last April’s Regional Brief. The reopening of the Jordan-Syria border will give Jordan’s economy a further boost, allowing as well the resumption of trade with European markets through access to the Mediterranean. Syria and Lebanon will also reap great benefits from this decision. The profits of open borders between Syria and Lebanon had remained limited for both countries, given that Lebanon’s only land route to the outside world is through Syria. This step will allow Lebanese traders to resume business with Golf markets, which represent nearly 50% of its exports.
But the reopening of this border does not only carry economic benefits. If the route between Jordan and Syria is maintained, this will also represent a significant diplomatic victory for the Assad government that has suffered isolation from its Arab neighbors since 2011. The resumption of tourism through Syria from Lebanon and Jordan will bring with it a new level of normalization for Syria’s relations with its neighbors. It will likely bring with it as well the return of large numbers of Syrian refugees to their towns from both Lebanon and Jordan. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Jordan has announced it will begin registering Syrian refugees wishing to return to their country voluntarily.
The normalization of Arab and international relations with the Syrian government brings with it a number of theological issues for the church globally and in the region. The Syrian revolution has been bloody and the Syrian population has suffered greatly. As I pointed out in my piece of the Regional Brief last April, the ethical implications of a political solution to the Syrian crisis driven by economics rather than by human rights and justice issues are serious, if also complex. The extent of the ethical dilemma will depend on how equitably the various suffering parties in the Syrian conflict receive reparation and equitable treatment in the process of resolution and refugee repatriation.
The Syrian church might have a significant role to play in these developments. Syrian Christians have mostly maintained their historic loyalty to the Assad government throughout the conflict, and with current developments they are no doubt relieved to have done so. But the burden remaining on their shoulders is to find the right balance between submission to government authorities and maintaining their prophetic voice in society.
The New Testament contains instruction for both postures. In his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul entreats Christians to submit to governing authorities, reminding them that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (13:1). He warns believers not to rebel against “what God has instituted,” lest they “bring judgment on themselves” (v. 2). But Paul’s command to “do what is right” (v. 3), even as it warns against open “rebellion,” does not give outright permission to get coopted by the dominant powers. It is a warning for us not to “do wrong” (v. 4) even in the midst of extreme situations where various forces vie for our loyalties.
The other New Testament voice on loyalty to governments comes to us from the book of Revelation. There, governments, though propped up and brought low by God’s authority and permission, are more often described as a test of our loyalty to God’s Kingdom and to his justice. The people of God are called to resist those powers that would seek to coopt us into their strategies of violence, injustice, and idolatry. Michael J. Gorman, in his Reading Revelation Responsibly (Cascade Books: 2017), advances that “The target of Revelation’s prophetic critique is imperial idolatry (civil religion) and injustice (military, economic, political, and religious oppression), and specifically Rome’s imperial idolatry and injustice.” He suggests that Revelation “is better read as a response to ‘ordinary empire,’ to the everyday evils, injustices, and misguided allegiances that are daily with us.” Aligning with Howard-Brook and Gwyther’s Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Orbis: 2013), he concludes that “John did not write Revelation ‘to manufacture a crisis’ for people complacent about empire… Rather, ‘complacency about Rome was the crisis’” (Kindle Locations 933-940).
The Syrian church faces a massive challenge – that of balancing civil peace with social justice. The Bible certainly does not call her to civil rebellion. But will she be able to maintain a prophetic voice that speaks out for true reconciliation and restitution for all segments of society, regardless of economic, social, or political consequences? None of us can stand in judgement against her, nor are we in a position to decide what constitutes abdication to dominant powers or faithful loyalty to God. But the global church certainly holds a heavy responsibility to pray for our Syrian brothers and sisters in the trials that loom large for them, now and in months to come.