“If You Pour Yourself Out for the Hungry”: A Call to the Church amidst the Ongoing Suffering of Syrian Refugees

By Ashley Wollam*

Syrians

“But where will I get food for my children? What can we do?”

It was one of the few moments I was glad that my Arabic is still far from fluent. One of my Lebanese brothers or sisters on the ministry team would have to find the words to answer this refugee mother, and many more like her. But what could they possibly say? How could they explain that, long before the need had subsided, help had run out?

And yet it did run out at the beginning of this month, and this woman’s question was just one of a flood of desperate contacts our center received that week. The United Nations World Food Programme had announced that there was not money available to continue the supply of food vouchers for the almost 1.7 million Syrian refugees dispersed throughout surrounding nations. At the same time as the UN was describing the discontinuation of food support for Syrian refugees, our ministry was finding out that another major international donor, the one responsible for funding the food vouchers we distribute, would have to discontinue their support for at least a few months because the money has dried up. Our center was one of 18 similar ministries serving refugees in Lebanon that received that unexpected news.

The UN has since stated, on December 10th, that “after an unprecedented social media campaign” donations were received that allowed the World Food Programme to reinstate the food voucher system for Syrian refugees in December. But there remains a big question mark about the availability of that support in January. The withdrawal and then renewal of the food supply to such a large number of people within the last few weeks reveals the fragile nature of the situation Syrian refugees find themselves in.

That reality is juxtaposed with another one in my mind, as I prepare to fly home to the United States and reflect on my experiences here. During the few months I’ve lived in Lebanon, I’ve encountered a culture of hospitality that shattered my previous understanding of the word. My Lebanese brothers and sisters in Christ have spoiled me with their kindness and generosity. My Syrian refugee friends have displayed eager hospitality that humbled and blessed me when I visited them. But like a guest that has overstayed her welcome, the worldwide community seems to be wearying of hospitality toward the refugee population that has resulted from the ongoing conflict in Syria. This guest lingers, however, because she has nowhere else to go, and the awareness that her presence no longer elicits hospitality only increases her shame.

It’s for that reason that the genuine love shown by ministries like the one I was privileged to serve with this fall is so valuable. As they have responded to the needs of several thousand families this year, kindness and friendship have been consistently demonstrated along with the tangible help offered. Each week, the center has been full as representatives of families come to begin the process for obtaining a food voucher, and approximately 300 families have been served each month. The team of Lebanese believers that serve them in this place truly love them. They love them so much that they seek to holistically meet their needs, immediate and eternal.

Each guest hears sincere grief expressed for her suffering and is invited to join in heartfelt prayers for the peace of her homeland. Each guest at our center hears the clear truth of the Gospel of God’s love for him in Christ. And, up until now, each guest has been given a place in a virtual line to receive a special piece of cardstock that would mean the absence of hunger for her family for about two weeks. I loved watching these vouchers be carefully and graciously given out to the long lines of refugees, each so desperate to be shown mercy. I can’t comprehend the fact that our team has to begin to tell them that there’s no more financial help to be given. What is the heart and will of God in bleak circumstances like these? How will His people follow Him and act?

I’ve been advised to maintain some emotional distance and an ongoing prayerful response as the thought of disappearing humanitarian aid for my refugee friends wrecks me, and I know that this advice is wise. In relief work, in social work, in counseling – in all ministries of mercy – the weight of a hundred broken hearts can follow you home and haunt your sleep, making you ineffective to serve even one of them, dwarfing truths about God that are meant to anchor and sustain me so that with them I can anchor and sustain others.

But I deeply believe there also has to be a parallel thought process to create a God-honoring response to suffering. Many of us are far too good at distancing ourselves from the pain and struggle of others, so much so that we continue to relax in excess and ease, unconcerned and blissfully apathetic. I’ve seen the tendency toward this in my own life. And while I’m not called to be tortured by the pain of others, I am called to feel it enough not only to mourn with them, but to be moved to sacrificial love for them. I can’t begin to obey “do to others as you would have them do to you” unless I listen to their needs, empathetically consider the weight of their suffering and seek ways to act for their good.

One of the reasons I want to keep listening, to keep being willing to hurt with those who are hurting, and to keep finding grace-prompted ways to respond is because of an unforgettable conversation I had a few months ago. I have the privilege of close friendship with an immigrant from Syria who once looked at me with a sigh and said, matter-of-factly:

“They could easily give money to help the refugees,” (naming several wealthy nations in the MENA region and in the West) “but they don’t. Why? Because they want us to die. They want the Muslim refugees to die.”

To her it was an undeniable reality. There were many against the survival of her people, and they were the ones with power. She expressed trust in God, and then sat staring at me, waiting to see how I would respond to her blunt statement. I was so grateful to be able to lean close to my friend and say, “I don’t know about all those countries, Nour,** but the people at my church don’t want Muslims to die.” With a sincere heart I was able to continue, “That’s why our church is sending money for relief amongst the refugees in Lebanon,” which she was aware of. “We don’t want Muslims to die.” The statement carried weight with her. She smiled and nodded, accepting what I wanted to express.

Our friendship and the actions of one gathering of Christ-followers were a tiny bit of evidence against a lifetime of experience. But what if that could be one of the lingering results of this horrific conflict?  What if it could be remembered by countless mothers and fathers, and by children as they grow up out of the ashes of this war, that there were many followers of Jesus who showed tangible love for Muslims and refugees of every religious affiliation, who proved with their actions that there are many Christians who don’t want Muslims to die?

This should be our instinctive response to human need, as Christ-followers. Kindness to the point of personal sacrifice is what we’re called to everywhere in Scripture. It glorifies God because it reflects His heart and imitates His action toward us in Christ. In Isaiah 58:10 our Father exhorts us:

“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness.”

“Be imitators of God,” we read later.

“Live a life of love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

We pour ourselves out for others because He poured Himself out for us. Our compassion is driven by and rooted in the fact that we’ve received ultimate generosity from God in the sacrificing of His Son. And, as Isaiah prophesied and as my conversation with Nour demonstrated, that pouring-out of ourselves creates light in darkness, darkness that consists not only of physical suffering but also relational distance and distrust.

I want to recommend to you an opportunity to pour yourself out for the hungry. Readers of this blog can participate in the ongoing mercy-showing of ministries in Lebanon toward Syrian refugees by giving to the Relief & Community Development Program of the Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD)***. I encourage you to consider this need because I know that our giving could lead to results far more valuable than the abundance it will cost us.

ashleyAshley Wollam is a Christ-follower from Texas who was sent by her church to serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon for four months this fall. Prior to coming to Lebanon, she served on ministry staff with her church for six years.

_______________________

**The name of my friend has been changed.

***IMES, as  a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, is a subsidiary ministry of the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development.

“Will These Hands Never Be Clean?” The CIA Torture Report and Futile Apologies

by Jesse Wheeler

“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” – Lady Macbeth

In response to the release of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report (click to read in full), all I can say is that I am overwhelmed. Like the leading lady in Shakespeare’s iconic Scottish play, American hands are stained in blood. No amount of whitewashing can expunge this guilt perpetrated in my name and that of my fellow-Americans, both Christians and Muslims, white, black and others. No apology will do. How in God’s Holy name can we possibly atone for this?

The Torture Report

The Senate Torture Report reveals a sick combination of brutality, ineptitude and ineffectiveness in the manner by which it undertook its intelligence gathering practices during the so-called “War on Terror.” In the words of Ron Steif, Execute Director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture:

“The report shows that the CIA’s torture program involved acts of horrific brutality. The CIA water-boarded a detainee to the point of inducing convulsions and vomiting and they left another cold and mostly nude to die of hypothermia while chained to a concrete floor. That this was done in our name should shock the conscience of every American. The report clearly documents that these immoral acts often failed to produce intelligence or produced false information. Even when intelligence was provided, nothing was provided that could not have been obtained by lawful means. Finally, the report shows that the CIA misled both Congress and certain members of the Bush Administration in order to obtain approval for its torture program.”

According to Vox.com, “Listing every horrifying detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summary report on the CIA’s torture program would be impossible. To get a sense of the gravity of the abuses, however, here are 16 of the most egregious behaviors detailed by the report:

  1. The CIA put hummus in a detainee’s rectum
  2. Interrogators forced detainees to stand on broken feet
  3. CIA interrogators threatened to sexually assault the mother of a detainee
  4. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded at least 183 times
  5. KSM and Abu Zubaydah nearly drowned to death during some of their torture sessions
  6. Abu Zubaydah lost his left eye in CIA custody
  7. The CIA conducted torture sessions knowing they’d worsen detainees’ injuries
  8. Detainees were kept awake for as long as 180 hours — over a week
  9. CIA interrogators broke down a detainee until they judged him “clearly a broken man”
  10. The interrogations probably killed at least one person
  11. The CIA tortured people before they even tried asking them to cooperate
  12. CIA interrogators objected to the torture but were told to keep going by senior officials
  13. At least 26 out of 119 known detainees were wrongfully held
  14. The CIA lied to the White House about the effectiveness of torture
  15. The CIA refused to vet participants in the torture program who had admitted to sexual assault
  16. They refused to impose disciplinary sanctions on an interrogator involved in a detainee’s death.”

This list includes lies, psychological, emotional and physical violence, wanton acts of sexual assault, and murder. The fact that we allowed this to happen should haunt us all.

A Kingdom Come – A Christ Crucified

The Advent season is a time for expectant waiting. It is a time to reflect upon the sheer magnitude of sin and human suffering as we wait in hopeful anticipation for the return of our savior.

This advent season must be a time to sit with and truly contemplate the gravity of these crimes perpetrated in our name. For today, the crucified messiah hangs in solidarity with the victims of our idolatrous hubris. In a recent article on FaithStreet.com, Patton Dodd refers to a 2009 Pew Report that indicated that 6 out of 10 white Evangelicals supported torture against “suspected terrorists.” He rightly finds this shocking ratio “extraordinary because it is in such obvious conflict with Christianity’s foundational story.”

“The God evangelicals believe in is a God who was tortured. Jesus was arrested unjustly, promptly tried and convicted in a kangaroo court, and then tortured. He was savagely, sadistically beaten, his body ravaged. Jesus was tortured to death. Evangelicals believe their God bore as much suffering as it is possible for a human to bear, and he bore it at the hands of men in military gear who relished the cruelty.”

In this story, the crucified Christ hangs in solidarity not with those who allow for such horrors, even when they claim to belong to him. In this story, many of my American coreligionists represent the corrupt religious establishment proclaiming “We have no King but Caesar” (John 19:15). Even if we proclaim that our true loyalty is not of this world but to Christ alone, what does this do other than absolve us of a responsibility which is rightfully ours? It should be clear from scripture that this world and its inhabitants are our collective responsibility. And we have failed.

This advent season, we must sit with the magnitude of our sin. From all those who have suffered by hands acting in our name, all we can ask for is forgiveness. It is certainly not deserved.

Yet this advent season, we must once again commit ourselves to the active pursuit of justice and peace, to the self-evident truth of universal dignity, and to God’s Kingdom come and His Will done on earth as it is in heaven, regardless the personal cost. I see no other option.

Otherwise, we are mere pretenders.

How ISIS Should Shape Our View of the Church and Its Mission Globally

By Martin Accad

I’ve been blogging and speaking much about ISIS in recent months. Last July, as we were beginning to get to grips with the savagery of the group, I tried to call us all, as people who claim to love God, to face and fight our own demons instead of claiming they have nothing to do with us. By the end of the summer, the world was (finally) in uproar about the butchering of Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and others at the hand of ISIS. Calls for the protection of Middle East Christians and other ‘minorities’ through articles, books and conferences, were being heard everywhere. And though international reactions were welcome, I felt it was important to urge the international community not to marginalize Middle East Christians further by reinforcing the mentality of victimhood and ‘minoritization.’ What we needed was empowerment and multi-faith unity. I thus called last month for a reframing of the issue, by casting ISIS as part of a violent and fanatic religious ‘minority,’ which needs to be confronted by the ‘silent majority’ of people of faith or no explicit faith who are loving and peaceful. During a talk on this issue in the UK at the BMS Catalyst Live event on 23-24 October, I launched the TreCooL initiative on Facebook (The Religious Coalition of Love) as a simple act of resistance against ISIS and other expressions of religious fanaticism. In the present post, I want briefly to look at what matters most for us to know with regards to ISIS, what the long-term implications of ISIS are for the church in the Middle East region, and how these two areas should shape our understanding of the church’s role and mission in the years ahead.

First of all, I would like to suggest that it matters more that we ask ‘why’ ISIS exists than ‘who’ ISIS is or ‘how’ it came into being. It seems that much of the media focus has been on attempting to understand the nature of ISIS. But the inquiry has often given way to conspiracy and stereotyping. Many in the Muslim community believe that ISIS is the product of intelligence agencies, a conspiracy designed to discredit Islam. The CIA and the Mossad are of course the usual prime suspects for this theory.

For many non-Muslims, on the other hand, ISIS has finally revealed the ‘true face of Islam.’ This narrative would have us believe that when ‘pure Islam’ is given free reign, ISIS is what it looks like. More time would be needed to debunk both of these myths. But beyond these mutual accusations, I believe that we should ask: Does it matter? Do we really care to know in which Frankensteinian lab ISIS was created? Does it not matter more to ask ‘why’ they are so successfully recruiting? Why they have such an appeal globally in certain circles?

The most helpful inquiry and clue into the ‘why’ of ISIS, rather than its ‘who’ or ‘how,’ I have found in a brief Arabic-language analysis by Saad bin Tuflah al-Ajami in the Qatari-based daily Al-Sharq (published on August 3, 2014). In his article entitled ‘We are all ISIS,’ the former minister of communication of Kuwait boldly asserts:

The truth that we cannot deny is that ISIS was educated in our schools, it prayed in our mosques, listened to our media, was transfixed by our satellite channels, stood before our pulpits, drank from the spring of our publications, listened to our (religious) authorities, obeyed their princes who are among us, and followed the fatwas (legal prescriptions) of those from our own flesh; this is the truth that we cannot deny. (Translation mine)

In addition to the bankrupt reactionist nature of our Arab societies that has so favored the flourishing of ISIS – say what you want about its emergence, I believe that ISIS has a powerful appeal on youths that are tired of always feeling on the abused and losing side of history. For them, ISIS suddenly offers the unique opportunity to be part of something ‘great.’ Land is being conquered at lightning speed, governmental and legal institutions are being established with the claim of religious moral high ground, and ‘the West’ is being challenged and boldly threatened.

Secondly, how do we assess the long-term psychological impact of ISIS on the church globally, indeed even on the international community as a whole? The ‘physical’ damage that the church and Christians in the Middle East are incurring at the hand of ISIS is fairly quantifiable and obvious. On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East last May, the Pew Center put out a brief analysis of Middle East Christians’ dwindling numbers. Although between 1900 and 2010 (the period covered by the analysis) the Christian population grew from 1.6 to 7.5 million (about fourfold), the non-Christian population grew ten times. Thus, the ratio of Christians in the Middle East shrank from 10% to 5% during that period. Factors are many and complex, including a difference in birth rates and spells of persecution and social hostility. But probably the most significant factor is emigration, which is largely the result of the psychological feeling of being an oppressed minority, a sense of victimhood, and the widespread mentality of survival among Arab Christians, with little prospect and hope for the future.

The global church needs to be intentional about not reinforcing this already debilitating psychological sense of being a minority needing to be rescued. Popular culture tends to applaud the ‘hero’ who comes to the rescue and the US has traditionally liked to play that role. But I don’t think this has paid off in the long term, either for those being rescued or for the US itself. In the case of ISIS, although direct victims will continue to be grateful for very specific and targeted interventions on their behalf by the US military for ‘protective’ purposes, I believe that the problem should otherwise be allowed to remain an Arab and regional problem. If the West intervenes too heavy-handedly, the ISIS problem will be another missed opportunity for our regional powers to engage in serious introspection and reform. And I have little doubt that from the ashes of ISIS will emerge a worse monster, and it will return to bite the US and other western nations.

Finally, then, what missional implications ensue from the ‘why’ of ISIS and from a recognition of the long-term impact it will have on the church globally? Reinforcing the ISIS narrative by accepting the ‘minoritization’ of Christians is, in some ways, no better than marking them – as ISIS has done – with the letter nūn (first letter in the word naṣāra, which is the name the Qur’ān uses for Christians). Instead, we should take a long-term and multi-faith approach that recognizes that those who love God and view their religion as a source of love and peace towards neighbors represent the majority who can transform the mainstream narrative. As Middle Eastern as well as global Christians, we need to recognize that Muslims for the most part are our allies in this struggle, not our enemies. Muslims with whom I have spoken feel the long-term damage of ISIS on Islam more deeply than most. The long-term solution is to encourage multi-faith initiatives that gradually will restore hope for a better future among the youths in societies that are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS. Kuwaiti analyst al-Ajami was incriminating Arab and Muslim societies in his confession: ‘We are all ISIS.’ But I think that the situation also incriminates all the rest of us, and we must confess that ‘we All are ISIS.’ If we can all shoulder some of the responsibility for the flourishing of ISIS, then clearly a satisfactory solution can neither be short-term, nor can it stop at the bombing of some ‘evil’ militants.

Can the Church globally start to think of its mission as one of coming alongside local governments and educational institutions? I am not advocating for some form of neo-colonial interventionism. Since we are sitting on this side of history, the hope is that we might be able to learn from it in order not to repeat mistakes of the past. What do the new missional forces of our day have to bring to this conversation? What can we learn from the Koreans, the Chinese and the Latinos about government reform, fighting corruption and building accountable institutions? What can we learn about economic development and entrepreneurship? What can we learn about fighting poverty? The best victory over ISIS is not one that will simply walk over the dead bodies of disenfranchised young militants. We will achieve true victory over ISIS when it becomes the reason for a complete overhaul of governments and institutions infested with corruption and repressive policies. HOPE, in which the Church can be a key contributor, is the long term solution that will dry up the recruitment pool of ISIS.

There Are Happy Stories, Too!

By Kathryn Kraft*

I love a good story. Stories can make me laugh or cry, burn in anger or melt in love. I tell stories when I’m trying to make myself understood, and I understand other people so much better when they tell me stories. So I am always on the hunt for a good story, and though it is easy to dwell on horror stories, especially when considering the events in the Middle East during the past few years, I’ve been encouraged by a number of fantastic stories as well.

Research into storytelling in recent years has confirmed that stories have power. Stories have been used in places like post-Apartheid South Africa to help break down racial barriers and begin the long road to reconciliation. Stories have been used by therapists to help people recovering from trauma to better process difficult memories. Stories have been used by big businesses to help get their teams excited about a new project. And an inspiring story can be a powerful fundraising tool.

A few months ago, I did a storytelling training for employees of an educational organisation working in Syria. At the beginning, one of the participants told me why she wanted this training: “We know that what we are doing has a deep spiritual impact, but we don’t know what it is. We are hoping that if we tell more stories, and tell them better, we will be able to capture what we are doing.”

Indeed, I have heard some stories that give me chills when I think of the deep spiritual impact they represent. I met a young man who told me that he and some friends had to quit university because of the war in Syria. After that, they got together and started their own informal wartime project. They knocked on all their neighbours’ doors asking for donations, and once they had gathered a truckload of food and clothing, they crossed enemy lines into a neighbourhood under siege and gave it all to families that were on the brink of starvation. They did this every few weeks. Though this youth was disappointed that he had not completed his education, he had a lot of fun helping people less fortunate.

A young woman living in a refugee camp told me that she had fled Syria a few months previously. Most of her family was with her, she said, except for her oldest brother and his wife. They had stayed behind in their village and refused to leave. I asked her why: isn’t it dangerous? She said that her brother owns the village bakery, and he couldn’t let their neighbours starve. He’d be the last person to leave the village, she said, because whenever he could get his hands on a few kilos of flour he would bake bread and distribute it to anyone still stuck in the village. When there was no flour, he and his wife would collect clothes and blankets and use the bakery as a distribution centre. There was no convincing them that their own safety was more important than their role in caring for their neighbours.

These stories do capture something spiritual. They capture strength of heart, selflessness, commitment and love for others. These were stories told by devout Muslims, but I as a Christian have found that I can learn from their stories about how to behave in a more Christlike way.

Sometimes stories show how our own values change over time. A staff member of an international organisation in Palestine told his supervisors a story last year that broke their hearts: He had encountered a teenage boy in a refugee camp who was being teased by some of the other boys in the camp, and this teenage boy was so angry at his situation that he trained in martial arts and beat up the other boys. This story presented a bleak outlook for peace in Palestine.

But then six months later, the same staff member told a different story: He had met another teenage boy in a similar situation, who also studied martial arts, but this boy chose to focus his new-found discipline and focus on helping younger kids in the camp, playing games with them and teaching them valuable life lessons. We talked about these two boys, their different responses to a difficult situation. We all agreed that we want the youth in Palestine with whom we work to be more like the second boy.

And sometimes stories capture lessons that we, perhaps, all know deep in our hearts but don’t want to admit. One of my favourite stories comes from a little village in northern Africa where hardly a month in the last decade has passed without violent inter-tribal fighting. One Saturday, on market day when all the farmers come in to sell their meagre wares, a motorcycle hit a woman who was carrying her vegetables to market. The woman was killed. By the tribal customs, the woman’s family should take revenge by hunting down and killing the motorcyclist, as well as some of his family members. Alternately, a local council could decide the motorcyclist’s fate, which would most likely include, at minimum, his execution. The family agreed to let the council of respected elders review the case. The council considered the situation: a young woman whose future and whose ability to contribute financially to her family’s needs was lost, an accidental killing by a man who demonstrated remorse, and a community that had seen way too much bloodshed already. They concluded: the man should apologise to the victim’s family and offer to pay them retribution. Everyone accepted the verdict and peace returned to the village.

It was a member of a peace-building team who told me this. I asked her why it was a good story. She said: “Because it shows how powerful an apology can be! When we ask for forgiveness, the conflict can disappear.” With a story and interpretation like this, I sometimes wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves more to good stories in this troubled region?

Kathryn Kraft

Kathryn Kraft serves as Support Faculty for the MENA Cultures module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. Dr. Kraft has lived and worked in various Arab countries since 2001. She has a MA in Middle East studies from the American University of Beirut, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Bristol, England. She has worked in a variety of fields including research, peace and reconciliation, emergency relief and social development. In addition, Dr. Kraft lectures in International Development at the University of East London.

Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa

15 – 19 June 2015

Beirut, Lebanon

The Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary is pleased to announce 2015’s Middle East Consultation [MEC 2015]. Last year’s MEC was an enriching and edifying consultation that identified a number of significant challenges related to discipleship in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA]. Based on the findings of MEC 2014, this year’s consultation will focus on specific challenges related to “identity” and “belonging” that face followers of Jesus within the MENA context. These challenges are particularly important given the diverse socio-religious and cultural backgrounds of Christ-followers in the region and of those leaders who seek to disciple them.

It became apparent through the course of MEC 2014 that we live in a world where belonging to multiple social and cultural traditions is the reality for many. Identity can be understood as a complex and multi-dimensional aspect of human life, formed in response to a variety of dynamic social, cultural, historical, political, religious and spiritual experiences and commitments within today’s globalized and interconnected world. In light of this, some of the questions to be explored as part of MEC 2015 include:

  • What emotional and psychological trials are experienced by those choosing to follow Jesus within the MENA context?
  • How might new followers of Jesus understand, develop and define their new-found identity ‘in Christ,’ while at the same time taking seriously their particular socio-cultural and religious context?
  • What factors allow disciples to have confidence in their identity to the degree that they can become effective witnesses within their own community capable of discipling others?
  • How might a disciple’s personal narrative be convincing for members of his or her family? How might family, marriage and child rearing issues be addressed?
  • And, how might the regional and global Body of Christ support Christ-followers from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds within and beyond the MENA context to grow and become influential leaders?

The core of MEC 2015 will consist of listening to in-depth testimonies from those who live in the midst of specific challenges pertaining to identity and belonging. The consultation also provides an opportunity to reflect upon and analyze the diverse social and religious dynamics at hand through a process of theological reflection via round-table discussion, as well as conversations with global thinkers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Leading missiologists will give keynote presentations on a range of related themes, which will in turn be reflected upon and discussed by those personally facing such challenges in the region. This hermeneutical dynamic (or process of accountable theological reflection) provides a framework for mutual enrichment within the worldwide Body of Christ, one that we are sure will impact the future of Christ-centred witness in and beyond the MENA region.

For more information about MEC 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, please contact IMES@ABTSLebanon.org or await additional details to be at announced at IMESLebanon.wordpress.com.

Resisting ISIS! Beyond Secularism and Religious Fanaticism

by Martin Accad

The Middle East is in turmoil! That’s a bit of an understatement. Are you feeling frustrated and helpless about it? This has been an ongoing feeling for me since ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) hit the headlines and invaded our private imaginations relentlessly through Facebook, YouTube and other social and conventional media throughout this past summer.

So about a month ago I decided to do something about it. Something small, I admit, but I just could not bear to remain a victim of their assault. So I set up this Facebook page called TReCooL, which stands for ‘The Religious Coalition of Love.’ It is a simple act of resistance to the lethal polarization that ISIS and other religious fanatics keep pushing our world into. Simple but cool! They want Christians and other ‘numeric minorities’ to feel that they don’t belong in the Middle East, to reach the conclusion that we have no future.

I confess that, even as someone who views myself as a lifetime student of Islam, as someone who believes in my mind that the religious fanatics represent the minority voice, as one who is constantly involved in interfaith dialogue and who views multifaith society not as a problem, but as a source of strength, I am having a really hard time maintaining a balanced perspective. I refuse to buy into the growing popular narrative that says that ISIS represents the majority voice of Islam. What we need now is not a reactionary agenda, but creative, constructive, and proactive initiatives.

I imagine a multitude – millions of people – networked together through Facebook, Twitter and smartphone apps, who have joined a ‘coalition of love,’ simply in protest against the violent extremist religious narrative.

Imagine with me – being part of a movement of people who recognize candidly that all religions have the inherent potential to produce peaceful and loving individuals.

Imagine that we, as a movement, would affirm that individual religious people don’t need to defend or justify themselves or their religion, when bloodthirsty and hateful thugs commit atrocities in the name of that same religion as theirs.

Imagine joining thousands of others who simply want to affirm that they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Yazidi, or just of no explicit faith, and that they hold on to love and peace.

Imagine being part of a movement of millions who are religious, as well as both peaceful and loving, a movement called – say – TReCooL, ‘The Religious Coalition of Love.’

Imagine joining this movement simply as a protest against all of today’s abuses committed in the name of your religion or that of your neighbor.

By simply clicking here and ‘liking’ the TReCool Facebook page, you will be increasing the number in this network. TReCooL has no other agenda than simply affirming that WE, you and I, are the Majority, and that religious hatefuls are the minority. That’s what our world needs to hear and know today.

If you want to be stimulated to think more about this issue, why don’t you watch my talk in the video below, which I gave last month at an event organized by the Baptist Mission Society (BMS) in the UK, entitled Catalyst Live? And then please join the conversation in the comments section below. Share your views and perhaps other simple initiatives that could push towards a paradigm shift in our thinking about this majority/minority thing.

Video: MRel Students Share about the Program’s Impact on their Ministries

The Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program is a unique and innovative multidisciplinary program of IMES based at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon.

In the videos below, four MRel students living and ministering in the Middle East – Brent Hammoud, Louise Brown, Suzie Lahoud and Chris Todd – share about their experiences in the MRel program and how the modules have positively impacted their respective ministries.

The MRel focuses on providing a strong theoretical understanding of the region and the issues that it faces, combined with an emphasis on developing applied skills needed to work in the region and among MENA communities worldwide. It is based upon a strong theological and Biblical framework in that each module weaves scripture and theology into its theory and practice and intentionally incorporates spiritual formation among students. Find out more at: imeslebanon.wordpress.com/mrel/

The MRel in MENA Studies program is designed to provide students with a degree of flexibility, enabling them to continue with their existing work and lives while simultaneously attaining an advanced degree. The MRel is organized into modules rather than courses to allow for more effective multidisciplinary inquiry and learning, from within the MENA or beyond. Instruction and learning is achieved through a combination of 2-week residencies in Lebanon per module and the use of distance learning technologies that facilitate discussion and feedback. Being based in the region, the program exposes students to the rich historical, cultural and religious heritage of the MENA.

Additional testimonials will be uploaded soon to the ABTS Lebanon YouTube channel.

A Kingdom Reality-Check in the Middle East Crisis

Jesus was all about his kingdom. The first declaration of his public ministry was “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He communicated the nature of it in parable and story. His miracles demonstrated its authority over every sphere of life and he called his disciples to abandon all present loyalties for its sake. The genealogical records of the Gospels and citations of the prophets depict Jesus as its fulfillment—the promised Messiah-King.

Most Christians would give ready assent to the preceding paragraph, yet the real impact of Jesus’ Kingdom seems to escape us when dealing with thorny existential realities such as the current crisis in the Middle East. The parties which clamor for our attention are those which play a visible and material role in the conflict—ISIS, Khorazon, the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian army, the regime of Syrian president Asad, the Peshmerga (the Kurdish forces) and now, of course, the “coalition of the willing” led by the United States and its allies.

Would anyone dare to make the preposterous claim that Jesus is the enthroned king presently ruling over the chaos of the Middle East? Would you?

Some might respond, “Well if he is the king and he rules over this mess, he’s either powerless or heartless. A real king—one with real authority—would put a stop to the senseless killing, the displacement of peoples and the spread of violent religious radicalism.”

Fair enough. So the senseless blood-letting, often perpetrated in the name of religion and for the preservation of power must be divorced from Jesus’ kingdom. The former has nothing to do with the latter. One is the action of the empires of this world while the Kingdom of Jesus is something else. Drawing a line of demarcation between the empires of this world and the Kingdom of God ruled by Jesus gives us an easy out. We no longer need face the question: “How can Jesus be King amidst such devastation?”

“What should we do?” –that’s the question I’ve heard in a number of different contexts. There is an assumption behind the question. “We” is some group, some faction. Spoken in the West “we” might refer to the military coalition. In the Middle East, it might refer to one of the warring factions. For many, I suspect this natural question betrays a misplaced loyalty—an assumption that our most effective action must be carried out through the empires of this world. After all, in the real world, someone has to win. And someone has to lose. Right?

But Jesus calls us to a different “real world,” a new reality, a new way of being—his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is in and among the empires of this world but neither contained by them nor subservient to them. The new Kingdom coexists with the powers that be, ever calling them to bow the knee to its King but never coercing them. The line of advance of this Kingdom is not marked by swords and spears (tanks and F16’s in our day) but by the absorption of evil in the willing embrace of suffering by Kingdom people. Jesus’ followers were told in no uncertain terms that to follow Him meant embracing his cross.

The Kingdom is anticipated by the first of its line of sovereigns—King David—who, though anointed as king, was nonetheless pursued like an animal by the pseudo-king Saul. His suffering, portrayed vividly in the Psalms, was God’s plan for the eventual consummation of his kingdom. David’s steadfast refusal to take vengeance in his own hands and kill Saul prepared the people for a more noble expression of the Kingdom. David’s kingdom is a prototype of Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus, anointed and enthroned, has now poured out his Spirit on his followers from all nations and peoples. United by the outpoured Spirit, they form the body of Christ on earth. His body continues to be pursued and persecuted on earth as he awaits his Kingdom consummation. The suffering of Christ’s body is no aberrant mishap. It is the Kingdom strategy.

So in view of this Kingdom reality-check, what is our response to the current Middle East crisis?

First, Jesus’ Kingdom is in and among the empires of this world, even in the Middle East. We must hold the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East in the forefront of our thoughts and prayers. This is no aberrant mishap. The displacement of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians is a vivid portrayal of the realities that Jesus taught concerning His Kingdom that suffers with, in and among the peoples of this world. By so doing, it offers them an alternative kingdom—a King of Peace whose reign is procured, not by inflicting suffering on others but by his own suffering at the hands of this world’s empires. Jesus’ Kingdom people ask “How can I share in the suffering of Christ’s people in the Middle East?”

Second, we must replace our misplaced loyalties. No matter which faction you identify with in the Middle East conflict, if you are a Jesus-follower, your fealty can only be given to one King. Now the question “what should we do?” again takes on new meaning. The “we” is not your birth country or the faction with which you are aligned, but the people of the Kingdom of Jesus from all nations and peoples. That difference requires us to divest ourselves of our national interests and embrace the multi-cultural reality of the new Kingdom. Think about it.

Third, because the Kingdom of Jesus has renounced violence as its modus operandi, it becomes a viable (perhaps the only viable) candidate for peace-making and reconciliation. It appears that every faction in the current crisis presses its own advantage to the detriment, even destruction, of the other parties in the conflict. “Kill or be killed” is the law of the jungle, but never the law of the Kingdom of Christ. Christ-followers seek the good of their enemies. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who persecute you.” Such is the radical self-giving nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. Is it blissful naiveté? Not at all. It is the reality of following a King who hung from a cross and cried “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Nothing is more real than that. What if Christ left his people (his body) in the conflicts of this world as his unique means of peace-making and reconciliation? If so, then maybe the greatest obstacle to peace-making is our stubborn affiliation with the empires of this world. “Blessed are the peace-makers, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

By the way, this is not a plea for non-violent resistance per se. Even if we recognize the legitimate right of sovereign states to engage in armed resistance, we must press further to ask how my loyalty to Christ’s Kingdom positions me differently than my affiliation with one or more of the warring factions in the Middle East.

Jesus appears before an empire-leader of his own day. He is robed in royal purple, crowned with thorns, accused of insurrection, while a mob calls for him to be nailed to wooden beams. The pseudo empire-leader reprimands Jesus’ silence, “Do you not know that I have authority to crucify you?” The mob casts its lot with the empire, “We have no king but Caesar!” Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, Jesus states that the empire-leader would have no authority unless it had been given him from above (see John 19:11).

“…No authority were it not given them by God.”

Might the true Kingdom of Jesus, despite all outward appearances, actually be in and among the conflict, still suffering, still giving itself for the sake of the world, still calling people of all nations to its embrace of peace?

The Local Church: A Place of Compassion in the Syrian Crisis

AKKAR

By Rupen Das

The Syrian conflict has now become a slow meat grinder with hundreds being killed every month, while families and communities across Syria are being systematically destroyed. There are no good guys in this conflict and there are no visible and viable solutions being considered.

In the “fog of war” it is very easy to miss the small signs of hope in the midst of the evil. One of these signs is the role that many local Arab churches have assumed during the Syrian crisis. As the present Syrian crisis developed and spilled into Lebanon over the past three years, the Lebanese Baptist community, officially the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), [of which IMES as a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) is a subsidiary ministry], decided to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Being a church based agency, it worked to empower local churches inside Syria and in Lebanon to reach beyond their comfort zones and social boundaries to help those in need. This is a story of reconciliation that has not yet been told.

Syria had occupied Lebanon for 20 years and every Lebanese family has stories of their homes being destroyed, family members killed, imprisoned and tortured, and the country systematically destroyed. The decision by a handful of Lebanese pastors to reach out to Syrian refugees in Lebanon meant being able to forgive the Syrians and then lead their congregations to forgive. This went against the grain of Lebanese society and to date most of these pastors face opposition for their actions from family, neighbours and others in the community. In one church, 85% of the congregation left the church because the pastor decided to help the refugees. Inside Syria, where the Protestant Churches over the centuries had become very insular, many among them decided to make their churches places of compassion for people of any faith to find help.

In the process, we are learning lessons about the role of the local church in the midst of crisis. Five such lessons are:

1. The local church is an institution in the community: Evangelicals too often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with what happens after life. There is no doubt that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is a link between physical and spiritual realities. What is often not understood is the fact that a local church is a religious institution in the community. If this is true, then it has obligations to the community in which it exists. John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester in the UK writes about a Christian theology of place. Places and community are integrally linked and together build the identity of the other. A local church exists in a specific physical and social place within a community for a purpose.

The local church, as an institution in the community, has visibility, history, credibility and relationships. It is a part of the community. Because of this, it is a natural place through which a relief project can be implemented, as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is being provided.

2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization: Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches unintentionally turn these churches into social service organization through their requirements and restrictions. The functions of a local church include being a worshiping community, preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying and assisting those in need. Eph. 4: 12-13 describes the gifts given to the church in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This is the function of a local church.

Some well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding to not be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided. This is based on a humanitarian standard called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. They feel that it would be manipulative because of the power dynamics involved between those providing the aid and the beneficiaries. There are power dynamics in every human relationship and eliminating them is not realistic or possible. However, they can be managed and their impact minimized. The issue is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid. The local church needs to continue to be a church and not a social service agency. However, helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.

3. The local church needs to minister to those outside its community: Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African historian and father of sociology wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited in practice to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it. In the Arab culture the family and the tribe take care of their own. As a result the Arab social context is very fragmented.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about this in his book Exclusion and Embrace. Speaking from within the context of the Balkans (which is similar to the Arab world), he noticed that during times of crisis churches excluded those who were outsiders and different as a way to protect themselves. Yet, he notes that God, who has every right to exclude us because of our wanting to be different from Him and what He created us to be, does not do so but embraces us. This then becomes the model for the church to show compassion to outsiders and not just those within the church.

4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond: As we have a seen, the local church has specific roles and functions within a community. In order to be compassionate it does not have to develop the skills and capacity to provide the full range of social services. Instead it needs to partner with other organizations and individuals within the community and beyond with similar values. Such a network would enable the church to access the needed services as and when needed while maintaining its distinctiveness within the community. 

5. The local church needs to understand its mission and mandate: The community of the followers of Christ should not only remember the last thing He said (the Great Commission Matt. 28:19-20) but also the greatest thing He said (the Great Commandment Matt. 22:36-40), to love the Lord and one’s neighbor. The Micah Declaration refers to the mission and the mandate of the Church as Integral Mission:

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world… As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.

In the Syrian crisis, the local church as an institution in the community has enabled access to areas and to refugees and those affected by violence that would not have been possible otherwise. While many organizations are providing assistance, the local church can be a place of refuge and compassion.

The Personal Touch: Discovering the Humanity in International Conflict

By Lexy Airey*

This summer I had the pleasure of serving IMES as part of an intensive internship experience. As a student of political science and a young Christian, it was an incredibly educational experience for me. I had come to Lebanon seeking understanding of the Middle East and was blessed with the best kind of education: personal relationships. It has become abundantly apparent to me that no conflict situation can be properly understood unless you begin to love the people involved. It seems like the most intuitive thing in the world to me now, but it took my experience in the Middle East to fully erode the picture I had of this region and reveal the potential power of loving your neighbor.

Growing up, I lived in a fairly conservative American household. Like most young people from my background I thought little about the Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and the opinions I did have reflected a loose and underdeveloped support for Israel. As a child of 9/11 I had a general resentment towards Islam and didn’t feel the need to understand its moderate side. As a young Christian, if the Middle East ever came up in church settings, the conflicts were characterized as being a very natural battle between Isaac vs. Ishmael. I say all this because many people look at the Christian evangelical community in the US and think we are a bunch of Zionists, but I think that for my generation there is simply a lack of interest and education that perpetuates ignorance, rather than any proactive support. For many young people it only takes an informed professor to make them reevaluate the unexamined opinions they’ve been handed. For me, it was the girls from Yemen and Lebanon I met in high school who made me realize that the Middle East wasn’t a single homogeneous place with one people and that Islam was a complex worldview, not a doctrine of murder.

When I came to Lebanon this past Summer I found that many people I met had the same question: why does the US always support Israel no matter what? While it is relatively easy to identify the political motivators, lobbyist groups, public apathy, media narratives and Christian Zionist ideologies responsible for this unilateral and over-permissive support of Israel, I should rather be honest about my own ignorance on the issue and of my responsibility in allowing it to continue in my community. Because the truth is I was one of “those Americans” and, though I didn’t stay that way for long, if the right people didn’t cross my path I would probably still be walking through my life with the same assumptions, stereotypes and apathy. This once again points us to the importance of seeing the humanity affected by the opinions we hold.

Working this summer with interns from across the Middle East and interacting with people from all around the MENA region at IMES’s Middle East Consultation (MEC) forced me to reevaluate how I both discover and engage with information. Though I know my friends in the Middle East have their own biases as well, living in Lebanon has opened my ears to a whole new set of narratives that force me to seek out additional information on the actual people involved in conflict situations.

Being, for example, only a few hours removed from the Israeli-Gaza conflict and seeing the apparent intractability and mutual hatred expressed on each side, it’s not as easy to politicize and rationalize or dehumanize (intentionally or not) the parties involved. So who do you support? The side claiming to protect its citizens from traumatic fear and imminent terrorist action, or the side desperately trying to relieve a humanitarian crisis and free its people from imprisonment and a life without hope? Because human beings, same as you or I, reside at the heart of this conflict and to write them away as nothing more than “extremists” or “religious crazies” is to ignore the basic human desires, the love for family and friends and the fear and hate driving this conflict. I have begun to think about how I would feel if someone discredited my actions as a result of my own “crazy” beliefs without giving any thought to any rational decisions that went into them. So how can we change that perception and once again humanize everyone in the conflict, not simply this side or that?

It should be obvious that as soon as you humanize any issue, the problem becomes far more complex. Justice often seems easier if you aren’t emotionally involved, but this is in fact false justice. We forget too often that “acting justly” goes hand-in-hand with “loving mercy” (Micah 6:8), a synthesis at which Jesus, who always seemed to humanize any situation, was an expert. So we must remember that political systems are simply different arrangements of peoples. Therefore, to be ignorant of the people involved is to be the most ignorant politician, political scientist, political activist, pundit or opinion holder one could be. This was a major reason I came to the Middle East.

For example, it may seem easy to understand the political desire to limit the amount of Syrian refugees entering Lebanon; a nation still reeling from a civil war partially caused by the destabilizing effects of influxes of Palestinian refugees in 1948 should naturally be wary of any demographic upset that could threaten the delicate sectarian balance of the parliamentary democratic republic of Lebanon. However, when you see the families and the desperate situation of the Syrian refugees it makes it nearly impossible to sacrifice these people’s well-being for the sake of political stability. It doesn’t make “forward thinking, rational” calculations necessarily wrong, it just stops you from making them without empathy and compassion.

When people asked me why I wanted to go to Lebanon it was easy for them to understand my political interest in going. I’m studying politics and this area has extreme political salience. However, I wasn’t in Lebanon to observe conflicts or political institutions. I was there to serve people. One can’t understand the human face of a conflict unless we go and build personal relationships with the places and peoples involved. This discovery, however, comes with a lot of heartbreak. When I hear and read of how Christians and other minorities are being executed in Iraq, when I see Syrian refugee children looking for hope and education, when I listen to my Lebanese friends worry about their families in the Bekaa Valley as violence develops, and when I personally hear explosions in Beirut, a city far too familiar with rockets and bombs, my heart aches for my new friends.

I have found, however, that this also comes with great joy. Having the opportunity to interact with brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the MENA region at the Middle East Consultation allowed me to hear and be a part of the stories of the worldwide church. I cannot articulate how thankful I am for being a part of this annual gathering that IMES has put together. The testimonies and stories that I heard by listening to the diverse group of participants widened my thinking on and my love for the global church a thousand-fold. It is truly these kinds of interpersonal interactions that will bridge the gaps of ignorance, fear and hatred. It is therefore my hope that this globalized generation might begin to see themselves as not only more technologically connected, but emotionally and spiritually as well. If my experience in Lebanon has taught me anything it is that the more genuine friends you have, the more dynamic and beautiful the world becomes. Let us pray that we can be the light of Christ’s love in all places.

lexiLexi Airey is a student at Westmont College in Santa Barabra, California studying Political Science and Business. Lexi worked as an intern for IMES during the summer of 2014. She is a member of the Middle East Current Affairs (MECA) group and is an active promoter of interfaith discussions at Westmont.