Choosing Our Battles: brief reflections from the Middle East on homosexuality and the “marriage equality” controversy

By Martin Accad

Normally the LGBTQ[1] issue is not one that I like to address in public. But since last week’s legalization of gay marriage at Federal level in the US, we have all been flooded by the topic, from the social media to private conversations. Whatever you say, you’re sure to draw angry reactions from one side or the other. So mostly I have contented myself with deepening my friendships with some of my friends who happen to be gay. I have been intentional about spending time with them, listening to their heart and life experiences, learning from their perspective about what it means to live a life saturated with rejection, marginalization, prejudice, and even physical abuse. I have learnt enormously about the complex psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, and theological dimensions of the issue. In the process, I have been transformed and enriched in my understanding of God, self and humanity.

Homosexuality has become such an “issue,” whether for those who champion it or for those who attack it, that it has become a struggle to talk about it without objectifying gay people. Even with these very words, by referring to them as “gay” or “homosexual,” or to the community as LGBTQ (or whatever is the trendiest politically-correct reference these days), I am reducing my friends to their sexuality, as though that were the quintessence of being human. For these generalizations and categorizations, and for the very need to “discuss them” and write about them – which too objectifies them – I apologize in advance to my gay friends. There are innumerable ways that one could comment on the “marriage equality” issue, yet I will reflect only on three areas that the issue brings to mind. To many, my ramblings will sound terribly outdated. To others, it will sound terribly vague and non-committal. But such is the nature of the issue.

First is the question of “nature or nurture,” on which I don’t believe I will ever manage to form a final personal opinion. Sexuality seems to be too complex a dimension of our human makeup to allow for sexual orientation to be neatly classified and ascribed to one of these two forces that shape our human identity. Furthermore, the matter seems to be somewhat irrelevant to the theological and ethical question of “right and wrong.” I have friends who are able to argue convincingly that they were born gay, and others who are able to make a similarly strong case that their sexual orientation was affected by life experiences, upbringing and family dynamics. There are also all the hybrid opinions in between. What I retain from this debate through personal observation and conversations is that “why” one thinks they are gay does not have a direct impact on whether they are at peace with who they feel they are, or whether they have a deep desire to “change.” So rather than engaging in what seems largely to be a fruitless debate, it seems to me that the responsibility of the Church is to be a healing agent for those who are hurting, whether as a result of abuse experienced in childhood, or from wounds sustained in our very midst at the hand of prejudiced emotional and spiritual abuse.

Secondly, this fresh debate has reignited the argument that draws parallels between the struggle for gay rights and the struggle for race equality. This is an important voice that forces society to consider the possibility that, in a few decades, we might look back and be shocked at our silence and inertia in the face of the LGBTQ struggle. I shared my agony over this first-hand experience of human depravity when I visited a “slave castle” in Accra, Ghana, last year. One feels left wondering how on earth humanity could have one day been so degenerate, so prejudiced, so silent, so inert, so inhuman. We should be prepared for that shock, and the thought of it should certainly humble us and cause us to adopt a less exclusivist attitude towards gay people.

One thing that strikes me, however, as I think about this parallel, is how it seems easier to differentiate between opinion and attitude in the LGBTQ issue, in a way that is not possible in the face of slavery and racial segregation. You can be convinced that homosexuality is not a Biblically-permissible lifestyle, yet at the same time behave with limitless grace towards your homosexual friends. Whereas it would be hard consciously to tolerate racial segregation in church once you comprehend it Biblically as an abomination. Or would it? Churches in Lebanon are quite prepared to condemn racial prejudice and segregation, yet we still tolerate holding “domestic workers” in a status similar to slaves in our society. That certainly seems to be a question that we in the Arab world, including Evangelical Christians, should ask ourselves.

Thirdly, one of the more intriguing views I’ve stumbled across over the past few days is the voice from within the LGBTQ community that considers the victory of “marriage equality” as the victory of a subjugating, patriarchal structure, of which only the wealthy within the community will truly reap the benefits. They argue that the non-white, non-rich, emigrant elements of the LGBTQ community in the US will continue to suffer from the many other problems plaguing society, such as poverty, racial prejudice, unequal educational opportunities, and harsh policies towards illegal immigration. They deplore the fact that, over the past decade, the gay marriage issue has stolen all of the attention and most of the financing, which is so desperately needed in other existential areas where most of humanity continues to struggle.

What this view reveals as well is that we are probably witnessing the last days of the Church’s domination of the public debate on moral issues in the United States. The fact that the legalization of gay marriage (or some other form of legal union) has not provoked much reaction in western, central and northern European countries indicates that this tension between the role of the religious institution in the public realm is a more typically American problem. No doubt it could/will be a significant problem one day in the Middle East region as well, where societies are equally religious as in some states of the US.

But when the Church loses its political hegemony, it certainly needs not lose its role as healer and prophet in society. On the contrary, loss of worldly power from the perspective of the Gospel seems to inaugurate the era of the coming of God’s power. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (NIV).

Which brings me to a final question: What’s in that decision for us in this part of the world? And what’s in it for my friends here who are gay? Will they reap any benefits? Will it make their life easier? Will it reduce the social prejudices against them? I suspect that it will do so no more than the abolishing of slavery and the fight for racial equality has done away with racism in people’s worldview in this part of the world. And that’s why I choose to keep my personal views ambiguous; because in the terribly unjust world we live in, it is crucial that we choose our battles carefully. We can so easily get entangled in “issues” that objectify individuals and groups. We can think that our activism is liberating, until we discover that by championing a certain cause we have alienated a no-less significant segment of society.

Though the Old Testament and the New Testament’s Pauline Epistles have a fair amount to say about homosexuality, is it not surprising that Jesus had next-to-nothing to say about it in the Gospels? But surely if he had prostitutes, social outcasts, and tax-collectors (read collaborators with the Roman enemy) as his principal companions, there is little doubt that there were also homosexuals among them, though the religious leaders of his day thought these deserved nothing better than stoning. Jesus knew not to essentialize people based on their behavior. He knew how to recalibrate behavior and reframe it through his perspective of social justice that most mattered to God. And so must his Church practice an open-door attitude to those in society targeted by extreme prejudice, as God invites them to benefit from his limitless grace, love, healing, and transformative embrace.

[1] In case you haven’t already googled it, LGBTQ is an acronym that serves to emphasize inclusion, which stands for Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Transgender (T), and Questioning or Queer (Q).

Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa

By Arthur Brown

Last week [15-19 June], IMES hosted its second consultation on the theme of discipleship in the MENA region. This year’s consultation, Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, attracted representatives from 28 countries, including: Algeria, Tanzania, Iraq, Bangladesh, Singapore, the Netherlands, Syria, The U.S., Romania, Lebanon, Columbia, The U.K., The Philippines, Egypt and many more. It was an amazing opportunity to hear what God has been doing across the MENA region, and beyond, in the lives of individuals and communities.

The purpose of the Middle East Consultation [MEC] is to equip participants to respond in prophetic and Christ-like ways to the many challenges facing Christians and Muslims in and beyond the Middle East.

MEC 2015 included interviews with followers of Christ from across the MENA region regarding their particular experiences of identity and belonging which result from their commitment to follow Christ. Following these interviews, global missiologists reflected on key themes that emerged from these important testimonies.

In addition, our global consultants gave keynote presentations that were in turn reflected upon and discussed by those confronting issues of identity and belonging in the region. Topics explored were: discipleship and belonging, attachment theory and its relationship to discipleship within the MENA context, identity and leadership formation, and the development a supra-religious identity ‘along with Jesus and Paul’. In addition, participants were able to reflect on what they were hearing during the roundtable discussion groups that took place each day. These were a highlight for many, as participants had the opportunity to discuss how they could translate what they were learning into their own home settings.

Dr. Rosalee Velloso Ewell, one of last year’s global contributors, sums up the Middle East Consultation well:

What is unique about this gathering is the way it has blended and brought together both theological reflection and stories from the grassroots. This has made it quite a unique consultation. Usually, theoretical and practical are not in such a conversation. It is an excellent way to equip and include the participants in what is going on in the region. The participants are hearing from one another. The table groups makes it a working consultation, instead of passive listening – and that is very important.

ABTS President Elie Haddad says of this years consultation:

The Middle East Consultation continues to grow, not just in the number of participants, but in its impact. Every year we get to wrestle with crucial issues as we actively engage in missio Dei in the Arab world. This year was no different. It was a rich experience and provided many challenges that have impacted our understanding, our attitudes, and our behavior. The highlights for me were: First, the stories of what God is doing among the people of the Middle East and North Africa. Second, the theological and sociological frameworks that the global consultants provided for the stories. But most of all, it was the solid biblical foundation that was laid for discipleship in our context. I find it impossible to engage in these consultations without being profoundly changed.

Additional Voices:

I was impressed how the MEC 2015 consultation fostered a broad set of perspectives on the subject of identity, belonging and discipleship in the Middle East today. Those from any one philosophy of ministry were able to discuss and appreciate multiple approaches to reaching into these dynamic societies, and together we rooted our attitudes in a solid biblical foundation. This is the kind of creative evangelical climate I like to be around, and I believe it will be critical for our agility and partnership as we face unprecedented developments in this region.

Brad Gill, Editor of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology

This conference has been very beneficial to me. In the morning sessions we have been talking about when holding on to your identity is sinful and not sinful. In our church in Sudan we have 45 members that includes Nubians, Sudanese of Egyptian origin, Sudanese of Ethiopian origin, South Sudanese, and Sudanese. As a pastor of this small but diverse community, it’s important to understand identity. Our prayer as a church council is that the church accepts and embraces all Sudanese ethnicities.

Sudanese Church Leader

The coffee breaks were great! I loved how they did that [in] round tables [discussion groups] which were enlightening. I enjoyed getting to know people from different backgrounds. The morning devotions with Pastor Hikmat Kashouh were excellent and very beneficial… We enjoyed the variety of speakers form a broad spectrum. I personally benefited from the sessions with Tim Green on identity. I will use this material in my Introduction to Missions class.

Tony Maalouf, Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

MEC 2015 also provided the opportunity for people to hear from well-respected Muslim leaders on issues of relevance to the consultation. Martin Accad facilitated fascinating interviews with a Shiite Sheikh exploring the question:

  • Are religious minorities better off under Muslim, Christian or secular rule?

At another point, Martin explored with a Sunni Judge the question:

  • Can Muslims live out the ideal of Ummah in Western societies and how does this relate to the application of Islamic law?

Given the close relationship IMES has with these leaders, consultation participants were impressed to hear the open and honest discourses that these inter-faith forums allowed. The IMES mandate to bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond certainly was achieved in large part, for many, during these sessions:

This is my first time in Lebanon and in the Middle East. I have had a very positive experience at this consultation. I was very impressed that we can talk about these issues openly… Having Sunni and Shi’ite clerics speak openly and candidly about issues of faith is not something I am used to. I hope we can do additional conferences like this one in South East Asia where I am from.

Singaporean Leader and Professor

Our morning scripture reflections were led by ABTS Research Professor Rev. Dr. Hikmat Kashouh. We were all inspired by the way in which he drew such deep insights on the theme of identity within the early church, and how applicable it was to the present day experience of the church in the MENA region. Quoting one of our previous global consultants, Dr. Andrew Kirk suggests that:

Each community should develop its own contextualized theology which submits to the global theology of the Body of Christ, and this is exactly what this consultation is allowing us to do. Keeping lines of communication between different churches and movements open to the global church, allowing us to have insights and look at parallels in different contexts but all resembling the work of God on earth and the one Body of Christ.

Finally, MEC 2015 had for the first time its very own ‘poet in residence’. UK poet Lucy Berry provoked, inspired and challenged us with her poems on the theme of identity and belonging, many of which were written during the course of and in response to the emerging themes of the consultation. I conclude, therefore, with two of Lucy’s contributions:

No Photographs

We have had our conversations,

we have had some honest laughs,

we have shared with different nations

on our long, steep paths,

taken courage, inspiration –

but no photographs;

pictures not taken for safety’s sake,

here are some of the pictures I did not take.

A room full of people facing all one way

but facing such different choices

with some too shy to know what to say

some losing, some finding their voices,

some not permitted voices.

Hands shaking and lips kissing.

Friends arriving and friends missing.

Speakers arriving and speakers leaving.

The sheep found, the coin found

the family grieving.

The child both found and lost

is saved at such a cost

that it’s hard to be believing.

And food, and food, and cake! And bread;

our testament that God is good.

Blood of the lamb, and shifting tents

and trusting, mistrusting big events

mistrusting, or trusting the other

trusting, mistrusting our brother,

including, excluding our mother.

People outside, people inside,

tears we barely tried to hide,

blood of the lamb, and sacrifice

and attempted suicide.

I picture what I think you said.

I have an image of your meaning.

I have an image of what you heard

and I hope you caught my meaning.

But how do you catch mist in a jar?

With an un-taken photograph?

My big picture is a pillar of fog

on a long steep path.

All I can show, which is clear, is sincere prayer

and our collective, mutual yearning

and belief in a descending dove

and little flames burning

and so many shades of love

and good-will and my wish not to mind

that we are all so determinedly odd

and – in each un-taken picture – the glimpse, there,

just there,

of the hand of God.

©Lucy Berry

Babel

At our conferences,

our consultations,

our lectures

our sermons…

when we are being public people

in public places with public faces

we are all saying the same thing:

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome.

Even in our different languages,

with heads bent in prayer or head-phones on

we are saying the same thing:

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome!

Christian people in public places

with open faces.

—————————————-

But on the ground,

could I speak to you in your language, in private?

Even if I speak your language;

could I hear what you might speak?

can I speak what you might hear?

Even if we’ve words in common

do we share an open ear?

At the start it seems so simple,

and we both seem very able

I say table, you hear table.

You say table, I hear table.

I say chair and you hear chair.

You say chair and I hear chair;

nothing terrifying there.

But if we move up a level:

I say let go, you hear despair.

You say welcome I hear beware.

I say shame. You say blame.

You say shame. I say blame.

Babel, storey upon storey,

hangs between us in the air.

And so I take my headphones off and watch:

Watch your face.

Watch your hands.

Watch you smile.

Watch your eyes shining,

your arms waving,

your thoughts forming,

your memories flooding

your hopes dreaming….

I no longer know what you’re saying,

but I see what you are meaning

and there is honesty there.

And the muddle of this struggle

and this troubled kind of babble

and the power of the tower

then collapses into rubble.

For I do not know what you’re saying,

But I see what you are meaning.

and there is

Peace

Love

Justice

Patience

and

Welcome there,

which we might share…?

©Lucy Berry

MEC2016 will take place between 20-24 June, at ABTS. We will continue to explore the theme of discipleship within the MENA context, although the specific focus next year will likely be either persecution or ecclesiology. Stay tuned to the IMES blog for updates.

Touching the Heart of a Refugee

by Kathryn Kraft

Zahle church

A few weeks ago, I was sharing with a friend at my church in London about my research with churches in Lebanon. As Rupen Das described in a post several months ago, many churches in Lebanon are providing assistance including food, blankets, clothing, or education, to refugees, most of whom are from Syria. They also engage refugees in a variety of other social and religious activities within the everyday life of the church. Churches are doing this as an expression of Christ’s love for all people, and out of an understanding of what it means to be “Church” in the world today.

Then I told my friend that one of the most interesting things about how churches are assisting refugees, is that they are doing more than just providing life-saving material aid. There is a deeper element to what they are doing. For example, even though most Syrian refugees are Muslim, new friendships are being built between them and Lebanese Christian church members. For many, this is the first time they become friends with someone of a different religious tradition. In addition, refugees are learning new skills and having the opportunity to engage in different types of activities than they ever did back home. These might include literacy, artisan crafts, or the Bible. In all these ways and more, churches are seeking to meet the most urgent and deeply-felt needs of the refugees they serve.

My friend then commented, “So in other words, the churches are doing good work, but they aren’t having any kind of spiritual impact?”

To which I responded in protest: “No! This is spiritual impact!” I sensed a degree of hope and joy when refugees described the assistance they were receiving from churches, and surely there is something inherently spiritual about hope and joy!

But I find I lack a vocabulary for explaining how Christians can have a spiritual impact in the lives of others, without any pretence of forcing them to become Christians. We might say that the love of Christ can touch all hearts, but such a statement feels somehow abstract. So, as I seek a vocabulary to capture how churches in Lebanon can be engaging spiritually in the lives of refugees in a sensitive and needs-responsive way, I want to describe a few ways in which I see churches touching people’s hearts on a spiritual level, crossing religious divides as they do so:

1) Most churches have volunteers, usually Lebanese Christians who are members of the church, visiting refugees in their homes on a regular basis. This is considered good practice in humanitarian aid provision, because the volunteers can verify that the families really are struggling and need assistance, and that they actually use the assistance they receive. But it is also a means of building relationships and trust. Many refugees are scared to be honest with fellow refugees, because war is still raging in their home country and they aren’t sure whom they can trust. They may have seen or experienced intense suffering or violence and continue to carry this weight in their heart: after all, telling our stories is therapeutic. Having a new friend, someone who is not connected to their family or to their problems back home, often means having one person with whom they can share, cry and laugh freely. One Lebanese Christian woman, for example, told me that she had become close friends with a young Syrian bride, who was separated from her own parents and didn’t feel very comfortable around her in-laws. This young woman was always excited when her new Lebanese friend came to visit, and quickly opened up about her struggle and hopes.

2) Many refugees told me that they love going to church. They feel it is a peaceful building, and when they step through the doors, they begin to relax. It provides a space of refuge in a life otherwise marked by myriad stresses including trauma, poverty, discrimination, and worry for the wellbeing of family members. A pastor told me that he knows of Syrian Muslims who walk half an hour every week to come to church, just in order to touch the wall and have a few moments of rest.

3) Some Lebanese church members find themselves praying regularly with refugees. Many volunteers on home visits have a moment of prayer at the end of their visit. Others sit down with refugees in the church building and, after talking about their material needs and their concerns regarding details such as their children’s education or their husband’s unemployment, they take a few minutes to pray about those needs with the refugees. There is something deeply spiritual about together beseeching God in our moments of deepest need.

4) Life as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon is, often, quite boring and listless. Many refugees live in cramped quarters, a one-room shelter for a family of five or more. The children are likely to be out of school. The parents are unlikely to have found employment. They all might be scared to venture out too often due to fear of harassment on the streets. Their extended family and friends from back home are all far away, so they have no social network. Church activities helps break that monotony. They give people somewhere to go and something to do. One Syrian woman told me that every Sunday she gives her children a bath and gets them all dressed up to attend a meeting at church; it is the main social event on their calendar. Many refugees have made new friends at church, and some refugees attend several meetings a week at church. This new routine gives their lives a sliver of meaning, something much appreciated when everything else feels so empty and monotonous. There may be other activities that refugees could engage in, rather than church, but many find a community at church, and enjoy participating in church-sponsored activities.

When talking about humanitarian crises, such as the fall-out of war in Syria, in which millions of people have lost their homes and now struggle to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, it is important to meet people’s urgent material and physical needs. Churches are to be commended for helping refugees find food, shelter and other basic needs. But it is not enough. Their spirits also need care, something that people of faith understand well. As the Body of Christ transmits hope and love in a world where so many people are suffering so deeply, they are meeting the felt needs of the people they are serving. Also, I want people who attend churches in Lebanon or in London or anywhere, to see the spiritual impact they can have.

What’s Happening at IMES this June 2015?

Without question, June is consistently our busiest month of the year at the Institute of Middle East Studies. As such, we wish to highlight a number of the projects that we have been working on as we seek to fulfill our institutional mandate: To bring about positive transformation in thinking and practice between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.

1) Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa (June 15-19)

Capture MEC 2015The Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East & North Africa, 15 – 19 June 2015, focuses on specific opportunities and 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.

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.

As such, the core of MEC 2015 consists 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, conversations with global thinkers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and practical training workshops.

For more information about MEC 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, please click here or contact IMES@abtslebanon.org.

Click Here to Apply!

2) MRel in MENA Studies – MENA History, Politics and Economics Residency (June 22-July 3)

Capture MRel 2015Immediately following MEC 2015, students in IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MRel in MENA Studies) program begin two very full weeks for the residency portion of their MENA History, Politics and Economics module, under the supervision of Dr. Rupen Das. As lead faculty for the MENA History, Politics and Economics module Dr. Das will be assisted by Jesse Wheeler as support instructor and Elias Ghazal as holistic formation instructor.

The MENA History, Politics and Economics module seeks to develop an inter‐disciplinary understanding of the historical, political and economic dynamics that have shaped the contemporary Middle East and North Africa. This course looks at the formative historical developments of the modern era, major macroeconomic issues at present, and the complexities of regional poverty. It seeks also to explore the manner by which such realities intersect with the idea of the Kingdom of God, as a lens through which to understand and engage with the contemporary MENA. As part of the residency, students will gain training in contextual analysis, needs assessment and problem analysis, project design (developing the logic for change), and peace-building frameworks and strategies, as well as learning first hand from a variety of practitioners in the region.

During their residency, students and faculty will be together in the same location for a unique and intensive learning experience, all the while being exposed to the rich historical, cultural, and religious heritage of the Middle East. As part of their residency, students from as far away as Brazil, Cyprus, the U.K., Korea, the U.S., Egypt, Singapore, Tanzania, and of course Lebanon itself will be studying the MENA region, within the MENA region!

For more information about the MRel in MENA Studies program, please follow the appropriate links: Program Overview/Academic Flow and Delivery Format/Core Modules/Faculty

Click Here to Apply!

3) Middle East Immersion, Lebanon 2015 (June 15 – July 17)

MEI Lebanon LogoMiddle East Immersion (MEI), Lebanon provides international students the opportunity to practice intercultural work in a dynamic context and engage in mutual learning between Christian and Muslim communities. Graduate seminary and intercultural studies students have the opportunity to earn academic credit in fulfillment of practicum requirements, while being exposed to Muslim-Christian relations in the context of Lebanon.

Now in its 9th year, MEI Lebanon has hosted international students from Fuller Theological Seminary, Truett Theological Seminary, Talbot School of Theology, Bethel Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, among others, who have come to spend their summers in Lebanon and study under the guidance of IMES.

While in Lebanon, students participate in the following:

  • The Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Intensive Levantine-Arabic language study with the Academy of Languages and Practical Skills (ALPS)
  • A cross-cultural practicum placement meeting the specific interests and skills of the student
  • Field visits, weekend excursions, church and mosque visits, and extra activities throughout Beirut and Lebanon

For students or institutions interested in learning more about IMES’s Middle East Immersion program, please follow the appropriate links: Program Overview/Testimonials/Academics/Admissions.

4) The Feast, Lebanon

Feast_BW_with_tagThe Feast in Lebanon is about great quality youth work with religiously diverse young people who are committed to their faith. IMES helps facilitate a youth group in Lebanon comprised of Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Maronite Christian, and Evangelical Christian young people, aged 15-19. Over time, and as the young people get to know each other better, we hope that not only they but their families and communities will be impacted for the better.

While it is a good end in and of itself for individual young people’s relationships to be developed with those from different faith communities, it is our hope that The Feast, by virtue of these relationships, will also have wider peace-building implications. The Feast Lebanon youth group meets every two weeks for a diverse menu of activities, each inspired by faith.

The Feast is about religion [and religious faith] having a positive impact, rather than what is often considered negative. Yet, as an intentionally youth-led initiative, we encourage young people to decide on the specific activities they themselves see as important [and fun]. In the future, we hope to be able to put on ‘Feast events’ in different parts of Lebanon, thus creating a movement of young people who will break down the barriers of ignorance and mistrust.

What Could Christians Learn from the ‘Party of God’?

by Elias Ghazal

If you are familiar with the politics of the Middle East, you might be disturbed by the title of this blogpost.  That’s because the Party of God is not some right wing pro-Christian party that serves a Christian cause in the Middle East.  The Party of God is none other than Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is classified as a terrorist organization in the US, Canada, Israel, and a number of Arab countries.  So is there anything to learn from a “terrorist” organization?

Hezbollah is an exclusively Shiite political party with a military wing, invariably promoted as the Islamic Resistance.  The story of Hezbollah is peculiar once you consider the history and context of Shiites in Lebanon.  For decades, Shiites suffered poverty and injustice at the hands of their own countrymen. They were grossly deprived and underrepresented in the young Lebanese Republic.  As a religious sect in a Maronite-Druze-Sunni dominated environment, the group maintained a quietist approach to survive. Today, Hezbollah is the leading Shiite party in the country and it represents a major power player in Lebanon, and in the region.  In a relatively short period of time, Hezbollah evolved from a local Islamic militia to a highly trained and well equipped army.  It transformed its image from a terrorist organization to a formidable political party.  It morphed into a state within a state with increasing popularity amongst its constituents.  Hezbollah offered Shiites an alternative option to the corrupt, and often-absent Lebanese government.

Hezbollah does not hide its belief in the supremacy of Islam as a governing system, but it recognizes that such a system must be implemented as a result of a direct and free choice of the people.  According to Hezbollah’s doctrines, establishing an Islamic state is not an end in itself, but a means for instituting justice. This explains the party’s lax pursuit for an Islamic state, and focus on social work.  Hezbollah offers services that range from basic ones such as delivering drinking water, garbage collection and snow removal, to more advanced ones like high quality schooling, affordable healthcare, housing rehabilitation, business consultation, lines of credit, and social security facilities.  Having begun only in the early 1980s, Hezbollah became by the mid-1990s one of the country’s most efficient and professional service providers, rivaling the government itself! Hezbollah’s social services improved living standards of many Shiite communities.  Hezbollah advanced in power and popularity as a result of people’s trust in and allegiance to the party.

So, what’s that got to do with us? The situation of Christians in the Middle East is similar to that of the Shiites.  We are both religious minorities.  We both have deep roots in this part of the world.  Both of us strive for equitable living standards and fair opportunities. Christians and Shiites struggle to secure their place in the Middle East as indigenous and integral parts of its culture and society.  How each group tries to achieve that differs, and here’s where we can learn from Hezbollah’s experience, as patron of Lebanon’s Shiites.

Hezbollah bound itself in an Islamic framework of thinking that would have typically isolated it. However, through a policy of infitah (opening up) it was able to integrate itself in the state system; most evidently by participating in the parliamentary elections, providing social services, and by building an expansive network of relationship with Lebanon’s other sects.  Hezbollah did not lock itself behind dogmas that stifle its ascent.  Instead, Hezbollah’s leaders reinterpreted the party’s religious-political ideology in light of the new post-civil war reality.  Ultimately, Hezbollah won 12 out of 128 seats in the 1992 parliamentary elections, and nine in 1996, making it the largest single party block both times.  Most certainly, Hezbollah’s re-imagination of itself in the new context secured, and even elevated, its place in Lebanese society.  It survived the tide to dismantle it by exercising a degree of ideological flexibility, though without losing its core supporters.

The point is unmistakable: it is about doing contextual theology. “Context” has been the buzz word in Christian circles for the last couple of years…and for good reasons.  The urgency to do contextual theology is more pressing than ever.  Christians can look to the past for reference, but to make a difference in the present world we need to be free from any particular form of Christianity that hinders the spread of the Gospel.  We must ask tough questions, such as: what should Middle Eastern Christianity look like in an age of Islamic militarism? How is our theology impacted by the tsunami of Christians evacuating the region?  In what ways must the church in the Middle East change to accommodate the multitudes of non-Christians coming to faith in Christ?  If the answer to any of these questions does not look radically different from answers to similar questions a decade or two ago, then there is a high risk of rendering Christianity irrelevant.  Our theology, statements of faith, mission, and worship services should make sense in relation to our current place and time.

To be clear, the goal is not to emulate Hezbollah. Far from it.  Hezbollah remains a military organization that uses violence to advance its agenda.  Nor is Hezbollah the only example of doing contextual theology.  That would be a gross misrepresentation.  What the case of Hezbollah provides is a contemporary and unconventional example of how dogma could be contextualized to gain legitimacy, and have a positive impact on people (in this case, Shiites in particular).  With that example in mind, and given the mounting turmoil in the Middle East, Christians have a responsibility to revisit their theology and revise it to speak to the spirit of the time.

Elias Ghazal coordinates the recently launched ABTS Online program, an Arabic-language, Internet-based program of study that aims to equip Arab Christian leaders all over the world for ministry. Elias also serves as an instructor with IMES’ MRel in MENA Studies Program, as part of the MENA History, Politics and Economics module.

Faith, Identity and Empire: Ethnic Minorities in Constant Flux

By Rose Khouri

Western academia is filled with research on the effects of a colonialist, imperialistic Christianity and its intersection with modern identities. As my colleague Jesse Wheeler alluded to last week, from the native peoples of the modern day United States to the descendants of Africans taken from their homes as slaves and shipped to the “New World”, there are millions of Christians – practicing or culturally – today whose ancestors did not choose to follow Christ willingly. Their struggle with identity is well-documented, particularly the African American “revert” movement during the 1950s and 1960s, a phase and a result of the broader ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

The core belief of the revert movement was that a significant number of the Africans taken to the New World were Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity, hence the idea of “re-converting” or reverting to Islam (a number that most researchers today do not consider to be sizeable). Another core element of the reversion movement is that Islam teaches the equality of races in the eyes of God, a teaching practiced today with mixed results around the Muslim world. But in 1950s America, it would have indeed stood out to those surrounded by “Christian” neighbors active in their dehumanization.

This reversion also encompassed a quest for personal identity, by African Americans whose original identities had been taken away by white masters.[1] In a revert’s own words:

“The Afro-American people have Islam in their hearts […] We have it on our tongues as we struggle to pronounce the Arabic which we have forgotten, but with which perhaps we came as slaves. This was the culture that was stripped from us, along with the language and religion. Most critically, the religion of Islam was taken from us through slavery.”[2]

Identity is often overlooked by those involved in ministry; rarely is its importance in religious life and practice of faith fully understood, especially by those who practice the faith of their family and community. While identity crisis may spark conversion, or at least open doors to a new conversation about faith, it can also develop a spiritual crisis as a new convert struggles to understand who they are and how they fit back into their society.

To observe the different ways identity intersects with faith, I pulled stories from two different ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world: the Kurds and the Algerian Amazigh (historically known as the Berbers), both communities currently witnessing the rapid spread of the Gospel.

Both the Kurds (found mostly in modern-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran) and the Algerian Amazigh (the Amazigh are found all over West North Africa) are ethnic minorities in the Arab Muslim world that can trace their identity back centuries before the invasion of the Arab Muslims from the East. But the Algerian Amazigh are undergoing a much stronger period of ethnic nationalism compared to their neighbors. I would argue that what pushed them to develop a stronger ethnic, rather than nationalistic, identity is the poor treatment and second-class status they received under an all-Arab government that historically oppressed them. The Amazigh trace their origins back nearly 2000 years before Christ and the Kurds consider themselves the modern day descendants of the Medes who are documented in the Old Testament. Despite their vast geographic differences, both the Amazigh and the Kurds share surprisingly similar views of the Arab Muslims. I believe this is playing a strong role in fostering the emergence of the Church among both people groups.

I spoke with a young Amazigh woman about how her people perceive Arabs and she told me that the Amazigh perceive Arabs as colonizers. The Amazigh are the original ethnic people of the land and have their own culture, language, and even calendars (she informed me that we are actually in year 2965). The Arabs pushed into Algeria through Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and gradually forced Islam and Arabization upon the people. The Amazigh, then ruled by Queen Kahina, initially accepted Islam and the Arabs. However according to their traditions, Queen Kahina told her two sons not to enter into the Islamic religion, and so the local Arab Emir or governor, ordered her killed.

Today the Amazigh live under Arab rule in Algeria. They are not considered equal to their Arab neighbors in the eyes of the government. A movement started in the 1980s to reclaim the Amazigh identity, headed by the famous Algerian Amazigh writer Mouloud Mammeri who taught and wrote books in the Amazigh language despite government pressure. Christianity took hold and began to spread again in Algeria, as large movements of “revert” Amazigh moved to reclaim their own identities. As my friend told me,

“Amazigh means ‘free man’ in our language. We want to preserve our language. We want to reclaim our identity; we are not part of this Arabization. We are reclaiming our identities from these conquerors.”

The Kurds likewise are experiencing a new period of ethnic nationalism and greater freedom to pursue an alternate course to the religious and cultural values which they feel were once forced upon them. The world’s largest group of stateless people is spread out around the Levant and Central Asia, particularly in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – experiencing different levels of oppression and integration. Gassed by the thousands in Iraq, forcibly resettled and assimilated in Turkey, and abandoned by their government in Syria, the Kurds have taken advantage of the dissolving states around them to pursue greater independence and have been building stronger ethno-nationalistic ties. Along with these new opportunities for ethno-nationalism has come the startling spread of the Gospel, particularly among Syrian Kurds.

When I asked a young man of Syrian Kurd ethnicity here in Lebanon the same question I asked my Amazigh friend, he replied,

“Kurds feel that Arabs forced Islam on them. That’s their major issue. They feel that they’ve lost their identity because of the Arabs. Of course, by Arabs they also mean Islam. Some of them actually use ‘Arab’ as a curse word. I think it’s a matter of identity; they don’t want to identify themselves with Arabs. I’ve been feeling like their openness to the Gospel is a way to get rid of the Islamic identity. A Kurdish friend of mine explained that when he meets with his people, he opens the Bible and shows them the passages that refers to the Kurds. He tells them, ‘You have an identity in the Bible, do you have one in the Qur’an?’”

Identity is still an under-explored area. Not only is identity clearly playing a role in how people interact with, adopt, and even reject religion. The question of identity remains in contention even after a person moves from one religion to another. For those of non-Christian backgrounds living in the Middle East and North Africa, how they develop new identities after rejecting or lifting their previous identity – or even if this is possible, or necessary – is an emerging field that deserves greater study.

I conclude, therefore, with the words of IMES Director Martin Accad, from a personal conversation:

“It strikes me that some traditional approaches to evangelism are doing the same as Arab Islam did. Muslims are often pulled out of context, so that they lose (yet again) their identity and culture. They are stripped of their core identity as culture and traditions are confused for religion. A new culture is imposed along with the new religion of Christianity that is proposed to them. It is hard to miss that this approach will prevent the Gospel from taking root effectively.

“Ultimately, this has important implications for discipleship: as Amazigh, Kurds and others embrace Christ’s life and teaching, the top priority of those journeying with them should be to help these women and men sort through their identity issues and learn to love and embrace who they are, as they reinterpret it in the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ.”

Editor’s Note: IMES will be exploring such issues of identity during the Middle East Consultation 2015 – Discipleship Today: Identity and Belonging in the Middle East and North Africa, 15 – 19 June. For additional information about MEC 2015, or to attend, please follow the appropriate links.

____________________

[1] Jane I. Smith, Islam in America. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

Demographic Anxieties, Imperial Compromises and the Crucified Messiah

By Jesse Wheeler

“The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!” Derek Rishmawy

Early April, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth demographic study titled, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of Global population.”

According to the report, “while many people have offered predictions about the future of religion, these are the first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Key highlights from the report include the projections that:

“If current demographic trends continue, however, Islam will nearly catch up by the middle of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase.1 Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall. As a result, according to the Pew Research projections, by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.”

The obvious conclusion from such an important study is that Christians and Muslims, as well as theists and non-theists for that matter, must learn to get along for the sake of global concord, hence my belief in the importance of our work at IMES. (Of course, this reality is already here: I used to pass two mosques, a Sikh temple, a synagogue, and a Buddhist shrine as I drove between my home and the church at which I served in Southern California.) These are the basic realities of our post/late-modern world.

However, my second immediate observation is that tiny, yet religiously complex Lebanon has the potential to serve as an excellent case-study for what such a future world might entail. Not to sound too self-important, but the actions taken, the hospitality shown, and the interfaith relationships formed now in the regional microcosm that is Lebanon can serve as a model, for good or ill, as to the future of our planet. (The irony, however, is the fact that in Lebanon many can drive to and from church without passing a single mosque. Or vice versa… so, we meet at the mall instead.)

Identity Politics and Imperial Compromises

The silliness of such demographic studies, however, derives from the manner by which we use them to buttress our identity politics. There seems to exist a bizarre sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that we Christians remain “Number 1!” and that our top position, for the time being, is secure. Somehow, we are still winning the religion race. On the other hand, the sense of moral panic derived from the notion that Islam is catching up, and might one day surpass us, is likewise silly.

In this, I am reminded of the ongoing feud in Lebanon regarding which buildings have the tallest minarets or bell towers. Apparently when it comes to the mission of God, the bigger the better.

churches downtown

Downtown Beirut: campanile extension project. (Photo source)

Yet, there is a darker story to this competition for numerical, architectural, and often geographical predominance between the world’s most numerous religions. Historian Richard Bulliet poses an important demographic question in The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization:

“Suppose… one were to ask what percentage of the world Muslim community is composed of descendants of people who converted to Islam between 1500 and 1900. The answer would surely exceed 50 percent. [B]y contrast, if one were to ask what percentage of today’s [Christian] populations descend from ancestors who converted to Christianity between 1500 and 1900, the answer would be well under 20 percent.”[1]

What accounts for the difference? In Bulliet’s account “European monarchs trumpeted their intent to Christianize the world, but settled for economics and military might. Muslim rulers… strove mightily to create rich and powerful land empires, but only sporadically thought of converting their subject peoples to Islam.”[2] So counterintuitively, Islam ‘won’ the conversion game. For ultimately:

“Parts of Africa and Asia saw ‘unofficial Islam’ succeed precisely because it was a potent alternative to the Christianity being propounded by the imperialists. If imperialism was a form of foreign tyranny, Islam, unwavering in its vision of a universal and legal moral order, increasingly became the bastion of resistance to tyranny.”[3]

In the face of western colonialism, often undertaken with the tacit approval of Christian religious authorities, a form of ‘unofficial Islam’ took up the banner of the Resistance, and grew exponentially as a result![4]

This innate drive towards numeric, architectural and geographic security often results in the tendency to ally ourselves with empire. The fact, however, is that such alliances have often resulted in the exact opposite of their stated intent. The historic inability of the visible Church to divest itself from imperial power has too often resulted in guilt by association, scapegoating, and flat out rejection, such that the very drive causing us to gloat/panic over demographics is the very cause for our having “lost the race.”

The Crucified Messiah

Even more so, such alliances represent a betrayal of our crucified messiah, who models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial love in his rejection of imperial compromise. In the words of Joseph Cummings:

“It used to be commonly said that Islam was Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I believe that is not true. I believe that Satan’s greatest masterpiece was the crusades.  Why? Is it because the Crusades were the worst atrocity that ever happened in history? I think Hitler was worse. Pol Pot was worse.

What is horrible about the crusades is that it was done under the symbol of the cross, that Satan succeeded in distorting the very heart of the Christian faith.[5]

With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns. To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is to therefore surrender our claim to numeric, geographic, (and even architectural) domination, as we trust in the resurrection and the ultimate Lordship of Christ Jesus.

________________________

[1] Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 40 – 41

[2] Ibid., 43

[3] Ibid.

[4] It’s important to note that this isn’t ancient history, but rather provides the historical context for Pew’s demographic projections.

[5] Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 323

Judeo-Christian-ism Meets Islam-ism

Muhammad Preaching

Persian or central Asian illustration showing Mohammed (on the right) preaching

By Martin Accad

Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders, and others, are inadvertently the spearheads of Islamism in the US and Europe! This may sound like a bit of a radical statement, but perhaps it really isn’t.

The situation is so getting out of hand that a bit of tweaking here and a bit of patting there has ceased to be useful. This is why I choose to start this post with such a radical statement.

Once again, through the highly mediatized event held in Texas three days ago, the ‘Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,’ a few authors, politicians and bloggers that have made a big name since September 11, 2001, have successfully handed another great victory to violent men who act in the name of Islam. This is not the first time of course. But this time it is easier to comment, since there were no deaths apart from the two gunmen, and most would not view these deaths as a loss…

I commend the group of young Muslim activists who decided to hold their own ‘Draw Muhammad’ contest in response to Geller. Their initiative is a peaceful and creative challenge to the widely-held misperception that it is the mere drawing of Muhammad which is the problem here, rather than the offensive and brash representations that would be viewed as of pretty ‘bad taste’ by any account.

Newsweek had already well documented this point last January when they ran a story about Iranian depictions of Muhammad. Not all branches of Islam have objected to the representation of their prophet through history. And certainly Iranian Islam has sat quite comfortably with such depictions through most of its history. But I digress…

The Church globally is in need of more prophetic voices that would help overturn the current destructive tide of the mainstream. What alternative do we have? Could it be that God is calling us to a religious war against Islam? Most serious followers of Jesus’ ways would not venture to say this. Or is he calling us to cave in to fanatics on both sides? Not his ‘style’ either… He must, then, be calling us to some sort of prophetic way of being, which would help reposition the Church as a challenge to the ‘dominant consciousness’ (as Brueggemann would put it in his The Prophetic Imagination) with regards to Islam, in the current atmosphere.

So what is it that is so disturbing in the behavior of the likes of Geller, Spencer and Wilders?

First of all, their initiatives continuously offer ‘soft targets’ for Muslim religious fanatics. This was once again demonstrated a few days ago in Texas. The same resulted from the drawings of the Danish and French cartoonists, as well as from the initiative of some obscure ‘pastor’ in Florida, who a few years ago suddenly decided that he would burn himself a few Qur’āns. These ‘stunts’ carried out in the West have now become costly on the perpetrators themselves. But they are infinitely more costly for multitudes of Christians living across the Muslim world whose churches get burnt down and who suffer massacres at the hand of fanatics in response.

Secondly, such behavior increases and promotes a misinformed understanding of Islam. I will continue to argue that Islam is what Muslims make of it. If some Muslims are violent in its name, then Islam’s Scripture has the capacity to inspire violence. If other Muslims are peaceful and loving in the name of their religion, this means that the Qur’ān also has the capacity to inspire peaceful and loving behavior. The Scripture of any religion only finds meaning in the interpretation that its bearers give it. But once non-Muslims begin to insist that the only ‘true Islam’ is the one that manifests itself violently, they cannot claim objectivity. They have simply bought into the ideology of ‘the terrorists.’

Third, people like Geller, Spencer and Wilders obstruct the practice of truthful and useful relations. It is not through indignant outcry that the most crucial and sensitive Muslim challenges perceived by non-Muslims will be addressed effectively. Rather, it is through the use of multifaith platforms that we are able to address important questions like the persecution of Muslim converts, the religious intolerance of Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, or Sudan, or the call of some streams of Islam for the establishment of Islamic Law in the West.

Has the Church played a part in allowing, or even promoting, the spread of this anti-Muslim hateful atmosphere in our societies?

There is no shortage of hurt, disenchanted, disaffected, and marginalized Muslim young people around the world with negative feelings towards the West. This is arguably the result of deteriorated historical relations between East and West, fueled by post-colonial tyrannical regimes in the Muslim world that are often still maintained in power by neo-colonial western agendas. But I would argue as well that the Church has not been responding adequately to this reality. Instead of reaching out in love to those despaired young people, the Church often contributes in fanning their flame of fanaticism and awakening the demons in them.

Secondly, the Church has allowed itself to be influenced by hatred and fear. Many fall for the narrative of Geller, Spencer, Wilders and others who have made a name for themselves as a result of 9/11. They have built their careers largely by feeding the devouring flames of fear, ignorance and hatred. Instead of seeking to be an alternative voice, we have too often bought into this narrative. We have reacted, not with the calls for justice, love of neighbor, and embrace of the enemy, as taught us by the Biblical prophets, but more often by adopting a supremacist and exclusivist ideology closer to the dominant attitude that Jesus opposed among many of his Jewish contemporaries.

Finally, the Church’s paralysis resulting from this discourse has prevented it from leading a campaign of love and embrace. I believe issues such as that of the headscarf, the building of mosques and minarets, the application of Sharia precepts, and other such hot topics currently being debated in the street and through finger-pointing, can only be resolved through dialogue.

The Church’s feeble, and often counterproductive, response has allowed the emergence of issues out of what could have remained non-issues. Would the Church normally stand for imposing a certain dress or preventing another? Would we normally support the obstruction of people’s freedom to worship the way they please and in whichever building they choose? If we have done so at certain times in our history, my understanding is that we’d like to promote the exact opposite. Would we really object to allowing certain communities in our midst from conducting their own affairs in a way that reflects their deepest convictions, so long as these were aligned with agreed principles of justice?

There exists in the Lebanese legal system a model worth considering, which entrusts each of our 18 religious communities with the responsibility of managing our own family affairs through specialized religious courts. The complexity of this issue would merit its own blog, which I hope to do at some point. But we must remember at the very least that Jurisprudence is by definition far more flexible than the conspiracy discourse would have us believe.

Of course when it comes to Islam, we claim that this would lead to human rights abuses and what not. But could this be primarily a projection of our own fears and insecurities? When it comes to the application of Sharia, why do we look at Saudi Arabia and Waziristan as the anti-models? Why don’t we look at the model of Lebanon, which is much more likely to emerge from the socio-cultural realities of the West if Muslim communities in the US and Europe were allowed to organize their own family courts? The rights of Muslim women and children are certainly not worse off than those of Christians in Lebanon.

Do we really think that millions of immigrants from Muslim countries (let alone multigenerational Muslim citizens of western countries), who have left inhuman political regimes in the non-western world are longing to reproduce such thuggish structures in their new home? Are they really longing to have the hands of their teenager cut off next time they shoplift a chocolate bar from the convenience store? Or are they really wishing to see their daughter lashed or stoned if she behaves sexually inappropriately during the explorative stages of puberty?

We need to get out of the destructive grip of the erroneous Geller/Spencer/Wilders discourse. It is far too cozy and aligned with the discourses of ISIS, Boko Haram and the Somali Shabab.

The New Face of ISIS

Things are not always as they seem…

A recent article in Spiegel sheds new and significant light on the inner workings of ISIS.  The article is based on documentation discovered in the home of one of the Islamic State’s chief architects—Haji Bakr—a former Colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Forces—after his demise at the hands of Syrian rebels.[1]  Based on new evidence presented in the article, it seems that the prevailing narrative of ISIS as an offshoot of al-Qaeda whose top leaders are deeply motivated by religion must be revisited and indeed revised.  Read the article to fill in the gaps, but to summarize briefly…ISIS’ highest echelon of leadership may be a cadre of elite Iraqi former military whose dismissal after the American invasion resulted in their captivity and eventual release.  Haji Bakr was one of these who later moved into the anarchy of Syria to establish a beachhead from which to attack Iraq.  The flowchart of ISIS leadership is inspired by totalitarian regimes such as the former East German domestic intelligence agency—“Stasi”.  To be sure, the architects realize the power of religion to mobilize fighters and strike fear into the hearts of dissenters.  They also exploit the Islamic system of jurisprudence to manipulate and control the population.  Thus the name “Islamic State”—a rebirth of the ancient Caliphate of Islam complete with a Caliph who becomes the visible spokesperson.  However, if Spiegel’s report is accurate, the Islamic identity of ISIS is a tactic carefully crafted by former leaders of Saddam Hussein’s military.

Admittedly, the leadership structure of the Islamic State is not altogether clear.  Nevertheless, in light of these new findings, perhaps it is time for a few penetrating questions.  I ask them as a Jesus-follower whose primary concern is how Jesus is understood among Muslims.  First and foremost, I ask these questions of myself.

First question: Have I at any time smugly congratulated myself that I do not belong to a religion that beheads Christians, slaughters Yazidis and other minorities, displaces thousands and mercilessly annihilates even other Muslims who dissent? 

I have a tendency to compare the worst aspects of Islam with the best aspects of my faith.  Over quite a few years of interacting with Muslims, I’ve realized how harmful that tendency can be.  So when I hear the news of the most recent beheadings, how do I react?  Do I succumb to the effect of the media tidal wave and simply castigate Islam as the culprit for this senseless perversion?  If I have done so, I must now realize that identifying the culprit requires a more nuanced understanding.  It is certainly true that crimes have been perpetrated in the name of Islam and sometimes the perpetrators draw their inspiration form the core texts of the religion.  However, in this particular case, the masterminds of terror and fear-mongering—the brains behind the operation—do not appear to be religiously inspired.  Rather they are attempting to regain the power base they lost when Saddam’s regime fell.  To do so, they strike fear into the hearts of millions in order to dominate and subjugate anyone who resists them, including Muslims.  Of course, they have successfully recruited a band of disenchanted warriors, possessed by a passion to re-establish the religious, social and economic superiority of Islam.  Still, if the Spiegel article gives us an accurate picture, we can see the militancy of misguided individuals as a pawn on the chessboard of regional power-play and political machination.

Second question: Have ISIS’ antics in any way contributed to my reluctance to personally relate to and interact with Muslim people?

Stereotyping: “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same.”[2] I tend to think I know them all because I have a general impression.  In our media-driven age the impression is usually based on news reports or documentary, not personal encounter.  Right?  Consider Jesus.  How did he respond to the stereotyped peoples of his day?  The dreaded Roman military occupiers—“I have never seen such faith, no, not in Israel.”  The religiously deviant and ethnically compromised Samaritans—“My food is to do the will of him who sent me.  Look at these fields!  They are white—ready to harvest.”  The despised and impure woman—“Take heart, daughter.  Your faith has made you well.”  The turncoat Jewish tax collector: “Come down from there.  I need to stay at your house.”  The Pharisee persecutor of the Way: “I’d like you to represent me!”

Even though Jesus had some tough words for the religious elite of his own people, it seems he never succumbed to the stereotype.  He always overcame it, saw things differently, looked into people’s souls, not their religious affiliations or ethnic features.

Let’s make it clear…that Muslim guy who stocks the shelves at the local big box store, he just may have a delightful sense of humor.  The veiled woman waiting in front of you in line may have a very interesting story to tell.  The student, son of a refugee, may be inspired by a keen sense of social justice.  But we’ll never know if we can’t get beyond the stereotypes to interact with them in a personal way.   Jesus’ method for interacting with a prejudiced people group is simple, direct and personal.  He lingered by the well.  He had a conversation.

Third question: Am I willing to critique my own religious heritage first before criticizing the religion of others?

Over-familiarity has perhaps robbed us of the humor of Jesus’ imagery.  “How can you say ‘let me take the speck out of your eye’ when there is a plank protruding from your own eye?  You hypocrite!  Get the plank out of your own eye and then you can see to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  Jesus’ use of metaphor makes his point with stunning clarity.  Appropriate self-critique can spare us the deep embarrassment of falsely and ignorantly critiquing others.  If Islam, as a religious system, bears some guilt for perpetrating violence, it is not the first religion to do so.  In fact, as I call myself a Christian, I need look no further than the protracted wars of religion in Europe or the Inquisition to find a plank about three meters long jutting out of my eye socket.  Yes, I hear your protest “but that’s not what Jesus taught!”  You’re right.  He didn’t.  So why do we—his followers—get it so wrong, so often, even to this very day?

Please don’t misunderstand me.  The questions I ask are not meant to absolve the Islamic State of its atrocities.  Justice should be served.  My concern is how the identification of ISIS with the religion of Islam is impacting our active engagement in representing Jesus’ kingdom fairly and honestly amongst Muslim peoples in the entire world.  While the Islamic State has taken the religion of Islam as its tactic, its front, we must realize that Islam is every bit as diverse and multi-faceted as Christianity and other world faiths and philosophies.  The radical posture adopted by ISIS fighters represents the extreme right side of the socio-political-religious spectrum of Islam.   In fact it seems fair to say that Islam is experiencing a unique moment in history in which many of the foundational tenets of the faith adopted in medieval times are being questioned openly and forcefully.

I contend that this moment of transition and re-evaluation presents a unique window of opportunity to Jesus-followers.  Islam is in the throes of change, as indeed is our world.  A survey of the history of Muslim-Christian relations reveals embarrassing episodes when Christians were so caught up in the power struggles of their day that they failed to understand the importance of representing the Lord they professed before their Muslim contemporaries.  Our era is similar to those early centuries of the Islamic empire when Muslims and Christians were mingling in the great cities of the Middle East.  Today, however, Muslims live beside us on a world-wide scale.  We attend the same schools, work in the same businesses, view the same social media and download the same books and movies.  Never has the interpenetration of Christians and Muslims throughout the world reached such global proportions.  Never before has the need for honest and humble face to face conversation been greater.  Are we seizing the moment?  Are we lingering by the well?

One final question:  Am I terrorized by the terrorists?

Jesus has something to say about that:

“Fear not.”

_____________________________

[1] Haji Bakr is pseudonym.  The article records his real name as Samir Abd Muhammad Al Khlifawi.  Read the article  here:  Also for another article describing the Baathist roots of the Islamic State, click here.

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

Prejudice and Its Undoing: Knowing and Loving One Pair of God-Crafted Eyes at a Time

By Ashley al-Saliby

How long has it been since anyone has really seen her?

I can’t help but wonder her name and her story as I navigate the sidewalk parallel to the one she’s traveling, both of us with market bags in hand. I’m new here, and by “here” I mean new to my neighborhood, new to this country, new to married life. Everything and everyone are being taken in with sometimes frantic, always curious, eyes and mind that are trying to understand, categorize, evaluate, and make sense of all the “newness.” And so, as I seek to absorb all the data, I can’t stop watching her.

By her I mean the countless migrant, domestic workers doing their chores or errands or childcare or pet care in my neighborhood and all over Beirut. Maybe I feel a connection with them, a desire to know them and understand their stories, because we have something important in common. They and I clearly aren’t from around here, and that’s a kind of significant sisterhood. But, most likely, my eyes keep following them because of the realities my husband has described about the plight many of them face. Not all, but too many, are mistreated by employers. Wages and passports are withheld. Physical and sexual abuse take place. The hopes that led them to migrate here for work quickly dissolve. Some reach a level of despair and desperation that lead to suicide. And so my heart wants to connect with theirs. I want to know their names, their fears, their dreams for the future.

From the beginnings of understanding I’m gathering, migrant domestic workers here seem too often to be victims not only of cruel abuse and injustice but, more pervasively, a widespread dismissal and disdain rooted in a timeless lie: the superiority any group ever feels towards any other group, with various invented criteria fueling the same ugly tendency the world over.

Sometimes it’s a baseless sense of superiority that causes one group of human beings to dismiss another, to deny the value of others, to deem them as less-than. But sometimes the response is stronger. Sometimes the reality is hatred, and the root is often fear. I believe this to be the case with another woman that I grieve to know is often unseen. In Texas I have a sweet friend, a veiled woman who taught me so much more than the language lessons that first brought us together, who has expressed that although she immigrated thirteen years ago from the part of the world I now call home to the place where I grew up, she has never had a friend there.  People draw back from her, as she observes it. They don’t want to know her, to listen to her, or to understand.

And so, whether it’s a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, or a Muslim immigrant in Texas, I’m struck by the fact that prejudice and hatred always exist in broad strokes and generalizations, and usually from a fearful distance. Love, however, only really takes place up close.  We love one heart and one story at a time.

Baseless superiority and fearful hatred come so naturally to human beings, though. It’s our default mode, our go-to attitude toward those who are different, those we don’t understand, or those we think might be a threat. What’s the remedy?

Let’s pause. There was a woman, millennia ago, who was seen. I love the story. It’s rich with truth revealed not only about her, but about the One who saw her. She was trembling, rejected, and alone after fleeing mistreatment. And after the encounter with our Maker that the Old Testament records, her response was a stunning, “I have seen the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). It’s similar to another encounter, between another invisible woman and “God-with-us,” Jesus of Nazareth. This woman, hesitant and desperate, likely expected the disapproval or at least the dismissal of Jesus that she would have been accustomed to receiving from others. But God-with-us stopped the crowd to see her, to know her, and to refer to her with an honoring title, “Daughter” (Mark 5:24-34).

In light of the beauty of these recorded encounters, we should ask some questions of ourselves. In cultures where it is so common (which is all of them), how does hatred become past tense in human hearts? How does our foolish sense of superiority become exposed and then eroded away?

The Bible makes unmistakeably clear that it isn’t through moral reform or positive peer pressure that the needed change will come. Our fears run too deep. The self-deception about our superiority has been too effective. The beginning of the end of our hatred and superiority comes as we, first, encounter the God who sees us, the Redeemer of individual broken ones, the Reconciler of individuals who are distant from Him. If it’s true that hatred and prejudice take place from a distance and with generalizations, but that love happens one human being at a time, we learn this best from God’s interactions with us. We can only be described as those who were “once… hating one another” when we first, transformatively encounter God in His unexpected “loving kindness” (Titus 3:3-5).  We begin to “consider others better than ourselves,” those of another ethnic background, another socio-economic class, another religion we don’t understand or fear, when we first watch the One who stooped humbly to serve and save us (Philippians 2:3-5). The cause-and-effect pattern in these passages is clear. Encountering this “great love,” (Ephesians 2:4), hate-filled hearts are transformed, because love is finally enabled in us, by His grace, that is stronger than the fear that fuels hatred (Ephesians 5:1-2). Encountering the Humble Savior, haughty hearts like mine and yours learn to see ourselves and others as we are: individually made in the image of God, individually in need of redemption, individually sought by the Redeemer.

Where defaulting to condescending generalizations and broad-stroke, seething prejudice are the norm, let’s begin to look with love into one set of valuable, God-crafted eyes at a time, learn one name at a time, and hear one story at a time. I believe it will happen as, one by one, we first see the God who sees us. He is Jesus, God-with-us, who saw the invisible. His eyes are full of redemption. He redeems us from, among other things, the individual pride and fear that combine to create cultures plagued with them.

ashleyAshley is married to Wissam al-Saliby, ABTS Partnerships Manager, and is a recent transplant to Beirut. Currently, she is prayerfully considering how to serve Jesus in the Arab world in this new season of life.