“The World Is Yours!” A Brief Reflection on Citizenship and Stewardship

[Blog Manager’s Note: We will not be posting any new articles during the Summer months of August and September. Please look out for us again as we resume our weekly blogging near the end of September or first week of October. See you soon!]

The World Is Yours_horizontal

By Martin Accad

Yesterday morning, I collected my daughter’s U.S. passport that needed renewal. It was accompanied by a leaflet that read on the front: “With your U.S. passport, the world is yours!” Nothing shocking on first glance; just a sense of pride and patriotism that citizens of most countries feel towards their flag, passport, and other symbols of nationhood.

Though the slogan is of course no more than a symbolic affirmation, something troubles me with the statement. Continue reading

Responding to Franklin and the Politics of Fear

By Arthur Brown

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. [1 John. 4:16 & 18].

There is no shortage of fear in this world, and of course no shortage of things to be fearful of. Given recent comments by a well known Evangelical Christian leader in the US concerning his views on Islam and Muslims – and how he feels his country should respond to it/them – it seems there is the need to address some basic gospel principles [yet again] in relation to the responsibility followers of Christ have towards their Muslim neighbors.

Islamaphobia has been defined as

“an outlook or world-view involving an unfounded dread and dislike of Muslims, which results in practices of exclusion and discrimination.”[1]

Regardless to what degree you consider groups such as ‘Islamic State’, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and the like as representing ‘true Islam’ these groups are hell-bent on causing fear and terror. Fear of these people and what they represent, it can be argued, is well founded. And fear is a powerful motivator. However when our actions are driven by fear, the consequences are more often than not negative. Miroslav Volf suggests that

practices disclose the God (or the gods!) individual Christians or Muslims actually worship better than anything they or their holy book says about God’s character or God’s commands.[2]

He goes on to suggest that there are people who believe they believe in God, but deny His existence by their very own behaviour and actions. Many people I know, Muslims and Christians alike, are very quick to distance their beliefs from the belief inspired actions of others from within their faith tradition. There are countless actions carried out by ‘christians’ in the name of our faith, that I consider completely at odds with my own understanding and practice of faith. Do they worship the same God as me? Maybe, but their understanding of Him seems so radically different to mine, that it would not be ridiculous to suggest that we do in fact worship different gods!

When our practices or actions – including words spoken or written – are motivated by fear we have a problem. Fear of a particular people group is typically a result of ignorance and tends to lead in a direction of greater fear and hostility.

In recent days Franklin Graham, the influential Evangelical Christian leader, has published on his Facebook page a post – couched in nationalistic sentiment – that demonstrates paranoia, ignorance and fear to a degree that is almost unbelievable. If the influence of Graham was not so significant, it would be easy to pass his statement off as the words of a solitary ‘lone voice’ [much like we can of the so called pastor who burns copies of the Qur’an]. However Graham is a powerful voice, but one who I sadly fear has lost sight of some of the central tenets of the faith he professes. Franklin Graham suggests in his post that the US is under attack from Muslims ‘at home and abroad’ and suggests that no Muslim should be allowed to emigrate to the US – much like the immigration policy ban on Japanese and Germans during World War Two – ‘until this threat with Islam has been settled’. All this was in response to the callous murder of four marines by a ‘radical Muslim’ in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week.

In case you missed them, significant Muslim groups and communities were very fast in their public condemnations of the killings. These include the American Muslim Advisory Council the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Muslim communities from Nashville, and New York.

Mickey Maudin, Senior VP at HarperOne wrote back in 2011 – within the midst of yet another controversy involving an evangelical leader – of his concern for the church.

As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.”[3]

It is beyond tragic that Franklin Graham views Muslims as the enemy of the United States. Being British and having spent but a few days in the US, I am no expert. However I know for a fact that the sentiment of Graham is not shared by Christ followers across the US. I also know that Graham’s words – as would be expected – have caused bitter [and often hateful] words of response and counter response. Given this, how are we to oppose hostility and violence [from wherever it may originate] in a way that does not lead us into further hostility and violence towards the perpetrators of that hostility? Surely this is the message of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who did not allow the hostility of all humanity to cause him to respond in kind. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus this is something we must reflect and act on – not allowing evil to cause us to respond with evil.

IMES is involved in The Feast – an intentional interfaith youth initiative which brings Muslims [Sunni and Shiite] and Christians [Maronite and Evangelical] together in order to: explore faith, build friendships and change lives. Central to the Feast are its dialogue values. It strikes me that these values stem from a place that is not fearful of the other, but wanting to grow in understanding in order to create a future in which fear, ignorance, hatred and violence are not the norm. Maybe a group of 30 or so Lebanese young people from the different religious and sectarian communities of Lebanon are learning how to relate to each other in ways that our religious leaders need to listen to. Is it even possible that a group of Muslim kids in Beirut have something to teach a well known Evangelical Christian leader about the gospel of Jesus Christ?

There are three values which I think are particularly significant in light of the afore-mentioned events.

  • We will not judge people here by what some people of their faith do
  • We will be honest in what we say
  • I will speak positively of my own faith, rather than negatively about other people’s faith

It seems to me that God does not need people who claim to worship and follow Him to attack the faith of people who’s religious tradition is different. Since when did God need a defender? It also seems to me that when we – as those who claim to follow Christ – become so caught up in fear of the other, it becomes impossible for us to genuinely follow Christ in loving God, in loving our neighbour and in loving our enemy, the central teachings of the Christ we follow.

[1] The Runnymead Report: Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All, published in November 1997 by the British Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

[2] Miroslav Volf Allah: A Christian Response (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), p.115

[3] http://www.newsandpews.com/rob-bells-hell-by-mickey-maudlin-harperone-senior-v-p-executive-editor/

Notes from my Visit to Iraqi Kurdistan

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit a dozen of pastors in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the cities of Erbil and Duhok. The purpose of my visit was to promote ABTS’s educational programs with Arabic-speaking churches, namely our new online degree program and our English language Master’s program.

We often hear about the Kurdistan region in the news when violence happens – armed violence, US bombings, crimes by ISIS or terrorism. How can we pray for the people groups of this region, for the Church and for those called by God to serve Him in this area? The following are some of my notes from this trip to guide our prayers.

Kurdistan Spans over Four Countries

When you hear about Kurds in the media, it is necessary to identify which country we are talking about. When the region’s borders were drawn in the early 1900s, Kurdistan was split into four areas in four different countries – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Each of these four States have persecuted the Kurds to varying degrees during various periods in history.[1]

kurdistan_map

Iraq is Divided into Three de facto Parts

I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. The central Iraqi government controls the Southern and Eastern regions, including Baghdad at the center. ISIS took over the Western areas. This map roughly depicts these borders.

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Iraq, with the central government controlled regions in the lower half, ISIS areas in grey, and the Kurdistan Regional Government areas in top right (green).

From the city of Erbil, not only are you barred from entering ISIS territory, but you also find yourself without access to Baghdad or to any region outside of the Kurdish regions. You need separate visas whether you’re landing in the Erbil airport (Iraqi Kurdistan) or in the Baghdad airport, even though it’s the same country. In addition, it is not safe to travel by car. Internal flight tickets are only available on the black market due to very high demand.

To my surprise, I discovered non-Kurdish Iraqis, including pastors I met, needed residency permits to live in Kurdish areas. You can read more about the harsh restrictions faced by Arabs in this recent Human Rights Watch report. Now that they are the ruling “majority” in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds are reacting to years of oppression by putting restrictions on the non-Kurdish “minorities”.

Iraqi Kurdistan is acting autonomously. It has a government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a police and a military, and even its own language, the Kurdish Sorani! As I roamed around Erbil, I saw street signs in both Kurdish and in English – but none in Arabic.

This month, the KRG began selling crude oil from the region and Kirkuk independently from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

Freedom of Worship

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is freedom for worship that, according to some pastors, dates back to 1990 when Saddam Hussein’s regime lost its grip on that region of Iraq. This freedom was further realized with the war of 2003 and subsequent regime change. Churches are free to operate and witness in this Kurdish region, which includes three main cities: Erbil, Duhok and Suleimania.

Also in 2003, a similar level of freedom began in Baghdad and in other Iraqi cities, although there is prevailing insecurity and repeated car bombs. One pastor from Baghdad shared that he was given permission to visit, pray for, and distribute New Testaments to the wounded Iraqi army soldiers and Shiite militia members who were fighting against ISIS in Iraq.

Still, Arab-Kurdish relations are tense. To say the least, many brothers and sisters are finding it difficult to become one body in Christ. Kurdish nationalism, the politics of fear, and prevailing insecurity are a challenge for Christian witness. For example, an Arabic language theology seminary was not given permission to open a branch in Iraqi Kurdistan because it was Arab.

Similarly to the Amazigh in Algeria, the Kurds in Iraq, and in Kurdistan in general, can find in Christianity an affirmation of their identity differences with “Muslim” Arabs. They both enjoy freedom of worship. However, unlike the Amazigh in Algeria who remain in minority status, the Kurds in Iraq are the majority as a result of their newly formed autonomy.

Opportunities for Ministry Abound in Arabic

At least 2.6 million people have been displaced in Iraq since the expansion of ISIS in June 2014. Close to 250,000 Syrian refugees took shelter in Iraq, mostly from Kurdish regions.

The displaced live in camps or throughout the city, sometimes squatting in unfinished buildings. In the hotel where I stayed, there were dozens of displaced Yazidi families staying at the expense of an international organization, while they transitioned to other regions in Iraq.

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Camps for Syrian refugees in Northern Iraq, July 2015

The displaced belong to at least a dozen people groups, with either their own language or their own Arabic dialect. Therefore, Arabic is still the language of choice when a church attends to their social and personal needs and proclaims the good news of Christ. It is important for the churches to be equipped to reach out to them in Arabic.

The displaced from Syria in Iraqi Kurdistan are mostly Syrian Kurds. Syrian Kurdish (Kurmanji) and Iraqi Kurdish (Sorani) are different, the former using Latin script and the latter Arabic script. However, they’re still able to communicate. One Iraqi Kurdish church that I visited had a vision to reach out to the Syrian Kurds in Iraq.

Kurdish alphabetSource: Sorani Kurdish versus Kurmanji Kurdish: An Empirical Comparison

Damage to Minorities Seems Permanent

One of the taxi drivers who drove me around was Yazidi. He ran a successful small business in his home town, before losing everything in June 2014 when ISIS took over. “I’m not going back,” he said. There’s nothing to go back to. A pastor told me that as the Yazidis fled Sinjar, ISIS stripped them from all their belongings at the checkpoints.

The displaced from all minorities who fled ISIS have no confidence in any authority who can protect them in the future.

Transition is the Only Constant

Many pastors and ministers are waiting to emigrate. They are in a transition phase, until a visa to the US, Canada, Europe or Australia arrives. Almost everyone I met had family members in one of these countries.

And the church congregations are dwindling. Christians don’t feel safe, and many seek greener pastures. Thousands of Iraqi families have fled since June 2014 to Lebanon, joining the hundreds of thousands who have fled the country since 2003. The recently displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees in Iraq are also waiting departure.

The newly displaced, internally or as refugees from Syria, are filling the empty seats – temporarily. At the Baptist church service that I attended on Sunday evening (photo below), four new families came to the church for the first time. They were relatives of existing church members.

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A Need for Theological Formation

In my meeting with the head of one of the evangelical denominations in Iraq, he shared with me that they need equipped persons called to plant churches in Iraq. “Our denomination has the official authorizations from authorities to establish new churches, but we do not have pastors.”

The theological education at ABTS is highly regarded, and suitable for Iraq’s context. The online degree program may be particularly strategic, as opposed to our residential program, because the impression in Iraq is that he who leaves Iraq will not return. He and several pastors shared with me the following story. Out of 35 Iraqis that had pursued theological studies in seminaries outside of Iraq, only two returned to minister in Iraq. Undeniably, there is a need to minister to the tens of thousands of Christian Iraqi refugees in the diaspora. But who will be left in Iraqi Kurdistan to carry forward the church’s uninterrupted witness to the healing and saving presence of Christ among the Kurds, Arabs and other ethnic and religious sub-groups?

We need to pray for God to strengthen the remaining ministry and church leaders whom He has called to serve Him in this region. We need to pray as per Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

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[1] The Kurds have armed themselves, with the most known armed group being the PKK in Turkey. Currently, the US is cooperating with Syrian Kurds in fighting ISIS in Syria. The Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the YPG, is closely aligned with the PKK, that has fought for Kurdish self-rule since the 1980s. The PKK and the YPG are in disagreement with the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan. The latter is an ally of Turkey.

Jesus and the Overthrow of Religion

by Mike Kuhn

Having grown up in the West, I was aware that a trend emerged in the post-World Wars era towards a rejection of religion.  The brutality and sheer evil of the World Wars led many to reject belief in God.  If God is good and all-powerful, how could such evil proliferate in the world this God created?  Much of the debate with atheism in the West has centered on this “problem of evil.”   Though Christian intellectuals have responded, the hemorrhaging of mainline churches in the West demonstrates that skepticism is here to stay and too obvious to be denied.  A culture that recoils from faith in God has increasingly become the environment in which we live and move.

Then I relocated to the Middle East and learned that in this culture, religious faith is ubiquitous.  At least, that was true until recent years.  Nowadays I increasingly detect a suspicion of religious faith even here where religion still holds a high place of cultural esteem.   That may surprise some readers, but I notice that the questions being asked here, rather than revealing a religious orientation (e.g. How can I be assured of God’s acceptance?), increasingly come from a mindset of suspicion (e.g. Is there meaning to life? If God is good and all-powerful why is my country in the throes of war that has killed some family members and scattered others?).

Going back to the West, we can understand this trend towards religious skepticism through the intellectual contributions of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.[1]  All had devastating critiques of religion.  Freud postulated that religion is man-made in order to meet the universal human need of self-justification.  Because we all have emotions of guilt and fear, we need some means to alleviate those and assure ourselves that all is well.  Creating a god who punishes us for our guilt and rewards us for our good meets a deep psychological need.  We create God to make us feel better.

Marx offered a social critique of religion.  In his view we create religion to exclude others and establish our own superiority.  So religion becomes a tool in the hands of social elites to manipulate and control society.  Religion is a power play whereby societies permit themselves to enslave or manipulate less privileged people under the guise of “divine right.”  Religion enables these imperialistic elites to keep the poor and oppressed in their place on the promise that, if they are good adherents of religion, things will be better in the afterlife—the “opium of the people” concept.

Nietzsche’s take on religion is the nail in the coffin.  Nietzsche critiques anyone who says they have a truth claim of any kind.  He submits any truth claim to an underlying skepticism.  His thought is aptly named the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  He subjects the Christian claim to be motivated by love to relentless interrogation.  The result is a thorough-going critique of religion of any kind as a thinly veiled “will to power.”   Whereas Marx recognized religion as the means whereby the rich control the poor, Nietzsche thought that any religious adherence whether by rich or poor was an attempt to seize power through exploitation and abuse.

In summary, religion among many Western intellectuals is a means of self-justification, exclusion and exploitation.  It is antithetical to true humanitarian values.  Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are no friends of religious belief.  However, it just may be that their critique of religion is a valuable service to Jesus’ Kingdom.  I’ll come back to that, but let’s talk about the Middle East for a moment.

A friend of mine from Cairo came into my office recently.  He confirmed my suspicion that the questions asked by youth have changed since the recent revolutions.  Pre-revolution questions were the classic questions Muslims ask Christians such as “How could God become a human being?  How can God be three and one at the same time?  Hasn’t the Bible been corrupted?”  According to this friend, those questions are passé.  Today’s questions revolve around why God, if He exists, would allow suffering, injustice, poverty and other perennial problems to devastate our societies.  Is God not watching what is happening in Syria?  In Iraq?  In Sudan?  In Yemen? Where is he?

Middle Eastern media has also detected the rise of atheism.[2]  Although atheism is not commonly associated with the Middle East, the times have changed and some feel that religious belief is in serious decline.

It’s not too surprising.  After all, it was after the blood baths of two World Wars and a Great Depression that religion lost its appeal to many in the West.  Perhaps the same phenomenon is taking hold in the Middle East today as a result of bloody revolutions and upheavals.  Religion is being seen as a means to hold power and exploit the poor.  Skepticism of traditional religious values is at an all-time high and it’s no longer just the West.

It is striking that Freud, Marx and Nietzsche gave voice to the very critique that is being made of religious belief in today’s Middle East.  Religion has become a means to exclude, socially manipulate and exploit people.  The critique is devastating because it is self-evident.  Religion has tremendous power to mold a society and shape it according to the desires of its overlords.

And yet, there is a mystifying resurgence of faith in our contemporary world.  We’ve realized that the truth claims of Nietzsche and his ilk are also a type of religious belief—absolute truth claims which cannot stand up under scrutiny.  These claims, very much like the religion they denounce, become a means of control and manipulation.

Jesus is the way out of this dilemma of religion.  He was scathing in his denunciation of religious strictures and authority.  He required of his own leadership apprentices that they become like children, serve one another in the most menial ways and refuse to call one another “teacher” or “father.”   Furthermore, no one could claim to follow Jesus who had not renounced his wealth and status.  There would be no class superiority among Jesus’ followers.  The means of power and exploitation have to be tossed at the door when one enters Jesus’ Kingdom.

Jesus belies the claim of religious power.  We’re still trying to understand the mystery of a God who ‘empties himself’ becoming a human being.  He humbled himself by submitting to the cruelest and most unusual exploitation ever known to man—the crucifixion of the God-man on a Roman cross instigated by—you guessed it—religious leaders.  Such a God simply does not fit into Nietzsche’s critique.  We’re talking about something different.  He’s not religion.

Jesus echoed the atheistic critique of religion in his scathing rebuke of religious authority in his own day.  In fact, the exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised through religion is a constant theme of the prophets.  The dismantling of the religious infrastructure within a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection gave way to the mighty deluge of Jesus’ Kingdom throughout the Mediterranean basin.  We might say that the overthrow of religion bodes well for the Kingdom of Jesus.

So maybe Marx and Freud and Nietzsche are inadvertent cheerleaders for Jesus.  Maybe the current skepticism of religion in the Middle East bodes well for his Kingdom.  It also forces us to ask ourselves if we have domesticated Jesus’ Kingdom by turning it into religion.

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[1] Much of this blog was inspired by a podcast by Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  The message is titled “Losing My Religion: Why Christians Should Drop Their Religion.” Listen to it here.

Keller also refers to Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. William B. Eerdman’s, 1993.

[2] See an Egyptian news article related to the war on atheism here.  This article in “The Economist” treats the rise of agnosticism and atheism throughout the Muslim world

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.