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July 28, 2006

In the Middle East, religious community is the civil society


Recently I had the distinct privilege of organizing and participating in a cross-cultural, ecumenical pastors’ dialogue at the seminary where I work in Cairo, Egypt. Through The Center for Middle East Christianity, we invited six pastors from the United States and six pastors from the seminary’s supporting denomination, the Coptic Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of the Nile. The sole purpose of this dialogue was to bring pastors together to talk about pastoral ministry in different contexts: How do you do ministry in the rural areas of the Midwest? How do you do ministry in the villages of Upper Egypt? What are the pressing issues facing youth today in the inner cities of America? What are the youth of Cairo struggling with? The dialogue proved to be an incredible success and blessing to everyone—more than we imagined.

The pastors all shared the same faith, the same commitment to their Lord Jesus Christ, the same love of their congregations and the same concern for the communities in which they lived. Yet, all of those commonalities were lived out and expressed in very different contexts. It did not take us long to find this out.

On the second day, one of the U.S. pastors from an inner-city church on the East Coast began to share with the group his struggles of “keeping the church relevant” to the lives of the youth in his community. He spoke about how he walked the streets and visited the after-school programs, trying to build a relationship with the youth. “There’s just so much competition out there, ” he said. “How do you speak a language that the kids will listen to and be interested in?” He spoke about gangs, about young single parents who are suddenly thrust into an adult world of responsibility, about a nuclear family system no longer existent and kids shuttled from home to home.

Another pastor, from a suburban congregation in the Midwest added, “The family situation [here] is much more stable—at least on the outside—but there are so many community activities that the church has to compete with from soccer practice to dance class. We really struggle to find times when kids and families can participate in the life of the church.”

Ah yes, I remember this conversation well. This is the most common issue pastors and church councils struggle with: How do we keep people involved? Do we make our worship service more computer savvy with power-point presentations? Do we offer politically correct support groups?

Throughout this conversation, however, I noticed that most of the Egyptian pastors were simply sitting there with puzzled looks on their faces. It was obvious they were having a difficult time understanding the conversation. For them, keeping the church relevant is certainly an issue—but not because of competition.

You see, the genius of our American society is that it is based upon the freedom of an active civil society. As a family member, or more importantly, as an individual, I am able to freely choose how to organize my life and what to participate in. But the unwritten rule of American society is that you do participate in something—more commonly, in several things. The typical American individual belongs to some extended family and may also belong to a church, coach the local baseball team, shuttle kids to soccer games, participate in a scouting program, attend aerobic classes and support a local charity. Americans have the freedom to pick and choose what part of civil society they want to be involved in, including their family. Participating in social and political groups, in fact, is what makes a citizen.

In the Middle East, things are quite different.

Most recently, several members of a supporting congregation in the U.S. were sharing with me their experience of a summer visit from Lutheran youth of Israel/Palestine. All were quite fascinated by the experience of meeting and talking with these youngsters. But I also heard a common critique of the event:  It was too political. Why does everything have to be so political? I liked the event and the kids, but I was uncomfortable about the politics.”

Yes, in good Lutheran congregations you never talk about politics or sex—but always about the weather and, most importantly, who made the coffee last Sunday.

In the Middle East, society is organized quite differently. There is no civil society to speak of: there is no public space of civic organizations for people to belong to – other than the church or local mosque. A person is recognized not as an individual citizen, but is first and foremost defined by what family they belong to. This is the central identity of each person. The second layer of identity is that of their religious community—be it Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, Evangelical (the word in the Middle East used for Protestants). A person is defined by virtue of his or her belonging to a community: family and confession. A person is not, in essence, an individual.

So when the American pastors were talking about the struggles of keeping the church relevant, the Egyptian pastors could not grasp the concept that the church was not already the center of their young people’s lives. In the Middle East, the local religious community is a defining part of one’s existence. It is where the family has their needs met: spiritually, mentally, physically, financially, politically. It is where the young people have their identity. The religious community is the civil society of the Middle East: It is the spiritual center, the social center and the political center of people’s lives. Thus, everything is political.

I’ve often heard people say that the Middle East is wrapped in a never ending cycle of problems because Islam is both “religion and state.” Therefore, Muslims will always push their own political agenda. Well, this is partly true. And since the 1960s Islam in the Middle East has become very conservative and militant—but that has not always been the case. Radical Islam certainly does set the agenda these days, unfortunately, and we are feeling the terrible effects.

But, even with a more moderate and tolerant Islam—in fact, even without Islam—there would still be public issues of religion and politics in the Middle East. That’s because it is not just Islam: It is the very fabric of the makeup of Middle Eastern society, down to the core of family values. Individuals will always identify with their family and then their religious group and then their nation out of loyalty and honor: That is what makes one a human being.

René Decartes defined Western society when he wrote "Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.” In other words, I, as an individual, have value because I have the ability to make decisions and choices and reason for myself. In the Middle East the definition of society is, rather, I belong, therefore I am.

And so as we read today’s news about Hezballah, we must realize that it is not just a militia: It is a primary confessional community of association. It provides health-care clinics and hospitals, day care and schools (not just the militant, gun-toting camps you see on CNN). It is one of the primary social networks for the largest religious group in Lebanon.

The current violence in Lebanon is, unfortunately, a good example to help us understand this. When Hezballah began its violence against Israel, most Lebanese—regardless of their political support for Hezballah—did not, could not, speak out against them. Why? Well, because of the concentric circles of identity.

Even for Lebanese Christians there is a communal identity bond that is publicly quite strong. The Haddad family, for example, may be Greek Orthodox; but they are also Lebanese and it is the Lebanese who are fighting the Israelis. Now, does it bother them that Hezballah is a Shiite social-political entity that provides identity and support for the largest religious group in Lebanon. Of course. Do they complain about it privately. Of course. In the face of foreign belligerency will they debate the ethics of the war. Never. It would be dishonorable.

Regardless of what one individual thinks about Hezballah, or Israel, or the U.S., or the war; one will never publicly go against one’s primary groups of association: family, religious group, nation. They are all tied together in a confusing tension. To speak out against these communities would be to tear down one’s self. Privately, however, things are different. So when you consider that there are 17 different religious communities in Lebanon that make up the social-political identity of each person, you might understand why there is a confusing set of social mores that govern politics!

In our American culture, we might call this being two-faced. And yet, that is because we assume that an individual has the right to speak out about an issue that he feels strongly about and, morally, should. Again, not the case in the Middle East. A son would never publicly contradict his father—even if his father was wrong. A person would never speak negatively about a family member in public. And, one would never ever say something positive about another religious group because that would insinuate that your own religious group was somehow deficient. It’s not just about politics, it goes deeper than that to the very fabric of society. That is why “face saving” is such an important part of the culture. Whenever there is a family or social dispute, the ethics of the situation are always subject to the public display of support.

Our pastors’ dialogue at the seminary was a great success—not because we solved the great issues of the church, but because we all learned that faith in Christ takes place in the midst of Christian community and that this community takes different shapes and forms. We were reminded that we are all a part of the body of Christ.

For Middle Easterners this is clear: One part of the body cannot function without another part of the body. For them, it is not just a theological metaphor but a social reality.

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