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When the State Starts Crumbling: A Theology of Staying

Sometimes Lebanon is charming.
When you approach the Lebanese coast as your plane takes position for landing, the beautiful mountains gushing out so close to the glassy sea captivate your attention.

When you drive up the windy mountain roads of the Qadisha valley, you are taken by surprise with striking natural beauty at every turn, as the valley below unfolds and reveals ancient churches and monasteries carved into the rock.

As you take one more turn, the 2,000-year-old cedar forest reserve appears like a mystic revelation in all its majesty, standing proudly as the only surviving vegetation at this altitude.

When you reach the top of the mountain range and the whole expansion of the Bekaa valley reveals itself, the scenery nearly takes your breath away.

Even at night, as I sit on my terrace overlooking the city lights of Beirut, I can be entranced by the idyllic serenity of that sleeping city.

But if you look closely from aboard that plane as you land, you will also notice the tiny illegal structures dotting the coastline far too close to the airport, and so close to the sea that from time to time one of them collapses over its inhabitants.

If you were lucky enough to make your way across the city in less than two hours through the suffocating traffic, you might still be ready to enjoy the mountain scenery – if only those sand and rock quarries did not come and slap you in the face as you drove along devastated vegetation and landscape flanking the mountain sides.

As you slip into real life if you are here longer term, or if you are a Lebanese who happened to be born here, it is the daily struggle for small commodities like water and electricity, those double bills you have to pay, this state within the state, that micro-safety net you have to construct around you, that wears you down.

It is the slow internet, the ridiculously expensive mobile services, the crazy driving, the absence of the rule of law, the oblivion to any sense of a common good, the never-ending bickering of our politicians, the road-side bombs, the influx of more than 1million refugees and the daily injustices, to mention only a few issues.

We do not choose where we are born. Many in Lebanon do not get the opportunity to leave. Most who do, have left.

There are about three times more Lebanese immigrants around the world than there are inhabitants in Lebanon.

There are two types of Lebanese living in Lebanon: those who have not (yet) gotten the opportunity to leave, and those who have decided to stay for a cause. If you could leave but do not, then you have chosen to stay.

My family and I belong to that second category, at least for the time being. Currently, my children don’t have the choice, but one day they will have to make that decision for themselves.

I have discovered over the years that if the staying is to make any sense, it has to be supported by a “theology of staying.”

“Theology of presence” is a theme that has been explored to some extent in Christian spirituality and ministry.

The presence of God with us through his Spirit inspires our own incarnational ministry alongside other human beings.

Such thoughts are straightforward enough, inspired from the incarnational model of Jesus who lived his life alongside the poor and the outcast of society.

Jesus walked with those who recognized their own needs as they journeyed toward inner freedom, freedom from sin, and moved closer to God.

They discovered God’s Fatherhood as they experienced being his children. As the Apostle Paul put it, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

God, then, by his continual presence among us, powerfully manifested historically in Christ, is our great model of incarnational presence as we seek to serve our sisters and brothers in the world around us.

But if thinking theologically about presence is fairly straightforward biblically, what about a theology of staying?

As important as it is to have a solid foundation to be somewhere, it seems just as important as well to understand why we stay.

Staying is not a very exciting word when society seems to be collapsing around you.

Who wants to stay when you cannot be sure you will not be one of the passers-by at the next roadside bomb?

Such a theology must neither be judgmental of those who feel that God is calling them to move on from a place of conflict or hardship, nor minimize the tragedy of being a refugee, which is often the alternative to staying.

At the end of the day, staying or leaving will always be a subjective decision that no outsider can judge.

But for anyone faced with the dilemma, seeking God’s guidance will require a biblically based theology of staying.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on Martin’s theology of staying. Part 2 is available here.