Sunday, October 9, 2011

Carol Saba on the Orthodox in Lebanese Politics

The Arabic original, which appeared in an-Nahar about two weeks ago, can be read here. Although the plan put forward by some Orthodox politicians in Lebanon for sectarian voting has apparently been shot down, the question of the Orthodox place in Lebanese politics is an ongoing one...

The Orthodox of the Middle East: Sectarian Dangers and Secular Hope

The Arab Middle East is living through the birth-pangs of renewal. We hope that it is the dawning of a Middle East that is authentic, democratic, pioneering, and respectful of man, his rights, his honor, his religion, and his honorable livelihood. Naturally, there are fears of fundamentalisms of various types. Naturally, there are legitimate concerns and dangers that must be taken into account. Everything is possible and nothing is guaranteed. Governments’ policies are based on their interests. Do we stand there tied up, talking about conspiracy theories and national interests, or do we build things upon “the hope that is within us” in the words of Saint Paul and peacefully struggle to create consciousness, to link together strengths, to fortify national unity in order to avoid mortal dangers or do we strive for a courageous, forward-thinking reading of a pioneering role for Middle Eastern Christians, through which we can produce a second Arab renaissance, lifting up our voice locally, regionally, and internationally so that there will be an Arab Middle East in which the Christians are not “protected” but rather are citizens of a civil, fraternal state, equal to their Arab brothers in rights and responsibilities?

Within this shifting framework, the Orthodox community is witnessing movement over the necessity of “recuperating” rights and positions within the Lebanese system which, unfortunately, is still based on dividing up the “cheese”, in the words of former president General Fuad Chehab. This movement might have merits and legitimacy or it might also be political speech that has something of a dangerous tactic to it. The danger here lies is making the Orthodox—in the shadow of a reality in which the national character has declined and narrow sectarian interests have multiplied—into “a sect like all the other sects” that approaches the current reality and the future from a pathological sectarian, minoritarian, perspective that is based on fear of losing influence and which strives to preserve its own existence and gains. Through this we will have exchanged the logic of the “bridge” community, which we have always been, for the logic of a “fortress” community, which is foreign to our faith and our witness in the world.

Does leaving sectarianism now call for raising its banner as Orthodox, treating the illness with a cure that was itself the ailment?* Can one who tailors for himself the robe of his sectarian nature urge one who wears similar clothing to take it off for the good of the national garment, wrapped in the national colors? The Orthodox are not a sect like the other sects: they are the Church of Christ.

The religious community does not sum up the Church, since she is always opposed to deviating toward sectarian self-centeredness. The religious community, in our Middle Eastern societies, is the heir to the Ottoman millet system, meaning that each group seeks its own interests, religiosity prophets at the expense of religion and chauvinism at the expense of faith. But as for the Church, she is a state of faith which strives to build man up spiritually and to gradually bring him to what is better. That is, from the “natural” man, which in the words of St. Paul is sin, toward the “spiritual” man, who is of Christ. The Church struggles and strives to bear witness to Him rather than to gain a central position, and to transfigure the world rather than to resemble it. The danger grows in times of frustration, when the society of the Church starts to look at itself as a sectarian community that struggles for its existence more than as a Church that reaches for the Kingdom starting from the present reality, in order to elevate it.

But as for the community’s present situation, it appears that it is very much in question as it attempts today to regain in this talk about rights, a glorious past in which Lebanon’s Orthodox community was, naturally, a pivotal, central, diverse community, that produced a “non-sectarian” national political elite. What is required of the Orthodox today is to go against the stream. That is, to make pilgrimage for the nation while everyone is making a sectarian pilgrimage. What is required of them is to be the vanguard in creating national paths for leaving behind hateful sectarianism while everyone else is rushing to enter their own narrow, deadly alleys. What is required of them is to defend the logic of the civil state and the great state that is more powerful than the little statelets, the federation of sects and their parties, no matter how strong they are. What is required is to fortify the bases of Orthodox existence in order to make it flourish and so that the Orthodox will look at themselves not as a community that makes demands, but as a community that is needed in the pioneering role that they have always had in Lebanon and the Middle East in unity and diversity as a “bridge” and as a driving force for better societies. This requires from the Holy Synod of Antioch that they take the bold initiative of starting preparations for a general Antiochian Orthodox conference that would gather together all the Orthodox’ talents from among the clergy and laity. It would take place in 2012 and establish the basis for an Antiochian approach to the coming period in light of an objective reading of the trials of the past, the considerations of the present, and the challenges of the future. How can we see the various existential crises that are occurring in Europe and the world and what is occurring within our Middle Eastern environment and not see that the civil, democratic state that separates religion and state with a positive interplay between politics and religions is neither available nor possible within its Middle Eastern context if it is not accompanied in religiously diverse societies by a secularism that embraces faith and all religions. How can we not see that it is the path to gradually escaping the sectarianism that tears at the Arab and Lebanese body and that through citizenship, equality and constitutional rights and responsibilities it protects all from the various fundamentalisms that we all reject? The Orthodox need to move with a form and substance that transcends sects and groups and they must be as they have been, a progressively-minded, non-sectarian elite steadfast in Orthodox faith and intelligent in humility, an elite with diverse capabilities and talents, which boldly adapts to present reality and reads the future with confidence, trailblazing in global outlook but rooted in the Middle Eastern reality, progressive in approaching western modernity without repudiating Arab authenticity, and defending Arab concerns.

*A reference to Abu Nuwas’ most famous wine poem.

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