by Nadia Khouri
When I first arrived in Lebanon, I was so impressed to see the high level of civic engagement and the extent to which there was “free space” for non-state actors to be engaged in advocacy, social services, inter-faith work etc. It stood in stark contrast to what I had experienced in other neighboring Arab countries where the states’ presence is much more palpable and restrictive.
However, now entering my fifth year here, and working very much at the grassroots level within a shantytown where the poorest and most marginalized live, I have begun to see things very different. It’s courageous individuals who are stepping forward to fill not a “free space” that has been consciously created, but who are doing what they can to fill a huge void left by a fractured state. Ultimately, our failing state means there is no functioning safety net system. This reality has huge and very dangerous implications, particularly for the most vulnerable. Practically and daily, it means that a 13 year old girl can be repeatedly sexually violated while she waits months, years for legal action ….if any. It means a foreign child can perish at the door of a hospital because her family lacks the financial means to admit her. It means that the prison system is not obligated to provide drinking water for inmates, and prisoners can be expected to use what little money they have to purchase drinking water or hope that an NGO will step in to provide this basic right. It means that in certain pockets within our city, generation after generation can be left unschooled and condemned to a life of illiteracy and marginalization. I am repeatedly left feeling like no one is watching; no one is ensuring that we do right by all.
Living here, I have encountered courage among individuals and the local church that I didn’t imagine was possible. However, the sinking feeling that war breaks, corrupts, destroys, and – most piercingly – it lingers, also often haunts me. Our state reflects this, perhaps most sharply at its margins. Cases such as those mentioned above push us to the edge of what we can offer and we reach the cliff’s edge knowing there may be nothing there to catch us if we fall.
Reflecting further on what can be done, I can’t help but come full circle and remain deeply grateful for the free space we have. We must use this space to pursue our ambition to serve our neighbor but also to advocate in the public sphere for a comprehensive, targeted safety net to ensure that those most at risk are protected not only by good will but by an enforced legal system. Is there a way that our local churches, with a constituency of over 15,000 (to speak only of Protestants), can come together not only as social actors that run schools and clinics, but also as advocates with a significant voice for the most at risk? Biblical principles provide us with the framework to do so. Deut 10: 17-22 affirms: “The LORD your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and takes no bribes. He gives justice to orphans and widows. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. You, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”
In the passage above, the love that God shows to the foreigner is directly connected with the justice that he gives to orphans and widows. While giving out food and clothing to the foreigner can be done without deep personal involvement, love and justice are emotions that lead to action. They involve our whole person. The Church needs to rise from a body that “does” good in society to one that is so passionate about justice and so driven by love that it becomes a true advocate for the poor and marginalized, reaching the point where society, all the way from the state system to the various social strata, are transformed through this engagement. This simultaneously implies action at the local level, and by our friends globally, for just policies, systems and services.