by Rose Khouri
As a Lebanese-American with an interest in religious studies who has lived a substantial amount of time in both countries, I am often struck by the similarities and differences between two groups who supposedly practice the same religion. If asked, both American Christians (historically white and Protestant) and Lebanese Christians (majority Maronite Catholic) would likely affirm that one of the most fundamental aspects of their lives – their sense of morality, of right and wrong – is influenced solely by religious faith. Yet on a daily basis here in Lebanon, I observe a significant difference between American and Lebanese perceptions of morality (particularly with regard to the treatment of foreign workers and widespread racism).
I have found, however, a similarity common among both cultures. To a large extent, both the older, white American Protestants of my youth, as well as the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon perceive the younger generations in their respective societies as being “less moral”. This perception can be influenced by many different variables; however, I believe there is a strong link between cultural and political power, identity (especially when perceived as being under threat), and one’s perception of moral decay.
Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Lara Deeb entitled An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. The book, written during the dramatic rise of the Lebanese Shi‘ites in political, economic, social, and military strength, discusses the relationship between power and the perception of morality. Deeb details her ethnographic research in the Lebanese Shi‘a community and discusses how the younger generation of Shi‘a women in Lebanon perceived their generation to be the most moral – a perfect combination of modern and pious. This is an unusual opinion in the Arab world, where declarations of a decaying or corrupted social morality have fueled revivalist movements over the past century. In the case of Lebanese Shi‘ites, as religious Islam enjoyed a perceptible revival and the Shi‘a community grew in power in Lebanon, so too did their introspective view of morality. I was curious, therefore, to see if the Lebanese Maronite Catholics, long the political and economic players in a country essentially carved out for them by France but currently facing a serious decline in power and population, would perceive a matching decline in the morality of their community and country. So, I began to research this questions in depth.
Bemoaning the state of my generation and of society’s apparent moral decay was an oft-repeated theme at my childhood church gatherings in America. I distinctly remember an older woman commenting that ‘kids these days’ no longer had any morals or respect – to which I asked myself at the time, “what kind of person looks at a childhood of segregated schools and horrific violence against Black Americans as a golden age of morality?” I look at Lebanon with a similar perspective. The older generations in Lebanon, the parents and grandparents of those my age, participated in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. Rape, kidnapping, open slaughter, the destruction of history, and the emotional and psychological scarring of a generation: these are the products of Lebanon’s recent past. The idea that this could be considered morally superior, in my opinion, does not seem objectively conceivable, yet this has been an opinion reinforced conversation after conversation in my discussions with Lebanon’s Maronites.
Like the white Americans of my youth, the older Maronites with whom I speak perceive societal morality (or rather, its decay) dismally. Yet, when I press them to detail the specific moral failings they observe, their responses do not resemble that which I would consider a Biblically-based source of morality. No Maronite I have spoken to would indicate that morality had improved since the Civil War, older men and women in particular. However, I rarely find objective evidence to support this contention. Instead, the primary frustration is with increased sectarianism after the war, especially the kind that led non-Maronites to cast off the traditional Maronite cultural and political dominance of the pre-war era.
In the highly sectarian Lebanese society, the older generation remembers when the Maronites were the favored sect. They feel this loss of favor and therefore project the loss of Maronite power upon their perception of lower morality among the emerging non-Maronite majority. I believe this reduction in political and cultural power for the Maronites has led to the perception of Lebanese society as being less moral. The rising political fortunes of other sectarian groups meant that Lebanese society must be less moral, because the Maronites firmly believed that, pre-war, they provided cultural, political and moral leadership to their nation. Since there is no objective evidence that Lebanese morality is in fact declining, I attribute the perception of decline to the reduction in political and cultural power of the Maronites within Lebanese society.
I compare this sense of decline to the similar reaction of the white, Christian America within which I grew up. Although white America’s political and cultural power has been on the decline for the last couple of decades, the recent election and re-election of African-American President Barack Obama has become a visible symbol of a new America in which white Americans play a smaller role. It is not a coincidence that the reaction of Maronite Christians could be so similar to white Americans, as both groups undergo a loss of power and a visualized threat to their sense of identity, coupled with the perceptions of the Shi‘a youth and diverse American youth – so full of hope for a better, more moral world.
This topic has been on my mind lately as I get to know my co-workers and the students here at ABTS more deeply. Bumping into so many Christians, from so many different sects, backgrounds, levels of theological training and understanding, nationalities, and ethnicities, has reminded me of my first impression when I came to Lebanon. We as Christians believe that our faith alone should shape how we understand morality. Yet the more I meet Christians, outside of my own original circle, the more differences I find in what we consider sinful, immoral, haram. Our widely differing views show that other factors beyond religion influence moral perceptions.
There are numerous factors that can influence these differences. Yet I believe our identity, and our perception of tangible or intangible threats to this understood identity, can be one of the strongest factors in how we interpret what is moral and immoral. Our reactions to threats to our identity can be among the most irrational and visceral, even as they are the most subconscious.
It should not be our cultures, our identity, our perceived threats that guide how we understand what is right and wrong and whether our actions are acceptable or not. We should not look at a younger generation turning away from the actions and behaviors of their parents as an indication of decay. Rather we should measure our actions by the tools our faith provides us. Do we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? Do we love our neighbors as ourselves?
Ultimately, do we seek to do unto others as we would have them do unto us?