The Middle East: The Place You Love to Hate

By Elias Ghazal

By now there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Middle East[1] is behind a lot of the problems that impact the world. Consider the following issues: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and regional instability, the cultivation and exportation of Islamic radicalism, petrodollar recycling and fluctuations in the world’s economy, enduring military authoritarianism and fledgling democracies, and most recently the Syrian war and the massive refugee crisis. This is not to mention the local problems that trouble the region: civil wars, political corruption, crumbling infrastructures, skewed distribution of wealth, rising unemployment, diminished freedoms and the lack social justice, and the list goes on and on.

Indeed, the future of the Middle East looks dim and to some it is hopeless, which has urged countless people to abandon their home countries in search of a safer and more promising future for them and for their loved ones. Sadly, the situation has been like this for decades.  Since the early 20th century, an untold number of Arabs left their birth place and traveled to the West. This trend can be tracked to our present time. While early immigrants were mostly Christians, many Muslims today are as eager as Christians ever were to go where the grass is greener. Ironically, we are in a period where the dream of the average Arab youth is to leave the Arab world!

So what? Does it matter if the Middle East is emptied of its natural citizens? Does it matter if the Arab world is devoid of its original inhabitants? What impact is one more family leaving the region going to have on its identity? Besides, aren’t our state borders a remnant of a colonial era which we should reject? Aren’t we Arabs regardless of our shipping address? And, how is it selfish for anyone to seek better opportunities in the developed world? Does not God expect us to take care of our families and to look after their well-being? If God is omnipresent and loves everyone wherever they are, does it matter what our location is on Google maps?

These are the sort of questions asked by families contemplating their existence in the region. They are very important because the answers to these questions determine the fate of the departing families, and subsequently the fate of the region. Generally speaking, the decision making process to stay in or leave the Middle East is not very difficult, once you are issued a visa. Just list the incentives and drawbacks you have for leaving, list the incentives and drawbacks you have for staying, and if the net difference yields more incentives to leave, then quite simply go. Otherwise, stay. Either way, you must recognize that no place is perfect and you will have challenges wherever you go.

However, the situation becomes a bit complicated when we add God to the equation. No longer is the decision to leave or stay an arithmetic problem of incentives and drawbacks. A follower of Christ must ask: what is God’s will for my life? Where does He want me to serve Him? This is often viewed as a subject of ‘calling’; what is God calling me to do, and consequently, where? As disciples of Christ we must be ready to obey our master’s call despite any drawbacks. The difficulty arises when God’s call is not so obvious to a person who is genuinely seeking God’s will. Could God be indifferent about where we serve Him, as long as we serve Him faithfully?

I could not find any commandment or directive in Scripture that binds someone to stay in or leave a geographical location for the location’s sake. God’s concern is always for the people of a given city, not the city per se. Even the objective of seeking the welfare of a city (Jeremiah 29:7) is ultimately for the welfare of the people. In the Old Testament, the people of God received their identity from the God who saved them, not from the territory they came to occupy. Their very name, the Israelites, is a reference to Israel (Jacob) their forefather who was given that name by God while emigrating from one place to another. Their capital, Jerusalem, was to represent the peace and rule of God among his people, not a sacred location to be idolized. In the New Testament, Jesus’ declaration that no prophet is accepted in his hometown hints at a detachment from nationalism. Moreover, the missionary journeys of the apostles underscore God’s agenda of sending out people (i.e. leaving their homes) to share the good new with other people.

God acts in history in a way that transcends international borders. In other words, God loves people, not cities. Jesus died and rose from the grave to redeem people, not states. Cities and states are human constructs. God cares about them in as much as he cares about the people that inhabit them. There is nothing special or sacred about any particular state system, not even the birthplace of Christianity. So really, the issue of staying in or leaving the Middle East is not a question of patriotism or nationalism. It is not about whether we love the culture or not, or whether we are well-treated or making a decent living there. Rather, it is a question of how much we love the people of the Middle East, and how much are we willing to endure living among them as witnesses for Christ?

A quick clarification is in order. To leave the Middle East or live away from it does not necessarily mean that you dislike the region or do not care about its people. There are many legitimate circumstances that see people leave. Yet when we exclude these circumstances, and assume that the call of God will be obeyed once it is clear – whether it is to stay or leave – if you are still unsure about where God wants you to be, ask yourself this: where am I needed the most to expand the Kingdom of God? Consider your background, upbringing, passions, gifts, and other factors in your life that you did not have control over, and ask: where can I be most effective for the Kingdom of God? I don’t think anyone could answer these two questions perfectly, but this exercise can guide us when we cannot discern God’s calling.

Perhaps these questions are more relevant to Arabs currently living in the Middle East who have plenty of reasons to leave.  Nonetheless, they could just as well guide Arabs living outside the region who accept that God’s calling goes beyond their immediate vicinity.  I am aware that there are millions of Arabs that live outside the Middle East and need to hear the Gospel of Christ, and that it only makes sense for followers of Christ already living there to reach out to them. However, if you are not sure you are called to do that or to be there, ask yourself where you can be most useful for the Kingdom, and don’t limit the possible answers to your local neighborhood.

I think my bias in this post is very obvious, and I won’t hide it. I see a great need in the Middle East for Arab Christian leadership, and it aches my heart to see so many such qualities leave the region. I do not want to challenge God’s call for anyone. I wish only to help my Arab co-laborers reorient their thinking about living in the Middle East and serving its people. At the same time, I dream of a day when Arab Christians return home to reap what others have sown and God has grown.  I know this sounds counter-intuitive, and maybe ridiculous, but perhaps like no other time in the Middle East, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. This is my petition for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.

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[1] Although the term ‘Middle East’ includes Turkey, Iran, and Israel, it used in this post to refer mainly to the Arab world, which makes up most of the countries in the region.

2 thoughts on “The Middle East: The Place You Love to Hate

  1. Thank you Elias. You articulate well a discussion that I believe many believers in the region are internalizing at this time. One angle I’ve personally used to approach the question is to consider foremost calling to opportunities before calling to location or vocation. The question then becomes, “what God-arranged opportunities do I uniquely have to be effective for the Kingdom?” I believe if we look at opportunities first then we put ourselves in a good position to discover calling to locations and vocations. And as you know, the only things more plentiful in the region than challenges are opportunities.

  2. Food for thought for all of us, really. I struggle with the same questions in suburban America, though I know my calling is here- for now- and He’s confirmed that for me repeatedly. I hope we listen to the Lord in the future when it is time to leave.

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