Middle East Immersion: Learn. Serve. Experience the Middle East!

A view of the old pedestrian souk in Byblos, Lebanon during the day. A very medieval and picturesque area,  paved with little stones and with little shops.

What is the Middle East Immersion?

The Middle East Immersion (MEI) is a six-week intensive practicum designed for students from beyond the region wanting to experience firsthand the opportunities and challenges of Christian service in the Middle East. Under the mentorship of respected scholars and experienced practitioners, students in the MEI program practice intercultural work in a dynamic context and engage in mutual learning between Christian and Muslim communities.

Centered on critically reflective practice, MEI provides students an opportunity to earn academic credit and fulfill practicum requirements while being exposed to the language, peoples and cultures of one of the region’s most vibrant cities.

MEI 2017 begins 19 June in Beirut, Lebanon, and runs through July. Continue reading

Kerygmatic Peacebuilding (Part 2): What Does Peace Have to do with the Gospel?

Dove

By Jesse Wheeler

Note: This is a difficult week to speak of peace. With heartbreaking tragedy in Egypt and unspeakable horror unfolding in Syria just a few hours away, peace now seems more than ever like an elusive dream continually beyond reach – all while I sit here feeling helpless in the face of such devastation. Furthermore, it is never helpful to speak glibly of peace to those suffering persecution, oppression, or violence. For too often, talk of peace has been used to silence very legitimate demands for justice, to enforce quiescence to an unjust status quo. This, however, means that a proper understanding of just peace and its continued pursuit is as imperative, albeit difficult, as ever.

In my previous entry, I explored the question: “What, if anything, does religion have to do with peace?” Asked in response to the historically inadequate, or otherwise superficial, inclusion of religious thinking within peacemaking and diplomatic paradigms, I came to the conclusion that to promote peace by means of secularization is to in many ways challenge the very identity and worldview of those engaged in conflict – with the very real possibility of doing more harm than good. Rather, the central place of religion within the realm of human experience can be instrumental in both the exacerbation and perpetuation of conflict, as well as in its mitigation and resolution.

This realization, however, leads to an equally important question for the church: What, if anything, does peace have to do with the Gospel? Continue reading

PRAY FOR A HIGHWAY: GOD’S DREAM IN DISORIENTING TIMES

Empty road in rocky desert

By Emad Botros

Throughout history, the Church has turned to the Bible to interpret the political situation of its time and to find hope in the midst of disaster. The church in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not different in this regard. Christians in Egypt, for example, recently attempted to interpret the political situation of the country, as well as the MENA region, in light of oracles about Egypt found in Isaiah 19. Continue reading

The Commodification of Mission in the Muslim World

Wadi Rum desert landscape,Jordan

By Mike Kuhn

A commodity—something that is bought and sold.

Mission—the loving and joyful response of Christ’s followers to disciple the nations, holding forth Jesus’ life and teaching among all the peoples of the world.

In theory the two appear to be very distinct concepts. In reality, mission is intricately related to the resources (finance, personnel and information) that fuel it.

There is much to celebrate in that relationship. The generosity of Christ’s church enables her to assist brothers and sisters throughout the world to make Christ’s love known in seeking assistance to the poor, justice for the oppressed and reconciliation of human beings to God through the gospel.

Despite all the good that has been done by generous giving, there is also a dark side to this inter-dependence between mission and money. Continue reading

Flush Out your Toxic Thinking about Islam before Election Day!

Illustration of a long shadow brain with  a biohazard sign

By Martin Accad

As our American friends approach election day this coming November 8, the rest of us around the world are holding our breaths as we consider the implications of that event on the country’s foreign policies. At a time when the question of Islam and Muslims in America has become so divisive, it would be easy to vote for one or the other candidate for the wrong reasons. In this brief reflection, I would like to point out a few mistakes that we often make in our thinking about Islam and Muslims, perhaps to help some of the voting be less fear-driven and more rational and socially compassionate. Continue reading

Subjects of Objectification or Kindred Spirits? Images and Stories of Refugees

mourning sham

by Kathryn Kraft*

Did you know that many Syrians who flee their country choose not to register with the UN as refugees? There are many reasons for this, but one important reason is that they don’t like the images that the word ‘refugee’ conjures. If they were to officially become refugees, they would be eligible for various types of assistance, including food rations and possible resettlement to another country. But they absolutely do not want to lose their identity. They see themselves as Syrians first and foremost, and also associate with their chosen career, their extended family, their interests and passions.

The media seems to have landed on a simple but somewhat misleading image capturing ‘the refugee’, Continue reading

The Power of Easter: Redeemed from Selfishness; Called to a Ministry of Reconciliation

By Martin Accad

If Christmas poses as the central Christian festivity in the consumerist societies we live in, for Christians it is Easter that holds the central place. It is the starting and focal point of all Christian theology. Through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers, who have been invited to carry their cross and follow him, are called to interpret the world and understand both their life purpose and mode of living. So perhaps by reflecting on how redemption works through the Easter event, we can gain insight into everything else, from the mindless violence of our world, to the significance of how we live in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on the meaning of Easter, I came across a short but edifying blog post by Brian Zahnd (which I later realized he had written at Easter last year) entitled: ‘How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?’ Though some people reacted strongly to the article when I posted it on Facebook, I still highly recommend Zahnd’s post. The importance of his question, ‘how does “dying for our sins” work?’ is universal. Some people may still be interested in debating whether Jesus died on the cross, a question that still arouses passions in the context of Christian-Muslim conversations in particular, though from a historian’s perspective it is hardly a question at all. But to be sure, most people still get passionate about ‘how it works?’ ‘So what,’ that Jesus died on the cross? Why should the death of that first-century man from Nazareth have anything to do with my salvation 2000 years later? In the interfaith context of the Middle East, these questions are certainly crucial. For most Muslims, God says ‘let it be,’ and it is! This is how he confers judgment. Many a Muslim polemicist in history has argued that the excruciating narrative of the cross is unnecessary in light of Islam’s understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty.

These are the questions about the cross that face us in the multifaith context of the Middle East and elsewhere. I want to affirm from the outset that I have no interest in entering the current – mostly western – debate for or against the so-called PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) view of Christ’s death. On both sides, it seems to me, proponents tend to present the crudest version of the other’s view in order to facilitate its dismantling and the assertion of their own position. My starting position when reflecting over the implications of the cross is to affirm the diverse interpretations as ‘multiple facets’ found in the Biblical witness, rather than to affirm one ‘theory’ against another.

In the more extreme representation of the view associated in particular with the eleventh-century name of Anselm of Canterbury, the death of Jesus is viewed as a sacrifice offered to satisfy the requirements of some ultimate principle of Divine Justice. Justice required that we should die due to our sinfulness, but through the death of the innocent Jesus, the wrath of God was satisfied, offering us the possibility of redemption. The theory was further developed and codified by Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and made to rule over much Protestant thinking about the cross through its endorsement and adaptation by Protestant Reformer John Calvin (16th century). Many of the traditional hymns we sing at church, particularly around the time of Easter, are inspired by this view. I find myself remaining silent over certain stanzas…

Let me just say that it is not the idea of ‘substitution’ that I am questioning. What I am reacting against is the much cruder development that views the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that was meant to placate God’s anger and force his hand into renouncing the drive to annihilate us because of our sins, due to some higher principle of Justice to which God himself is subjected. On the other hand, the affirmation that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ or ‘in our stead,’ is well attested in the New Testament. Due to the significant distance between our world and the socio-cultural world of the Old Testament, we tend to find it harder to relate to the sacrificial system than did those living in the New Testament world. However, the pervasiveness of the imagery in the Bible requires that we find in it meaning that connects with our own reality.

The Church has affirmed that Jesus died ‘for us’ as the ‘Lamb of God,’ as the ultimate sacrifice for human sin. This interpretation that permeates the writings of the Apostle Paul, however, is far more ‘typological’ in nature than legal. Jesus is a ‘type’ of Adam; he is the ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45). He is also a ‘type’ of the Old Testament sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers great insight into this second typology, by representing Christ both as the sacrificial lamb and as the High Priest offering the sacrifice. Two central elements emerge from the overall New Testament witness, which are essential to our understanding of the death of Christ. First, in Christ, it was God himself who took the initiative of salvation towards us; his hand was not forced (ex, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). And secondly, Christ gave up his life willingly for our salvation; it was not taken away from him by force (ex, John 10:17-18).

I disagree with those who read, in some key Pauline passages, an extreme version of the Anselmian theory of atonement. I think it is a wrong interpretation. Following my Facebook post, one of my colleagues reminded me of what French Anthropologist, Philosopher and Theologian, René Girard, had to say about the death of Jesus and its significance. In revisiting Girard’s work, I find that what he referred to as the ‘mimetic’ (imitation) framework offers some important insight into the Apostle Paul’s rich discourse on the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, though I believe that Girard brings some important insight into the question, I don’t believe that his contribution is to be read in exclusion of other historical interpretations of the atonement.

In the fifth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ died for all. And the immediate consequence of this, in Paul’s thinking, is that through this death, all have died as well (v. 14). Once we allow that we have died to ourselves, we are able to break away from the violence which, according to Girard, results from ‘mimesis.’ In the Girardian system, all violence is explained through an anthropologically induced desire to imitate (mimesis), to possess what someone else has. A triangulation is thus established between the subject, the object and the model, who possesses the object of desire (subject-model-object), to the point where the object eventually becomes irrelevant and the fixation becomes on the model.

The message of the Gospel is that, once we no longer live for ourselves, we break away from the primordial inclination to violence, for we now live ‘for him who died for (us) and was raised again’ (v. 15). The resurrected Jesus becomes both the mimetic model as well as the object of our desire. In verse 17, Paul makes perhaps the most important statement that we find in all of his letters, for it expresses in Pauline language the central principle of Jesus’ teaching reflected in the Gospel of John; that in order to share in God’s Kingdom, we must be born again, of the Spirit, from above (see John 3). Paul’s equivalent to Jesus’ concept of being ‘born again’ is his notion of being ‘in Christ’:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Applying the Girardian framework, being in Christ becomes an invitation to break away from that cycle of violence. By dying to self, we become a ‘new creation’ that has no need to pursue the mimetic drive to violence, in search for self-gratification. Through the death of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself ‘and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (vv. 18-19). But it is only those who have learnt the possibility of dying to self, and who practice this in ongoing manner, who are able to be true reconcilers. This is why the political way, in its pragmatism (the realpolitik), doesn’t lead to true and lasting reconciliation, because it continues to pursue peace for selfish purposes, to serve certain ‘mimetic interests’: American interests, European interests, or any other nation’s interests in any given situation of conflict.

I find important insight in René Girard’s anthropological framework as I try to make sense of the violence in today’s world, particularly the one currently threatening the annihilation of what remains of Christianity in the Middle East. The challenge that the cross of Christ poses to violence is absolutely unique. I find no satisfactory parallel, in other ideologies and religions, to Christ’s command to his followers that they love their neighbor as themselves, respond to evil with good, and even love their enemies. For the Eastern Church, today is the commemoration of the Last Supper, tomorrow we will remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and on Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection. We may debate staunchly about how the death of Jesus works. We may even argue still, with some, about whether Jesus actually died on a cross. But to the transformation that the ‘way of the cross’ does in us, and to the consequence that being born again, in Christ, has on our behavior and attitude towards the promises of the world, there is no substitute that I have found anywhere.

Why Do Young People Join ISIS?

By Arthur Brown

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in ‘risky behaviour’. This included drug use, gang membership, reckless riding of stolen motorbikes, etc. As a youth worker my role was to understand what motivated them and hopefully seek ways of reducing the risk of serious harm.

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus. Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalise the enemy, categorizing them as ‘other’, whereby ‘other’ represents all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities. It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities.

However, what happens when we realise that the enemy is increasingly coming from within? When the enemy is made up of individuals with names, with families, with tragic histories and experiences that some of us might actually share. Experiences which lead them – perhaps with some degree of rationality – to join organisations such as ISIS?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. On Tuesday, the BBC reported that ‘More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.’ As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to ‘play their part’ in the establishment of the so called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish.

But what is ‘their part’? One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles. Whilst fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal. The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, the truth is there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join. The three 15 & 16 year old girls from my area of East London [all A grade students in school] who recently traveled to Syria to become ‘ISIS brides’ are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits to ISIS as naive and misguided, and this may be true. However the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

There are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk taking behaviour. Abundance motivation drives individuals to seek  ‘peak’ experiences, a buzz or thrill. Young people often crave excitement, a sense of living life to the max! Deficiency motivation, on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain. What tends to motivate someone to take cocaine for example is different to what tends to motivate someone to take heroine. The former is a stimulant, the latter a pain-killer. Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or pay-off.

Other reasons why young people take risks include:

  • Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognised and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.
  • The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behaviour. This is perhaps critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.
  • To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has lead to the development of such anger in the first place.
  • To escape or ‘numb’ the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases risk taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or ‘salvation’ in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-facetted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract them towards ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the Northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades. It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

According to scholar Mohammad Abi Samra,

The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy. This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence, and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.[1]

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I used to live in a community in London that was often described in such terms!

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction, and self-harm. Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind – waiting to erupt at any opportunity. Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to loose? The answer – not much! Their desire for ‘salvation’ – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Many of the young people from the region who are joining these groups, and who come from such impoverished and desperate circumstances, are uneducated and have suffered under local and regional security apparatuses, especially those of the Syrian regime during its occupation of Lebanon. Anger and resentment towards both the Lebanese and Syrian authorities runs deep and hostilities regularly flare up.

What does ISIS offer these young people?

Perhaps the main thing that ISIS can offer is a means of escape. Local mosques and prayer halls influenced by the Islamist ideas of ISIS are places where young people from similar backgrounds have found ‘salvation’ within a certain interpretation of Islam. This Islam has offered an escape from isolation and self-destruction into a community that offers discipline, respectability and dignity. Former gang members have become community leaders and role-models to the ‘wretched’ youth of impoverished communities. However, the young people who are ‘being saved’ lack much formal education and the ability to think critically and engage in a wider social discourse. They are easily led, and often lack even a basic understanding of Islam – other than what is being fed to them by some extremists in their communities. In fact, many of these young people are not attracted to Islam per se, but rather have a desire to escape (Abi Samra 230-234). The other significant thing ISIS can offer is a sense of belonging to something bigger and more significant than these young people may have ever been able to imagine. This is a trend that is growing by the day, as the vision of ISIS and what it offers becomes more significant.

So, what is the role of the faith communities – and the church?

Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemy, as well as their neighbour. The reality is that our neighbors – young people from our communities – are becoming ‘the enemy’. So how can we even begin to think about loving them, when loving them involves taking loving actions towards them?

In the first instance I think we need to recognise that each of these young people has a name and a history that has led them to take such a radical decision. They too are created in the image of God, however disturbing this may be to us. Rather than writing them off as ‘crazy’, ‘sick’ or ‘evil’, maybe we should try to understand the conditions that led them to be willing to join such organisations. In no way am I seeking to justify their actions, just to understand them.

It would be easy for the church to stay out of it. How might the church have a role in being a peace-maker between different Muslim communities? Poverty does not make distinctions between religious communities. Recently, at least two Lebanese Christians from Tripoli have joined extremist terrorist groups, further highlighting that maybe it is not Islam per se that drives people towards groups like ISIS. One is believed to have joined ISIS, while another was arrested in connection with suicide attacks in a neighbouring community. In such contexts maybe peace-loving churches need to build friendships with peace-loving mosques, to seek ways not only to reject violence, but to address the conditions that lead to such fertile recruitment grounds. Maybe the role of the global church is to take an interest in the local contexts from where ISIS members originate and seek to support initiatives that counter hatred and discrimination, asking prophetic questions about how nations could and should respond in such challenging circumstances. In the mean time, why not pray for these young men and women and for their families… as well as for the families who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the devastating realities on the ground in the region.

___________________________

[1] Mohammad Abi Samra, ‘Revenge of the Wretched: Islam and Violence in the Bab al Tabaneh Neighborhood of Tripoli’ in Arab Youth: Social Mobilisation in Times of Risk, ed. Samir Khalaf and Roseanne Saad Khalaf (London: SAQI Books, 2011), p.222.

Retiring Tired Myths about the Modern Middle East

By Jesse Wheeler

Thanks to the advent of social media, my access to Western media sources is nearly as good (perhaps even better) than it would be were I not an immigrant living in Beirut, Lebanon, just another sign of the ever shrinking world we inhabit. Yet in my readings I consistently encounter the same myths about the modern Middle East and its peoples; some myths are seemingly innocuous, others less so. And, it is precisely because our world is now so interconnected that such long-standing myths must no longer have a place within our global discourse.

Misinformation abounds when it comes to the Middle East, and certain misperceptions have proven to have profound socio-cultural consequences and destructive policy ramifications. (Nothing I write here is particularly new or inspired, most especially for our Middle Eastern readers, but certain perceptions simply refuse to die.) Some myths are basic, such as the erroneous belief that all Middle Easterners are Arabs, all Arabs are Muslims, and all Muslims are terrorists. However, two myths have been particularly vexing as I’ve encountered them in the past few weeks.

They are as follows:

  • MYTH #1: The Middle East is a Desert Wasteland

Now don’t get me wrong, there IS a lot of desert in the Middle East. Georgetown’s Margaret Nydell describes the Middle East as an archipelago of densely populated islands amidst a vast desert ocean.[1] This is an apt, but nevertheless misleading description. From Morocco to Iran and from Armenia to the Yemen, the MENA has its fair share of sun-soaked beaches, snow-capped mountains, and modern metropolises. It also has fertile river valleys, the very ones from which Western civilization sprung. And, the Mediterranean coastline is exactly how you might picture…well, the Mediterranean coastline.[2]

Geography lesson aside, more troubling is how this notion of the MENA as a desert wasteland so easily bleeds into the erroneous notion of the Middle East as a cultural and intellectual wasteland, beholden to a medieval religion hell-bent on world domination, comically backwards sheikhs, dancing harem girls, and throngs of helpless masses crying out for the ‘benevolent’, yet nonetheless ‘superior’ hand of Western intervention. Edward Said has said this all before.[3] Yet such misperceptions refuse to die.

Perhaps the most staggering image highlighting the gulf between perception and reality comes from a 2012 episode of the award-winning American drama “Homeland.”

(Photo source)

Either the producers didn’t know how to google ‘Hamra’, or they clearly had ulterior motives. And yet, the sheer amount of ‘culture’ per square km in the Levant is staggering, both ancient and modern. Ancient monasteries sit within minutes of the most modern, diverse, and technologically sophisticated cities one could imagine, replete with art, film, music, literature and scholarship. A quick internet search lists over 32 universities within two hours of my apartment alone.

Subsequently, this notion of the MENA as a geographical and cultural desert feeds in to the second myth.

  • MYTH #2: Islam is in need of a Reformation

As a student of modern religious history, I am always puzzled by this declaration. I’m not saying there doesn’t exist a profound crisis of religious authority within the Islamic community, nor that recent events haven’t inspired a revaluation of core religious texts among certain segments of the ummah. But, Islam has been ‘reforming’ for generations.

Revival movements have been a quintessential part of all religious traditions since their respective beginnings, Islam included. Yet the advent of European political and economic domination in the 18th-19th century triggered within the Islamic community a period of deep introspection and the reexamination of core methodologies[4]. Later, Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate in 1923, sending shock waves throughout the Muslim world from which it has yet to recover. The ensuing epistemological crisis set the stage for the events of the 20th century, witnessing the growth of Islamic liberalism, ethnic secularism, and reformist Islamism each offering a different response.

I was surprised to learn recently that Sayyid Qutb, the most influential ideologue of the Salafi movement, was an admirer of Martin Luther and saw himself in a similar vein regarding his own hermeneutical revolution within Islam[5]. The behavior of ISIS, most evidently its strident iconoclasm, clearly indicate that they see themselves as an Islamic reform movement. In essence, when Westerners call upon Islam to reform in response to the proliferation of Islamic radicalism, they are forgetting that such movements are themselves the byproduct of modern Islamic reform movements, and that such movements developed largely as a reaction to western colonial aggression. The irony is that movements such as these also encompass dramatic calls for the West to reform itself!

Furthermore, such misperceptions represent an acutely white-washed version of Christian history, wherein the Protestant Reformation represents the emergence of an enlightened, modern religiosity from the chains of medieval barbarism and ignorance. Whereas in reality, the Reformation unleashed one of the most fratricidal and tragically bloody eras of Western history culminating ultimately in the 30 Years War. In reference to the religious wars, Christian philosopher Brad J. Kallenberg writes,

“The Calvinist reasons that if a war satisfies certain just-war criteria, then it is their duty, as God’s stewards of creation and culture, to fight such a war for the honor and will of God… [T]his outlook gives Calvinists a certain resoluteness in their conception of duty. As one seventeenth-century observer of the religious wars remarked, ‘I’d rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist [convinced] that he is doing the will of God!’[6]

Sound familiar?[7]

In failing to acknowledge the bloody remains of our own past, we ultimately perform a true disservice to our global neighbors. In failing to examine our self-serving narratives, we too easily project our misinterpretations upon the ‘non-western world’, with all the socio-cultural and policy ramifications therein entailed. Sometimes, I think that we project the boogeyman of our own dark past upon the playing field of the modern Middle East. If this is the case, could ISIS then be the specter of our own creation, reshaping the modern Middle East in imitation of our own worst nightmares – nightmares unjustly thrust upon our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters?

Conclusion

In the end, if we purport to follow the gospel of Truth we must be persons absolutely committed to truth, about ourselves as much as others. I conclude therefore with the words of Musalaha’s Salim Munayer:

[P]art of seeking after the truth, and part of righteousness, is to take a closer look at some of the things we believe and assume, especially about history, and particularly our history, and examine more closely some of what we believe to be truth. Some of what we are asserting could be very close and dear to our hearts, but if we discover that it is not the truth, or that it is not the whole truth, we are obligated to admit it.

This can be a very painful process, but it is needed if reconciliation is to occur. In conflict situations, people on both sides of the divide must seek after the truth, and challenge any assumptions made about the past or about the ‘enemy’. If we do not challenge these assumptions, narratives or myths, we become enslaved by them, and will only be made free by embracing the truth:

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).[8]

__________________________

[1] Margaret Nydell, Understanding Arabs: A Contemporary Guide to Arab Society, (Intercultural Press, 2012)

[2] We mustn’t forget too that there is a lot of desert in a place like California.

[3] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (Vintage, 1997)

[4]Andrew Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices), ( Routledge, 2011) 179

[5]Jan Slomp, “Christianity and Lutheranism from the Perspective of Modern Islam” in Luther zwischen den Kulturen: Zeitgenossenschaft, (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004) 281

[6] Brad J. Kallenberg, Live to Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age, (Brazos Press, 2002) 100

[7] This is not an attack on Calvinism, but a recounting of history. Prior to moving to Lebanon, I served three years as a pastor in a Reformed Presbyterian Church.

[8]Salim Munayer. Musalaha: A Curriculum of Reconciliation. (Musalaha Ministry of Reconciliation, 2011)

Capoeira: A surprising source of social transformation

Lugging a big wooden drum, about a dozen tambourines, and an assortment of other percussion instruments, we walked onto the big green astroturf. Some members of our team got to work assembling berimbaus, the staple instrument of a Brazilian dance/music/sport called Capoeira. Others began assembling several dozen young Syrian boys into a big circle. This was the beginning of a series of intensive Capoeira classes for Syrian youth living in al-Azraq camp in Jordan. I was there to help the team, part of the NGO Bidna Capoeira, monitor their project and get a better sense of how Capoeira can support disadvantaged youth.

Al-Azraq camp is astonishingly monochrome: little white pre-fabricated houses are lined up neatly against a backdrop of beige sand, for as far as the eye can see. The youth centre, with its bright green astroturf, created quite the contrast. It is easy to imagine how eagerly young people living in the camp flock to the centre, simply to enjoy a few hours of colour. The assortment of Brazilian instruments we brought with us, along with the unique songs and acrobatics that my colleagues were coming to teach, were an even more exciting contrast to the monotony of life in a refugee camp. I asked some of the youth what they do when they are not at Capoeira class, and their answers included helping their mothers get food and water, studying to catch up on the years of school they lost due to war in Syria, and little else.IMG_0914

But, while the initial appeal of the Capoeira classes might have been the fact that they offered something new and different in an otherwise dreary life, I was particularly impressed by how they helped these young people grow in confidence and respect.

The first class was on the astroturf, but the second class took place on a concrete patio, with a tin roof to keep the heat of the sun off our heads. The tin roof didn’t help keep the desert sand from blowing onto the patio, though. When we began the class there, the master teacher, a Brazilian who has been training and teaching Capoeira for almost 50 years, told the students that they needed to respect their space. He asked if anyone could rummage up some brooms. A few minutes later, a kind-faced woman appeared and silently began sweeping the far end of the patio. The teacher, however, asked her to stop. He said that the students need to feel pride in their own environment, and that pride would take root when they cleaned their own training space. Hesitantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm, one boy after another took the broom until they swept out the entire space. On the next day, we showed up again to a dusty patio and the teacher again called for brooms. He said that, from here on out, if the space was not clear when he arrived, he would not give a class. On the third day, we arrived to a freshly swept patio, as well as a circle of chairs neatly arranged in the shadiest spot under the roof. The boys grinned as they told the teacher that they were excited for the class, and had all pitched in to prepare their space!

Similarly, on the first day, when we pulled out the many instruments, which the teacher had brought all the way from Brazil, nearly fifty children ran to them, picked them up, and started banging away. It was fun to watch the joy on their faces as they played with these novelties, and at first their musical attempts created a pleasant cacophony. But soon, the sound grew loud and tedious, and I began to wonder if we would be able to gather the instruments back into one place again. The teacher then arranged the children into groups, according to which instrument they were holding. I watched as students fought over the more popular instruments, complaining when they got stuck with a small drum that they thought “boring”. We told them that everyone would eventually get a turn with everything, but they did not have the patience to wait, and kept squabbling and complaining. After allowing a few minutes of this chaos, the teacher brought them back into a circle and began to talk about the history of music in Capoeira, the significance of each instrument, and the orchestra that would be created when everyone learned to play in harmony with each other. He also talked a bit more about respect, and said that just like it was important for capoeiristas to respect the space in which they trained, it was also important for them to respect the instruments they were playing. He said that, from then on, if a student grabbed at an instrument without a trainer offering it to them, that student would have to sit out the rest of the music lesson.IMG_0922

About half of the students nodded and quickly put back the percussion pieces they had grabbed at, just moments before. A few others didn’t understand at first, but the teacher enforced his rule, and they began to understand the importance of respecting authority and sharing with each other.

These are small victories, but sometimes the small victories are the greatest ones. We might be tempted, when thinking about these challenging times in the Middle East, to want to solve entire crises, and then to feel utterly hopeless when we can’t do that. But Jesus often approached “the least of these” and spoke straight to their personal needs; similarly, touching people’s hearts in these minor, yet very wise, ways, is sometimes the best way we can help. Today’s Syrian refugee teenagers are, after all, the next generation of adults in Syria, and organisations like Bidna Capoeira are working hard to ensure that they are not a lost generation. In the Capoeira classes, I saw refugee youth who had lost much of the structure in their life when war broke out in Syria, re-learning discipline. Material loss may have made them desperate, to the point that they might break out in fight at food distributions or quickly snatch at anything given to them, but they were re-learning the value of sharing with others. They lived in a monochrome camp in the desert and were learning how to make colour in their own lives through music and dance.

All of this happened in a few short lessons; there is so much more that Capoeira classes can offer. Capoeira is interactive in nature, creating a space for its participants to act out their social frustrations inside the roda, or circle. It is physically challenging, requiring a great degree of discipline. It is empowering, in that its students are often expected to start teaching others once they have reached even a limited level of competence. It has a rich history of resistance in Brazil, which can inspire its students to address social problems in a productive way. It is expressive, as students learn a variety of songs and eventually learn to improvise as they play and sing. I look forward to learning more about how Capoeira can benefit refugee youth!