Middle East

Should Lebanon’s Christians Join Protests? Viral Sermons Argue Yes and No.

Confrontation at protest site forces evangelical faith from the pulpit to the public square.
Should Lebanon’s Christians Join Protests? Viral Sermons Argue Yes and No.
Image: Patrick Baz / Contributor / Getty

Does a revolution need a leader?

As the rocks rained down near the tent of Ras Beirut Baptist Church’s effort to discuss the question, suddenly the faith of the Christians gathered there was put to the test.

For the past month, Lebanese evangelicals have debated Scripture, sharing sermons online. One viral effort urges believers to stay away from widespread demonstrations in submission to authority. Another licenses participation in the popular push for justice.

Trying to find a third way, RBBC has visited the protest site weekly at Beirut’s Martyrs Square to discuss issues related to the revolutionary movement.

“We are not supporting a political agenda, but listening to people about why they are coming down to the streets,” Joe Costa, RBBC youth leader, told CT. “You cannot evangelize people if they are hungry or hurt. You have to be with them where they are.”

And this time, the church’s tent was at the front line as dozens of Hezbollah flag-waving partisans approached on their motorcycles.

Since October 17, citizens of Lebanon and its multi-confessional democracy have shed their religious identities in largely peaceful demonstrations against their political leaders. Some politicians have responded by justifying the violence of their followers, without authorizing it. Other politicians have expressed sympathy, asking for trust to make things better.

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.
Image: Courtesy of Joe Costa

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.

But long seen as the untouchable defenders of their communities’ interests, over the decades many political leaders have become wealthy.

“Corruption is like decay in our bones,” Hikmat Kashouh, pastor of Resurrection Church of Beirut (RCB), told CT. “No single person doubts it, including those in authority today.”

The current protest movement is leaderless and has no formal demands, but in general seeks to replace Lebanon’s politician-led cabinet with a government of independent experts with no political affiliation.

Some also call for the resignation of the president, for early elections for the parliament, and for the scrapping of the Arab nation’s sectarian-based political system.

The prime minister, required to be a Sunni Muslim, has already resigned. The president, required to be a Maronite Christian, resists the protests aligned with Hezbollah, his chief ally among Shiite Muslims, for whom the speaker of parliament is reserved.

Evangelicals, traditionally apolitical, have taken different approaches.

Some have rushed to join the demonstrations. They decry that a quarter of the population of the tiny Mediterranean coastal country live in poverty, while the economy teeters on collapse.

Others—largely sympathetic—have watched warily. They are offended by vulgar insults directed at politicians, troubled by ongoing roadblocks that paralyze society, and fearful for the return of civil war after three decades of relative peace.

“I believe we have a corrupt country and corrupt leaders,” Tony Skaff, pastor of Badaro Baptist Church, told CT. “But demonstrations are not the biblical way to serve our country and express our views.

“We stand with the truth, with the poor, and against the unjust. But we rely on God’s sovereignty through prayer, charity, and waiting.”

Skaff’s sermon outlined 12 biblical reasons why it is inappropriate for Christians to join in demonstrations against the government.

With emphasis on Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, he preached that God calls for submission to God-ordained authority—even when it acts contrary to his will. How can a believer submit to, pray for, and honor their leaders while in demonstrations against them, he asked.

The Bible gives no examples of the people of God rising against their leaders in protest, stated Skaff. At times, violent resistance was sanctioned by God for the state, but prophets directed their words to the king. He gave the examples of Joseph and Daniel who even served as advisors to wicked rulers.

According to Skaff, the apostles illustrate that the principle of obeying God rather than men requires acceptance of personal suffering, not engaging in political demonstrations. They responded by preaching the gospel with zeal. Skaff asked those passionately engaged in the protests if it matches their fervor for evangelism—a far greater priority.

Corruption and oppression will never end, he preached.

The only hope for temporary reform comes from 2 Chronicles 7: humility, prayer, and repentance bring healing to the land. This is the appropriate agenda for citizens of the kingdom of heaven, who serve here as God’s ambassadors, stated Skaff.

How can Christians then join with those mocking, cursing, and expressing their malcontented rage, he asked. Psalm 1 is a clear rebuke.

“The word of God is stronger than the word of angry people,” Skaff stated. “Our mandate is to stand with the law and fix things through it, rather than through a revolution which breaks all the laws.”

Kashouh, the RCB pastor, gave the other sermon that went viral in Lebanon. He agreed fully that God calls for submission to governments, and that the believer must not participate in cursing.

But that is why Psalm 1 does not apply, he said. Christians, judging from Isaiah 1 and Proverbs 31, have a clear command to speak out for justice. Their presence is necessary to help guide protests in a better way.

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.
Image: Courtesy of Joe Costa

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.

Unlike in the time of the apostles, Christians today have a share in shaping governance, Kashouh stated. They must read with discernment the ever-changing political circumstances.

And Revelation 13 depicts that authority can become satanic. Since God has ordained the state to do good, resist evil, and hold society accountable, Kashouh stated there comes a time when God’s ordaining is withdrawn.

Lebanon’s sectarian system of government pre-dates its 1943 independence, and was adjusted but confirmed when its 15-year civil war ended in 1990. Many of the former militia leaders and businessmen remain in leadership.

“There is an overall consensus—nationally and internationally—that those in authority have not served their people in the last 40 years,” Kashouh told CT. “The only question is the appropriate methods to fight corruption.”

Apart from violence, much is licit for believers: strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. Other Christians will feel called to prayer, private rebuke, and gospel witness, he stated. But with love as motivation, believers should be at the front of the movement for justice—the first to fight corruption.

“Why there is chaos? Because the corrupted ones are not willing to yield power,” Kashouh said. “Standing with the people is the least we can do.”

But Kashouh is not the only one reading political circumstances. Fully in agreement about the need to stand up for justice, Skaff fears what might come next.

“If you use the wrong method, you pay for it later,” he told CT. “When people mass protest to change anything, it is very dangerous, because evil is always more numerous than good.”

Christians in the Middle East need stable political systems, Skaff said, not the rule of a leaderless majority. The elite, the educated, and the qualified should govern, with rights and freedoms enshrined in law, not popular favor.

Christians are roughly one-third of Lebanon’s 6 million people, as are Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims. However flawed, the current sectarian system balances power between them.

Though most demands are legitimate, the protests are easily manipulated, said Skaff. He sees international powers eager to see Hezbollah pushed out of government. This would make the Shiite group outlaws, destabilizing Lebanon.

“Fix things without destroying the foundation,” Skaff said. “We do not stand with dictators, but we fight with spiritual weapons.”

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.
Image: Courtesy of Joe Costa

Christians from Ras Beirut Baptist Church host discussions at the protest site.

And that is why Martin Accad, chief academic officer for Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, helped a protester put down a rock. He was one of two speakers Costa invited to the RBBC tent, and had just finished his presentation when the motorcycles pressed against the protest fence.

“We cannot give them an excuse for violence, we have to invite them in,” he said. “These young people [in Hezbollah] are being manipulated, giving blind loyalty to those who demand it.”

RBBC was one of a dozen tents hosting discussions, and a crowd formed around it shouting “revolution” to answer the motorcyclists’ sectarian chant of “Shiite!” Middle fingers were raised on both sides, as protesters gathered metal tent legs in anticipated self-defense. Others scattered. Costa helped shelter the women.

This time, the objective was not violence but intimidation, and the motorcycles circled around the square. On their second approach, Accad acted on principle.

He stepped forward to the fence and raised his hands above his head, clapping. As older protesters had been calming down the younger, several joined behind Accad, doing the same.

“We are all Shiites, we love you,” he cried out. “Come, join us.”

They were met by more middle fingers, and a stone was lobbed at the motorcycles, from afar.

The Hezbollah supporters drove off again, and by the third approach the police had set up a cordon to separate sides and prevent escalation. The rest of the evening passed quietly.

“We are arrogant if we say we are more holy by staying home,” Accad told CT. “When you are tested is when your faith is truly seen.”

But he was not describing himself. Weeks earlier, Accad seethed with anger the first time Hezbollah supporters attacked a protest site. Not physically present, he nonetheless wanted to rush to the fight and hit someone.

Later on, he heard on the radio how a woman had forgiven the assailants—speaking kindly of them, referring to the shared struggles among Shiites in Lebanon and the non-sectarian protesters: “Their pain is ours and we can’t blame them.”

Knowing nothing of her faith, he was cut to the core for the hatred in his heart.

No, Accad said in his presentation, the revolution does not need a leader. Whoever tries will have no authority from the people. Loyalty must be earned.

“Deep down, we wanted to be close to the people,” said Costa of RBBC.

“If we meant this, today we have an even greater responsibility. We have to focus on loving those on the motorcycles—more than ever before.”

December

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