With everything at stake: A year after Lebanon

Published in Tapestry | 2008

“We feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle… We should like death to come to us, not … through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953)

From my experience, in our world death and oppression has become so normalized as to become banal. I believe that the disconnect and despair experienced by some of us in the faith and justice movement (and in general) may be rooted in our fear of losing privilege and witnessing the collapse of our way of life; but we shouldn’t despair because we’re not doing enough. We faith activists have to remember this or we risk getting co-opted into being merely busy and embracing the economic ethic that is threatening our world.

In July, 2006, I was torn with aching heart out of Lebanon, in the midst of a month of bloody Israeli air strikes on civilian areas throughout the country, after having lived there for a year. I had been serving with the World Student Christian Federation, as a United Church overseas personnel, working on Muslim-Christian dialogue among university students; mid-way through my term, I opted to leave the bureaucracy behind and take the risk of returning without a job, without support, without plans – only the desire to connect with my brothers and sisters I had grown to love and to accompany them more closely than I had been able or allowed. Deeper relationships, rather than activity, very quickly became my focus. The last year-and-a-half since I evacuated from the Middle East has been marked by a deep yearning to have “everything at stake” and to live in a more direct, less mediated way.

It has left me with more questions than answers. I have felt waves of betrayal at my culture, my church, and even myself. Knowing how bad things are isn’t the same as experiencing heart-break under the dropping bombs and impersonal abandonment by the outside world – not to mention the painful ease with which I could leave my loved ones behind to survive myself.

And though I was invited to write about my experience working in Lebanon – not only with students, but with Palestinian refugees, with Shia Muslims in poor suburbs, with young activists giving their all for another world to be possible – I feel that reflecting on that experience must necessarily lead to a reflection much more probing, political and personal.

What I’m wondering is whether living “with everything at stake” is even possible in our highly mediated, technological, capitalist society. I once had more hope. But even the few public institutions that might (should?) provide solace and sanctuary for alternative values (church, civil society, the non-governmental sector) have become unwitting collaborators in the culture of death.

The best values and visions of our churches, for instance, are increasingly subservient to the cold logic of economics, efficiency, workforce management, cost-reduction, donor recruitment, branding, and so on (recent massive cuts in mission support, social advocacy and community ministry, to give but a few examples, remind us of this trend). My experience in Lebanon taught me that bureaucracy kills the soul, reduces everything to the mechanical, sterilizes the humanity and personal contact out of the broken beauty of messy human communities.

“To radically change society,” writes Andrea Smith in the must-read new anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, “we must build mass movements that can topple systems of domination… The NPIC [non-profit industrial complex] encourages us to think of social justice organizing [merely] as a career; that is, you do the work if you get paid for it.”

The scientific precision with which the Israeli Air Force ransacked Lebanon and terrorized its civilian population (killing 1,200, very few of whom were even Hezbollah members) reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s observation about the “banality of evil” – and her more controversial suggestion that Nazi atrocities in World War II were not exceptions to modern rational society, but the epitome of such a worldview. Not that what happened in Lebanon was even on that scale – but such a technologically fuelled assault (largely thanks to Western military support for Israel, no questions asked) could only happen with a high degree of separation and disconnect between people on a global scale. The vast majority of cluster bombs dropped on farms and fields and streets of south Lebanon (bombs that to children look like colourful toy butterflies) were scattered after a ceasefire had been agreed upon; the same goes for Hezbollah’s south-bound missiles heading for mostly Arab-Israeli residential areas.

I think the problem is no longer about hating our enemies, but denying them their very existence and justifying their erasure.

“Israel had no choice but to bomb civilian neighbourhoods because the terrorists were hiding there,” I was told coldly, amidst the pro- and anti-Israel protests clamouring in Montreal upon my return to Canada. “It’s their fault. Those people sympathized with Hezbollah anyways.” Most banal: “All Palestinians are terrorists. And Palestinians don’t exist anyway.”

Such contradictions and coldness defy logic, but paradoxically they do so in the most logical, calculating way – as if there could ever be a calculus of justifying oppression that renders all of us guiltless.

Of all the experiences of my time there, the one that sticks out most was a family pleading with me to stay with them in their time of trial. I knew their village wasn’t safe, as it was pro-Hezbollah, but I was assured it would be. “Because we are here together,” they told me. “That’s why it’s safe.”

To me it seemed illogical, but isn’t that the point? Only when you start thinking on a human or natural scale – in which family, kin, creation, faith, resistance, and dignity become sacred things – only on this scale can become free to risk everything to protect what is sacred and necessary to survive. I saw this in the courage with which my friends faced the war, faced their isolation and their fear, and insisted they would survive and to survive meant to win.

I work now with the Student Christian Movement of Canada – a movement close in spirit and history to the Centre for Christian Studies – and, though SCM sometimes falls into the institutional trap, I still believe that there’s an essential edge that can push us to the margins and build communities of solidarity, as is the mission of CCS.

In our social change work, we must avoid the temptation “to replicate the bureaucratic structures of the small business, large corporation, and state,” writes Dylan Rodriguez in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, but rather let go of structures that hinder our mission and calling. This is how Jesus rebuked his disciples’ admiration of the large temple buildings: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2).

SCM’s national conference in May this year is on the theme ‘Weaving Threads of Solidarity.’ Solidarity is not us helping them, but rather holding what is sacred in our communities in fierce, compassionate witness – freeing us to fight for ourselves, for our land and communities, for everyone’s liberation, and for the issues both close to home and those removed by distance.

My experience in Lebanon still unsettles me, raising hard questions – but the question of right relationships and witnessing to the sacred has infiltrated my thinking on questions of Christian discipleship, Native sovereignty, the death of Christendom, and confronting fundamentalisms, racism, sexism, homophobia and other urgent matters for people of faith and conscience.

I do still believe we can live “with everything at stake” – and confront the banality of evil – but it won’t be easy and we may not succeed. But when you think about it, our survival depends on this choice.

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