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Churches in Arab Spring: Political or Prophetic Voice?

A question has been on my mind a lot lately.
What should the role of the church be in the context of our troubled region? How should the church respond to its changing realities as the Arab Spring is unfolding?

We can observe a variety of responses around us. Mostly, there is fear.

Many Christians are alarmed by the diminishing Christian population and liberties in our region. This is forcing some to emigrate to find a “better” life somewhere else.

Others feel the need to do something about the deteriorating situation. Their fear frequently drives them to take political sides in the conflict, thinking that by supporting the “lesser evil” they will be much better off and will ensure a better future for their community.

Some churches, however, are responding differently. They are trying to be church to all, no matter what their political affiliations are, by caring for their holistic needs.

These churches are not as worried about having a political voice as much as they are concerned about maintaining a prophetic voice.

I’m all for individuals boldly expressing their political opinions. But what’s the role of the church, as a community, as the community of God’s people?

Is its role to take political sides? Should it have political power? What should the proper response of the church be?

Recently, I was reading a book about the connection between the church and the state. The title of the book is “Christian Ministries and the Law: What Church and Para-Church Leaders Should Know” by H. Wayne House.

The chapter titled “Church and State in America” surveys the historical Christian views on church-state relationships, which are pretty diverse.

The author first discusses the issues behind the current debate in today’s evangelicalism. He then moves on to propose a biblical approach, which calls for individuals to function as “salt” and “light” and to pray.

This is what I expect from a biblical approach. But what I find a bit unsettling is that the author goes as far as suggesting that a biblical approach includes the formation of political lobbies.

Again, I’m all for Christians, as individuals, getting involved in all spheres of influence in their society, including political responsibility, and even going as far as voicing opposition.

However, is it the role of the church, as God’s community of redeemed people, to act as a political lobby?

We see this phenomenon not just in the Arab region, but also in the West where many churches have become issue driven, taking on political lobbying as a primary response.

My concern prompted me to take a deeper look at Paul’s directives in Romans 13. I consulted many works and commentaries on the topic.

There are varied interpretations of Paul’s motivation for writing the Romans 13:1-7 passage, but I found James Dunn’s commentary on Romans in the “Word Biblical Commentary” series particularly relevant to my concern.

Dunn suggests that Paul was trying to “redraw the boundaries of the redefined people of God.”

The first 11 chapters of Romans redefine the people of God, chapter 12 starts to manage the relationships within this body, and chapter 13 draws the external boundaries.

Jews in the Diaspora, explains Dunn, were concerned with living within their own boundaries as Jews.

They identified themselves in ethnic terms and had some political privileges given to them as minorities. Members of this ethnic group enjoyed some protection.

Dunn argues, “Paul’s definition of the people of God no longer made that possible.”

By urging Christians to “subject themselves to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), Paul put the political status of this new congregation at risk.

Paul basically pulled the carpet from under their feet. They could no longer benefit from the protection afforded to the ethnic group. They no longer enjoyed political power. They were left on their own.

What was the outcome? History tells us that followers of Christ were subjected to persecution, dispersion, even martyrdom. Life did not become better for them. On the contrary, it became much more difficult.

Nevertheless, intriguingly, that’s exactly when the Gospel (God’s Good News) spread. It seems that the bad news for individuals resulted in “good news” for many. Maybe this is how things work in God’s economy!

The questions that must be considered in our Arab world today are:

â—      Should the church be involved in political lobbying? Should it take political sides in order to preserve some semblance of a cultural Christian presence?

â—      Or is its role to have a prophetic voice to speak out for what’s right and against what’s wrong no matter who the perpetrators are?

These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but I believe the role of the church becomes much more significant when it suffers hardship and persecution (without undervaluing the suffering that many are experiencing today).

I believe the church functions more effectively from the margin than it does from the center.

I believe the church should take on advocacy (lobbying), not for our own rights, comfort and self-preservation, but for the needs of the others around us, including our perceived enemies.

Essentially, I believe that this is a great day for the church in the Arab world. It’s a new day that calls for a new response.

I believe that there is “good news” embedded in the midst of this complex “Arab Spring.”

Elie Haddad is president of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.