What's Wrong with Society? It's Those Other Guys
Have you ever noticed that the trouble with "our society" – and "our society" could be anywhere – is more often than not the result of young people, immigrants, homosexuals, the sex industry, the poor or some other category of people that "we" or "I" am not a part of.
Heaven forbid that I could ever accept any responsibility for the multitude ills of my community or the world.
It regularly seems that it is those who are already at the margins of society, who already feel excluded, that become the "easy targets," the cause of social disintegration, the scapegoats.
The situation seems to get worse when, as a group, we develop an identity based on what we are not, rather than on what or who we are.
When we bring religious beliefs into this equation, it becomes even easier to justify attacks on those already marginalized or different, as we say "we are doing this for God," which essentially seems to mean we have carte blanche to attack as much as we like.
Whether it be denomination, religion, political allegiance, pro-choice/pro-life and so on, it seems that the most common course of action is to create an enemy and seek to justify our negative view toward them by allocating blame.
On a global scale, recent events resulting from the offensive movie about the Prophet Muhammed that led to one group attacking another based on their view of what is sacred, that is, the "defense of God" with little value given to His creation – namely human life – vs. the seemingly limitless "freedom of expression" without any sense of social responsibility – again with little consideration given to the potential for fatal consequences.
This, by the way, is one of the topics we will be covering in next year's Middle East Conference in Beirut from June 17-21.
On a national scale, this approach is often used to justify military attacks, as pre-emptive acts of "self-defense." Self-critique tends not to be high up the list of most politicians' skill-sets.
At a more localized level, it often means media condemnation or government legislation that targets minorities.
Take, for example, the recent human rights abuses carried out against members of the gay community in Lebanon, who were subjected to anal inspections by the authorities, in order to ascertain their sexuality, and as a result criminalize them.
Whatever one's view on homosexuality, the fact remains that a small minority of any population – maybe 5 percent? – does not pose anywhere near as much as a threat to the rest of society as do, for example rampant greed and consumerism, vitriolic attacks on political or religious rivals or violence done by men toward their wives or children.
And yet, it seems, often the larger issues are left unchecked because we, the majority, may be complicit, and therefore unwilling to ask ourselves the tough questions that would cause us to recognize our own faults.
And yet we are willing and perfectly able to target others. It's the easy option that does not call for our own transformation. It's always them that need to change, and never me.
The words of Jesus in Matthew 7 ring out in my mind:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
The ability to engage in self-critique is one that I have discovered to be particularly important for people entering foreign cultures.
As a Westerner living in the Middle East, it is all too easy to be critical of elements of this culture. However, I must also be willing to be critical of my own culture when it does not meet the standards set by the King.
But again, it is easy to wear such tinted glasses to come up with our own, comfortable version of what that Kingdom may actually look like.
If people believe in the same way we do, behave in the same way as we do, then perhaps, if they are lucky, we will accept that they could potentially belong with us.
However, we always reserve the right to exclude, as by doing so we affirm our own position of superiority. Would it not be refreshing to be known for what we stand for, in positive terms, rather than what or who we stand against?
As a church, we should be the ones whose primary concern is for those at the margins of society, the other, rather than our own self-preservation.
Rather than focusing on our rights, maybe we should first consider our responsibilities to ensure the rights of others – others also created in the image of the One God.
IMES' Middle East Conference 2013 will address the subject of "Your Rights and My Responsibilities: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Human Rights."
As well as the freedom-of-expression issue, we will explore religious rights and freedoms, the role of human rights within the Arab uprisings, as well as human trafficking as an issue of human rights.
Arthur Brown is assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies, based in Mansourieh, Lebanon, at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary. This column first appeared on the IMES blog. Visit Arab Baptist Theological Seminary on Facebook.