The Problem of Context
Arab Christianity has never developed in a pure form, without influence from the Arab world in which it exists and to which it bears witness of its faith. Although Churches in the Arab world1 have never officially called themselves ‘Arab Churches’, they bear the marks of the sociopolitical and sociocultural realities around them. The behaviour of Christians at both the individual and community level is inevitably dictated by regional imperatives which, for better or worse, also strongly influence the sociological forces that will determine the communities’ survival or disintegration.
It is therefore important to analyse the sociopolitical reactions and theological attitudes of these Churches, and this will be informed by a knowledge of their history, both recent and more distant,2 of the social and political challenges they have faced,3 and of their cultural affiliations4 and theological sensitivities. Some studies have sought to highlight various aspects of their identity,5 and they indicate a general consensus that three major factors have determined the course of their history: their ethno-cultural grouping (Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic, Arab, Armenian, etc.); their ecclesial and theological observance (pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox, Chalcedonian Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant); and their recent sociopolitical integration (Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqi, etc.). Taken together, these are the defining criteria that can begin to elucidate the complexity of life and the struggle faced by all Christian communities in the Arab world.
These initial remarks clearly fit well with one particular aspect of current theological thinking: the cultural imperative that requires all theological discourse not only to take account of the prevailing sociocultural and sociopolitical context, but also to take as its starting point the demands and obligations experienced by Christians in such a context. An important initial observation is the terminological confusion that arises whenever one attempts to pin down the identity of these Churches. The terms used oscillate between Churches and communities. However, given the impact of the Arab tribe6 and the Muslim ummah (nation), usage tends to privilege the notion of community over that of the Church, and this can have serious theological implications, one of which is the evident structural reluctance that prevents the majority of local Churches from investing themselves body and soul in the fabric of the Arab world.
The overall context remains that of the Arab world, but different Arab countries have evolved different patterns of social integration and interaction. It is therefore perhaps better to think in terms of a plurality of local contexts within the general Arab context.7 Nevertheless, opinion remains divided; the principle of contextual unity is easier to engage with than the notion of plurality. In any event, it is generally clear that there is diversity both in circumstances and in levels of integration, and this suggests three ways of describing the lives of Christian Arabs.
First, a symbolic existence, without historic roots, evolved on the fringes of sociopolitical and sociocultural realities (in the Arab countries of North Africa, and the Arab countries of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula). Second, a minority existence, that has deep historic roots, plays only a limited part in sociopolitical and sociocultural life, and bears a more or less public and authorised Christian witness (in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, and Sudan). And third – and this concerns only one country, Lebanon – a Christian existence that is more strongly associated with national and political life than elsewhere, and where Christian communities have always assumed a vital role in shaping the country’s sociopolitical and sociocultural identity.8 This book will focus its analysis on the realities in Lebanon and its unique characteristics. The book and its agenda are set against the realities of the whole Arab world, but its detailed consideration will centre on this third descriptive model. The task presents many challenges. The classification suggested here arguably fails to respect the complexity of the Arab world, and any observations on sociopolitical integration are unlikely to be reliable across the diverse range of Churches.9 In order to establish facts and to reach more general conclusions, however, we need to concentrate on just one of these models, and in this case, it will be Lebanon.
Our starting point is a belief – and lack of space here forbids a full justification – that Lebanon both reflects and sharply focuses key aspects of the challenges experienced by Christians within the Arab world. The life of Arab Christian communities in Lebanon crystallises the experience of all Arab Christians: their apprehension, their disillusionment, their hopes and expectations, as they seek to give meaning to their present lives within their historic context. The diversity of Lebanese Christianity, moreover, accurately reflects that found throughout differ- ent societies in the Arab world.10 An analysis of the Lebanese experience can thus provide an invaluable hermeneutic key with which to understand other models of minority Christian existence. We shall therefore address this analysis in two stages. First, we shall describe the realities of Lebanese human existence and their sociopolitical implications, and this will help to define more clearly Lebanese social and political realities and demonstrate their fragilities and inconsistencies. Second, we shall briefly present the religious profiles of the different Christian communities in Lebanon and highlight the distinctive traits that characterise the identity mission of each one.
1 ‘Ces Églises sont toujours vivantes dans la continuité historique d’un même territoire. Alors quel est le lieu actuel des Églises issues d’Antioche? Si l’on tient compte honnêtement des données paradoxales de la réalité, il faut répondre : cette terre de l’Orient arabe. Seule cette région que nous avons assignée comme limite à notre question offre la réponse adéquate : d’une part, les Églises actuelles autrefois nettement locales en font toujours partie et, d’autre part, leurs frontières d’aujourd’hui sont coextensives aux frontières de la région. L’Église présente en cette région s’identifie donc comme Église locale en tant qu’Église des Arabes.’ [‘These Churches are still living in the historical continuity of the same territory. So where do the churches descended from Antioch belong? If we honestly and fairly take into account the paradoxical facts of reality, we must answer: this land, the Arab Middle East. Only this region, from which we have defined our question, offers an adequate response: on the one hand, the current churches, which were always local to the region, still belong here; on the other hand, their present-day borders match the regional borders. The Church in this region thus sees itself as the local church, the Church of the Arabs.’ – trans.] (J. Corbon, L’Église des Arabes, op. cit., pp. 31–32.)
2 Cf. J.-M. Billioud, Histoire des chrétiens d’Orient, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995.
3 Cf. L. et A. Chabry, Politique et minorités au Proche-Orient. Les raisons d’une explosion, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose, 1984. See also A. Picini (ed.), ‘Les communautés chrétiennes dans le monde musulman arabe. Le défi de l’avenir’, in Proche-Orient Chrétien, Sainte-Anne de Jérusalem and Institut Supérieur des Sciences Religieuses de l’Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Vol. 47, 1997 ; Y. Courbage et P. Fargues, Chrétiens et juifs dans l’islam arabe et turc, Paris, 1992 (trans. J. Mabro, Christians and Jews Under Islam, London and New York, I.G. Tauris, 1997).
4 Cf. J. Hajjar (ed.), Les chrétiens du monde arabe. Problématique actuelle et perspectives, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose, 1989. See also R. Khawam, L’univers culturel des chrétiens d’Orient, Paris, Le Cerf, 1987.
5 On Christians in the Middle East in general, cf. A. J. Arberry, Religion in the Middle East, Cambridge, 1969; R. B. Betts, Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study, London, 1979; A. Fattal, Le statut legal des non musulmans en pays d’islam, Beirut, 1958; Ch. Frazee, Catholics and Sultans. The Church and the Ottoman Empire 1453–1923, Cambridge, 1983; A. Hourani, Minorities in the Arab World, London, 1947; R. Haddad, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society, Princeton, 1970. See also ‘Chrétiens dans l’Orient arabe’, in issue 78 of the history of religion journal Notre histoire (May 1991), which focuses on Christians in the Arab world.
6 On this, see the study by T. Touma, Paysans et institutions féodales chez les Druzes et les Maronites du Liban, Beirut, Éditions de l’Université Libanaise, 1986.
7 Recent studies of Middle Eastern Arab Christianity highlight as a determining factor either Islam (Cl. Lorieux, Chrétiens d’Orient en terre d’islam, Perrin, 2001; B. Heyberger, Chrétiens du monde arabe: un archipel en terre d’islam, Paris, Autrement, col. Mémoires, 2003; A. Brissaud, Islam et chrétienté. Treize siècles de cohabitation, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1991; Bat Ye’or, Les chrétientés d’Orient entre jihad et dhimmitude, Paris, Cerf, 1991), or the Arab ideology of power, or the imbalances created by orientalism and colonialism, which in turn gave rise to the involvement between Israel and the United States (G. Corm, Histoire du Moyen-Orient, Paris, La Découverte, 2007; Ibid, Le Proche-Orient éclaté 1965–2007, Paris, Gallimard; R. Grousset, L’empire du Levant. Histoire de la question d’Orient, Paris, Payot, 1992).
8 In order to understand the sociopolitical structure of Lebanese society, we shall need to refer to the Ottoman system (see E. Akarli, The long peace. Ottoman Lebanon 1861–1920, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993).
9 For an insight into the historical background to this complex picture, see J. Hajjar, ‘L’Église au Proche-Orient (1715–1848)’, in Nouvelle Histoire de l’Église, Paris, 1966, vol. 4, pp. 234– 262, 469–492; Ibid, L’Europe et les destinées du Proche-Orient (1815–1848), Paris, coll.