Monday, 16. May 2022

"Transforming Society in Humility"

German-Lebanese consultation on public theology


"Public theology" reflects on the theological basis of the social impacts of Christians and their churches. This issue arises in all contexts, no matter how different they are. At the end of April, theologians from Lebanon and Germany met in Beirut to discuss issues facing churches and Christians in German and Lebanese society. The event took place as part of the 50th anniversary of the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS).

Sometimes current events brutally overtake theological discussion. This is exactly what happened with the 7th International Consultation hosted in Beirut in the Easter week by the Protestant Near East School of Theology (NEST) and the EMS “Study Programme in the Middle East” (SiMO), which offers students an ecumenical study year at the NEST. In his presentation, Berlin professor Torsten Mereis spoke of the role that churches have played in rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean and how strongly public debate in Germany was divided about this. Then, less than three days later, a refugee boat capsized off the Lebanese port of Tripoli – six dead, including one child, all of them Lebanese who had set out on this perilous journey.

Only 30 participants came to Beirut - half of them from Lebanon and half from Germany. The SiMO and the NEST host a joint consultation every three years. However, this year, it could only take place on a smaller scale because of the disastrous economic and political situation in Lebanon.

At the end of 2021, the theological debate in Lebanon about the role of Christians and their churches became a very topical issue. An ecumenical group of theologians from the Middle East had presented a document entitled "We choose abundant life" which discusses the situation of Christianity in the region ten years after the so-called Arab Spring (see detailed report in Schneller Magazine 1-2022). Two authors presented the paper. Souraya Bechealany, former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), stressed the need to depart from the Middle Eastern social model of protected "minorities" coexisting side by side and move towards a civic model where all citizens have equal rights and responsibilities. Co-author Najla Kassab, pastor of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and President of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, spoke of the revolutions in the Middle East in recent years – they were not dead, but were in intensive care, so to speak. The churches were called upon to revive their ideas by providing protected spaces for public debate.

Protected spaces of this kind are sometimes more important than the self-confident public airs that a privileged church gives itself. The Maronite Catholic Archbishop of Beirut, Boulos Abdel Sater, agreed with this. He personally received the participants of the consultation at his episcopal palace. Reflecting on the enormous influence that Maronite institutions continue to exert in Lebanese society, he said in a pensive tone: "We will probably have to give up some of our power. Or we will disappear."

George Sabra, President of the NEST, agreed with this in his presentation. Theology in Lebanon was often "too public". The leaders of the state-recognised religious communities appeared with great frequency in the public media. Whether their statements were theologically sound, however, was increasingly called into question. Sabra is therefore in agreement with his professor colleague Günter Thomas from Bochum. Thomas spoke of the rapid contraction of the churches in Europe, of marginalised theology, the relevance crisis and experiences of loss from Germany’s standpoint. Only through a radical hope based solely on God's creative power could a church in humility still transform society. This hope was the church’s very own contribution to all social debates. The church was denying itself if it did not make this contribution and instead continued to argue like any other social actor.

Mireille Hammouche, Programme Director of the Syrian-Lebanese NGO "Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue" picked up on this point: "People are suffering because religion has been abused in our country for so long," she said, referring to Syria and Lebanon and her personal war experiences. Faith-inspired ethics, she said, must be used to re-humanise neighbours who had been demonised for so long. The survival of every single religious community in the Middle East depended on the survival of all religious communities.

Dr Uwe Gräbe, Head of the EMS Middle East Unit and Executive Secretary of the SiMO Programme

The 7th International Consultation at the Near East School of Theology on "Public Theology - Current Challenges in the Middle East and Europe" took place in Beirut from 20 to 22 April 2022. Read the full conference report here