You think America has problems? Spend a week or two in Lebanon, and you’ll get a taste of what real — as in existential — problems are. Even Scrooge would sympathize.
Imagine scrounging barely enough food to eat once, maybe twice a day — even if you are a college-educated professional in Beirut, the former “Paris of the East.” Imagine having electrical power for an hour a day. Or spending eight hours in car lines waiting for a quarter-tank of gas. Or losing more than 90% of your buying power, if you still have a job. Or discovering your bank accounts are frozen. Or getting sick and finding no medicine anywhere, at any price, to relieve your suffering.
Your “government” consists of corrupt clan chieftains who refuse to relinquish power, even as the nation collapses. The largest and most powerful group, Hezbollah (“Party of God”), represents militant Shi’ite Muslims and answers to Iran. But numerous other tribal godfathers aren’t much better. They just don’t have as many guns.
One of the worst non-nuclear explosions in modern history — resulting from years of criminally negligent storage of tons of hazardous materials — killed hundreds of Lebanese, injured thousands and destroyed much of Beirut’s port and surrounding neighborhoods in August 2020. The area remains in ruins more than a year later.
Welcome to Lebanon
Welcome to Lebanon. The once-vibrant and beautiful country of 6.7 million people, wedged between Israel, Syria and the Mediterranean, is suffering. Over the past half-century, Lebanon has endured Palestinian occupation, Israeli occupation, Syrian occupation, 15 years of viciously sectarian civil war, the 2006 war with Israel, multiple political assassinations, the influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees fleeing their own civil war, the huge 2019 demonstrations demanding political change (which yielded nothing), and COVID-19.
And now, one of the worst financial meltdowns in economic history is destroying what’s left.
Regardless of their circumstances, the resilient Lebanese pride themselves on muddling through, often with cheer and gallows humor. Not this time.
“It’s an utter hopelessness and despondency,” said a veteran Christian worker about the national mood. “In many ways, the explosion that happened at the port a little over a year ago was the last straw. People usually say, ‘We’ll get through this.’ But now they’re saying, ‘This is harder than the civil war.’”
Those who can get out have left or are leaving. Those who remain depend on remittances from family members abroad, relief aid and grim determination to survive.
“If your income is in U.S. dollars, which is less than 1% of the population, you’re fine,” said “Robert Sacker” (named changed for security), another longtime Christian worker. “But the 99-percenters are doing very poorly indeed. The Lebanese currency is worthless. Now we have people who were making $600 a month trying to get by on $40 a month. It’s impossible.”
What brought Lebanon to the brink of failed-state status? Neighborhood bullies, such as Syria and Iran. Political, economic and societal corruption. Ransacking of the national treasury by clans and powerful families who jealously guard their positions.
Even the political power-sharing agreement that finally ended the 1975-1990 civil war contained the seeds of future destruction. Too many factions want a piece of the shrinking pie. At least 17 different groups, to be more precise: Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims (the majority); a variety of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christian sects; the Druz;, the Alawites; and so on.
Lebanon is not so different from other places in the Middle East, where diverse and sometimes warring groups found themselves thrown together in new “nations” arbitrarily drawn by Western powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. There are just more groups jammed into a smaller space.
“Lebanon is not so much a nation as a collection of families, clans and tribes,” Sacker explained. “In a failed state, Lebanese have always turned to the family, clan and tribe for help. They’re doing that now, because the government is essentially impotent. It is a country of patronage, not a country of laws.”
But with so little to go around, and the rest of the world distracted by larger problems (or tired of bailing out Lebanon’s corrupt power brokers), even the old patronage system is breaking down. Along with poverty, bitter social disillusionment has set in — including disillusionment with religion, particularly among Muslims.
“Part of it is a rejection of (militant) Islam, with mainstream Muslims separating themselves from some of the more radical groups,” said “Linda Smith,” another Christian worker. “But a lot of them slide into … I wouldn’t call it atheism as much as hating religion and anything to do with it, especially the young generation.”
Movements to Christ
So why are many Lebanese Muslims now turning to Jesus?
On the surface, Christian sects and churches in Lebanon are struggling as much as everybody else — losing young people to the great exodus abroad, sinking into poverty. But behind the scenes, something deeper is happening in Lebanon, the wider Middle East and the Muslim world: Muslims have become more responsive to the Christian gospel message than at any other time in history.
Iran and Afghanistan have the fastest growth rates among evangelical believers of any locations on the planet, according to Operation World. American missiologist David Garrison has identified 69 statistically significant “people movements” toward Christ in the Muslim world since the year 2000 (defining a “movement” as at least 1,000 believers or 100 churches). That is a staggering number, considering the painful and violent history of Muslim-Christian interaction.
Many observers credit the major, church-based prayer movements of the 1990s for this trend, along with generations of Christian outreach, widespread social turmoil in the Muslim world and a demand among Muslim young people for more freedom. But some things in the spiritual world cannot be chalked up to human activity.
Everywhere Muslims are coming to Christ, they talk about having dreams and visions — usually of a man dressed all in white.
Everywhere Muslims are coming to Christ, they talk about having dreams and visions — usually of a man dressed all in white. He tells them he is Jesus, or prods them to seek out a Bible or a particular believer they know. In my own journalistic travels in the Islamic world, I have interviewed many Muslims who tell this story.
“It seems to be a combination of things God is using to draw Muslims to himself,” Smith said. “The bold proclamation of his word, but also social media, satellite TV, internet and radio, while at the same time dreams, visions and in certain cases, miraculous healings.
“They’re crying out for hope. And in places of such sheer desperation like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, (Jesus is) all about bringing beauty out of ashes and showing people he is for them, not against them. More Muslims are coming to Christ now than ever before in Lebanon.”
More than bread alone
Many churches and Christian NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Lebanon are focusing intensively on distributing food, medicine and other aid to get the needy — whatever faith they may follow — through the current crisis. Muslims appreciate that, but they aren’t just looking for material help.
“Bill Kendrick,” a young Christian worker, lives in the heavily Shiite Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, which also is crowded with Syrian Muslim refugees. They’re desperate for work to feed their families, to be sure, but they want more. The worse the economic situation gets, he reports, the better the spiritual climate becomes.
“There’s younger guys and women coming to faith left and right,” Kendrick said. “But even among the elders and heads of households, dreams and visions are very common.”
“Even among the elders and heads of households, dreams and visions are very common.”
One Shiite man he befriended, who can trace his lineage back to Muhammad, planned to become a sheik (Muslim leader). But as he studied the Quran, he began to see contradictions. So he read the Bible and became a believer.
Kendrick urges new believers to count the cost of following Christ, because they almost certainly will face anger and shaming from their families, possible family or community expulsion, and maybe worse. It goes with the territory but doesn’t deter serious seekers.
One church holds a service most American evangelicals would recognize. “But then the pastor has a separate service, and you see all these covered (Muslim) women coming in, and Muslim men worshiping the Lord,” Smith explained. “It’s exciting.”
So if you’re worried about America’s troubled state this Christmas, take heart. Things could be worse. And even if they get worse, the light shines in the darkness.
Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.
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