I know that Jesus is the answer, but what does that mean?
Is the gospel about Jesus rescuing us from hell and transporting us to heaven… or is it about Jesus creating a community to work with him in the renewal of creation? Here in America, questions like this can determine whether you think of yourself as emergent (or not), whether you like Sojourners (or not) or whether you prefer Fox News or CNN. It’s a question that Christians can discuss with their friends over a cappuccino at Starbucks. We know that Jesus is the answer, but what does that actually mean? Let me tell you about a group of people where the answer to this question can spell the difference between hope and misery: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan as part of a delegation of authors, professors, and businessmen. Originally we were supposed to meet with a major world leader, but that didn’t pan out, so we ended up spending our time meeting with political leaders, democracy activists, Christian workers, and Insider Muslims (which are Muslims that follow Jesus within the context of Islam—another story for another day). One day we spent a morning at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. It wasn’t at all like I expected.
Like many people, when the words “Palestinian refugee camp” came to mind, I pictured makeshift tents strewn on an open field somewhere, probably in the middle of a valley or a desert. The Palestinian camp in Beirut is more like a city within a city, a series of autonomous heavily guarded neighborhood blocks in which the Lebanese police are not allowed to enter. The partially bombed-out buildings betray evidence of previous wars and invasions, the streets are narrow and filthy, and walking on the narrow and filthy streets between the partially bombed-out buildings you can look up and see tangles of wires connecting here, there, and everywhere; evidence of people doing the best they can with what they have to work with.
Most Palestinians refugees in Lebanon live and die in the camps, and it’s been that way for over 60 years. Unlike Jordan, where the Palestinian refugees were granted citizenship and integrated into the fabric of society, Palestinians in Lebanon are permanent non-citizens; living in a land that’s not their own while longing to return to a land that most of them have never been. What this means in practical day to day reality is that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon face a number of prohibitions against working, owning land, or building homes outside the camps. The ones that are able to find work outside the camps often have to do so under the table. The U.N. agency tasked with overseeing the refugee population (UNRWA) fulfills a much- needed role, but can only employ a fraction of the refugee population. The situation is so grave that a group of British researchers tested the mental development of a group of children by lining them up and throwing soccer balls at them. To their shock and horror, instead of the children picking up the balls and throwing them back, they let the balls fall to the ground without picking them back up, showing not only a lack of mental development, but a perpetual state of hopelessness. To them, the camp is a prison which they have little hope of escaping.
Which brings me back to my original question: I know that Jesus is the answer, but what exactly does that mean?
The wannabee Anabaptist side of me says that the solution to all of the world’s problems lies not in politics but in the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God isn’t necessarily about solving the world’s problems, but creating an alternative community that eschews earthly power structures in preference for servant hood and simple living. Given the tendency of Jesus to lampoon the Herods and the Caesars of his day, coupled with his ability to transcend political ideologies by inviting tax collectors and zealots to serve on his apostolic team, and let’s not forget the Apostle Paul telling the slaves “If you can be free, great! But if you can’t, don’t worry too much about it” (my paraphrase of I Corinthians 7:21), I find a lot of justification for this position.
It’s surprisingly similar to what the Pentecostal side of me would say, “No matter how crappy life is on earth, hell is worse and heaven is better, so let’s focus on the issues that really matter….eternal issues, not temporary issues which are passing away.” Back in the days of slavery in America, the message of patiently submitting to suffering in hope of an eternal reward helped many African Americans get through their miserable days, knowing that there’s a sweet by and by in the sky gave them a peace and a hope that transcended their circumstances. All good and wonderful, except when you factor in the infamous Uncle Tom and Martin Luther King’s soul-stirring appeal in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, it kind of makes you wonder if Christianity’s critics, the ones who claim that Christianity is a ploy of the ruling classes to keep the lower classes in servitude and submission….may have a point after all.
Here’s the problem. How can I credibly say that “Jesus is the answer” if “Jesus is the answer” means that I no longer advocate for political solutions to problems that can only be solved….by a political solution? For the plight of Palestinian refugees to change for the better, one of three things has to happen. Either Lebanon grants them citizenship, the Palestinians get a state of their own, or Israel grants them the right of return. The sectarian system in Lebanese politics makes option one very difficult, and the prospect of Israel making peace with Palestinians seems like a pipe dream. Still, anything less than one of these three options and the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon remains miserable and hopeless no matter how much individual charity is directed their way.
So why am I asking this question? I may not come up with any definitive answers, but here’s what I’m hoping will happen. I hope that some will read this article and take the time to visit, make friends, pray for and advocate for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. If more people learn about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and decide to do something about it, however big or small, then maybe the question is worth asking after all.