Hoping for Mankind???: Sari Nusseibeh 3 of 4

Life has been a distraction from writing lately – an extension of this series to 4 posts is your reward for patience! And, here is a reminder of how I ended the last post:

Dr. Nusseibeh’s faith in humanity and endless optimism is refreshing yet confounding.  The next and last post will be my response to this.  Is this hope in mankind enough?  Is it sustainable?  And, if not, what is?  And, if not, then what are we left with?

Hope in mankind? If you look at the world today with its freedom, enlightened advancement and awareness about very complex things, with this idea of inherent goodness of man, there is virtually no reason the world should not be experiencing anything but prosperity, peace and health. Yet, with even a short gander at world headlines, we see that war, greed and preventable health problems such as hunger, malaria and depression impact every all corners of the world. We, as a race of beings, have everything at our disposal to exist without many of these problems. So, what is the problem? Why have we not overcome the trials of this world?

Inherent goodness in mankind simply does not exist – see the first 3 chapters of Romans. I cannot agree with Professor Nusseibeh on this. By ourselves, we take freedom, wealth and power and seek to increase and defend. And, if any of these are threatened, our actions result in the exact opposite for some others that are seeking these too. We want the good things and we don’t want anyone else to take what is ours. And worse yet, we don’t want anyone to take what someday may, even remotely possibly, might be ours. Our kind deeds often are seeking status or escape from loss of wealth – year-end non-profit giving in the US comes to mind. (Yes, my family benefits from this!) What is a good offer on behalf of the government to allow people to help others has become a calculated scheme to pay the least taxes. “I will give to prevent the government from taking.”

Even (especially) Christians (and other religious people) can take the very good things that God has given us and use them for self-preservation or self-promotion. If you are offended by this, then look up the Crusades…or modern suburbia (yes, my family sort of still lives there) for that matter. Stewardship of family has nearly paralyzed the Western Church, insulating it from true sacrifice.

My overarching point here is that mankind simply does not have an inherent goodness. Any evidence of goodness comes from either societal influence or norms or from a much higher source. And, the formers are an extension of the latter.

I don’t think, given enough time, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict will resolve simply because either group will suddenly care so much for peace that they will concede the necessary points. As history has proven, even if a large group cares enough to really push for peace, others will sabotage this because it means losing power or wealth. Think Arafat here…or Israeli settlements. Arafat could have agreed to a two-state solution producing years of near peace. But, that would have caused his flow of monetary support from across the Middle East to dry up. The refusal to stop or retract the Israeli settlements is about creating a dominant presence and supremely defensible position – in reality it equates more to offense than defense. By procuring more land for Israel it is extinguishing the existence for so many native Arabs. Neither position resembles, in the least, inherent good or care for greater mankind.

So, where does that leave us? Are we destined to self-destruction? I’ll extend this to another post – one just around the corner – not months away – maybe.

Feel free to post any comments or to challenge this in any way. Just click on the comment bubble next to the title of this post.


Mining for Hope: Sari Nusseibeh 2 of 3

Mining Hope

The event that brought Sari Nusseibeh to Nicosia was a talk that was meant to juxtapose George Antonius’ book The Arab Awakening(1938) and the current, so-called Arab Spring.  This was a bit of a stretch in some respects as Dr. Nusseibeh pointed out that the awakening mentioned in Antonius’ book referred to a cultural naissance rather than a political or power-oriented birth like the one today.  And, in the book, some credit was given to the Christian missionaries and other Western colonial structures that brought education, health care and nationalism into the Arab context.

The current unrest in the Middle East and North Africa is of a different variety of blossom.  This is a homegrown, give us our basic inherent rights or leave, or in some cases die variety.  This has very little to do with outside influences.  Dr. Nusseibeh points out that Middle Easterners are responding heavily to the concept that an individual and a culture brings with itself naturally a value, a right to exist and even ability to contribute well to the global body of people.  And, they believe that their own right to fully and freely exist is worth standing and dying for.  It’s not heavily influenced by the West.  It is driven solely from the raw instinct of survival and desire to thrive given by God in all of humanity.  The comparisons between the two “awakenings” was a stretch and a distraction from the topics of real merit possible this night.

What about resolution?  What is to make of the release of prisoners? 

Is there hope?

Dr. Nusseibeh’s real insight came from outlining the causes and trials of creating a peaceful resolution.  He outlined the reasons why the fundamentalist surge of the last two decades was in response to failed military and colonialist plans – lines on maps.  These plans have failed to produce peace by division but rather created parties so entrenched in survival that they could either forget or simply ignore their desire for existence, dignity and humane existence.

So, if not the Palest-El idea or the ever-elusive two state solution, perhaps a new focus and hope is needed.  Dr. Nusseibeh leaned on a notion by Samir Kassir which promotes the idea, “the Arab world can overcome its impotence.”  And, that given enough time, as humans who care about dignity and making the “right” choices, the Palestinians and Israelis will eventually choose wisely.  He placed a very high degree of trust in humanity to recognize itself as worthwhile.

The new solution that Dr. Nusseibeh is pondering is a federal approach to the whole region, akin to the European Union.  It could look something like this:

 Federal Solution:  agree on a desire for future based on values:

    • Shared human dignity
    • Open society
    • Peaceful co-existence 
    • Symbiotic economic situation

A federal solution with:

    • Smaller unions with areas of existence for all groups
    • Governance of shared cities/areas
    • 2 tiered governance
      • to separate
      • to combine where appropriate
      • oil wealth of Arab world spread to all areas of Arab world.

This sort of idea is sure to make many uncomfortable.  But, I marveled at Dr. Nusseibeh’s drive and energy to push for peace in completely creative, if not dangerous, directions.

Perhaps he is right.  Given the changes of the last year, who knows the possibilities of the near future.  As Rami Kouri (via a paraphrase of Sari Nusseibeh) puts it, “the political map has seen major changes.  Weak international parties can shake the world.  Military superiority cannot guarantee outcomes any longer.  The US is seeing a waning relevance in region.”  Colonial or Western powers cannot influence greatly the outcomes any longer – unless Libya and potentially Syria prove differently.  Information in the hands of the people has nuclear reactivity in moving political mountains.   If Nusseibeh is right about humanity, coupled with this newly realized Arab/Middle Eastern self-worth, then just maybe the value of what is to gain through peace and shared resources is greater than that which can be gained by exploiting the weaker parties.

With a region at a crossroads, and with new natural resources being discovered in the Mediterranean Sea with Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Russia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran through Hezbollah in Lebanon, all deeply interested, I hope Dr. Nusseibeh is correct.

Dr. Nusseibeh’s faith in humanity and endless optimism is refreshing yet confounding.  The next and last post will be my response to this.  Is this hope in mankind enough?  Is it sustainable?  And, if not, what is?  And, if not, then what are we left with?  

And, what about that prisoner swap?

Confounding Inspiration: Sari Nusseibeh Post 1 of 3

Sari Nusseibeh as a boy

Sari Nusseibeh’s writings and spoken word grab me as does this photo of him as a boy in Jerusalem.

He has spent a lifetime researching, thinking on and writing about Arab culture and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  His family has deep roots in Palestine.  They are still the holders of the key for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  His own thoughts sprout from his research on the ancient Persian philosopher, poet and Islamic theologian, Avicenna and many others. Dr. Nusseibeh’s take on nearly anything comes from penetrating angles.  But, he doesn’t just benefit from an academic, free-to-think, removed-from-the-streets perspective.  He has been in East Jerusalem for much of his life. He has been striving for a peaceful resolution for this highly contested land and all of its people – even when neither side wanted his contribution – for decades.  He is knowledgeable and unrelentingly passionate and creative about finding a way.  What’s not to like?

Sari Nusseibeh’s idea of a workable solution has morphed throughout the years and is firmly based in the concept that ideas do not easily flow into reality exactly as they are formed in the mind.  He lives out the philosophical approach that says that one only believes and defends an idea as long as it resembles truth.  If it no longer is believable, then one must simply accept a new truth and move on.

His approach to finding a peaceful solution over the years has contained the following and more:

  • Holding to a utopian idea of a one state “Palest-El” solution where everyone benefits from and appreciates the other’s unique attributes
  • As a professor, challenging the views of his fundamentalist students
  • Opening The Lemon Tree Café to allow a place for open discussion to thrive
  • Funneling ideas out of the Palestinian Territories via swallowed capsules because Israel had disallowed organized meetings of more than 10 people among other restrictions imposed via Military Orders (You’ll be shocked at the limitations!)
  • Organizing a student union in spite of restrictions
  • Being beaten by fundamentalists for meeting with Israeli leaders searching for a peaceful solution and sustaining a broken arm and other injuries
  • Imprisoned by Israel for allegedly being an Iraqi spy despite working heavily with Israeli Peace Now
  • Authoring information leaflets sustaining the First Intifada while attempting to ensure it remained a protest of nonviolent civil disobedience. – Israel worked hard to squash information realizing the power of words.
  • Repositioning to support a two-state solution when the idea of Palest-El was clearly not going to come to pass

As I have been inching through his autobiography for two years now, I couldn’t believe when I received an email that he would be speaking in Nicosia.  There was no way I was going to miss this.  His unending energy, his drive for his people, in spite of trials and disappointment inspire and confound.  Also of note: His talk just happened to take place on the same day of Gilad Shalit and the Palestinian prisoner swap – solidifying this as a surely-not-to-miss event.

Now that you have a bit of history and plenty of links to background information, I’ll close this post.  The next post will deal with his talk.  The third post will be my response.

Repost: Clarifying the Path

This was originally posted two years ago.  Before posting my thoughts on my experience hearing Sari Nusseibeh speak on Tuesday night, I thought this would be a good introduction to the topic…and will buy me some time in writing out my thoughts!  Stay tuned!

path2Sometimes I wonder about the state of the world – how it got this way. I wonder how certain people are certain ways.  It is dumb-founding to ponder the root of the world’s problems.  Here in the Middle East, the complexity of the situation can consume even the stoutest of intellectual might.  Yet, many have very strong opinions about the path for peace, or worse, the path for self-dominance – which some believe is better than peace.

I’ve been doing some reading about this region in hopes of, at the very least, holding my own in a casual conversation of my peers, or, at the very best, having enough understanding to offer compassion to the people who exist here.  The first book that I read (I still have a few chapters left), was From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman – a Jewish-American, yet secular, journalist who lends a very open mind to his historical exploration of the issues in the Middle East.  I valued Mr. Friedman’s candor and dutiful rendering of the events of the last sixty-plus years of the region.  Yet, I was sure that it wasn’t the whole story.

While traveling to Jordan, I picked up another book, Once Upon a Country by Sari Nusseibeh.  Now, I’ve only read a small portion, and I don’t claim to know or support all of Mr. Nusseibeh’s claims or causes – I simply don’t know enough.  But, I am impressed by his candor and openness in penningwhat seems to be the exact inverse of what Friedman wrote.  Mr. Nusseibeh comes from an Arab academia where a peaceful, artistic, multi-cultural state was seen as ideal.  So, to me, the two books  combined offer great insight into the Middle East dilemma.

From the U.S/western perspective, we seem to align ourselves with the Israeli perspective almost naturally.  I think it is important to challenge our understanding, or even grow our understanding.  Here is an excerpt from Once Upon a Country, circa 1947:

One day a peasant farmer came to his [Mr. Nusseibeh’s father’s] office.  He was from a small village in the south, near the Jewish  town of Rechovot.  His modest house had been blown up, and his village lands had been taken by Jewish forces.  His only son had been killed, and he himself had been shot in the leg and was in danger of losing the limb.

Father didn’t recount this man’s adventures with the detachment of a historian, but rather with the flare and skill of a tragedian.  “Jaffa is the home of 200,000 Arabs,” he writes about their expulsion by Israeli forces.  “And its loss means the dispersion of these people.  The loss of Acre, Nazareth, Safad, Ramle, Lydda, and all the other towns and villages of Palestine means more than red dots on the map.  They mean the warm hearths and proud homes of an old established community.  The hearths have turned to ashes and homes ground to dust and the life that once throbbed within them throbs no more.”

This really grabbed me.  It illustrates just some of the loss of the beating hearts of this land.  It breaks through the idea of good guys and bad guys.  These are people who were solely looking to live out their lives in their own homes, with their own people and with their own families.  It made me ponder what would happen if someone did that to me.  Or, more hypothetically, if some one started taking the land of fourth generation farmers from the Midwest and handing over the land to the Native Americans who had claimed historical rights to it.  Just as we Americans value our perceived right to exist, thrive and own property, the Arabs of 1947 and later do likewise.

This brings me to the last point.  Where is our greatest allegiance? Is it to our nation, our family, our personal rights?    Shouldn’t it be to our Kingdom? We are called to die to ourselves daily.  We are to be meek, loving, humble, sacrificial citizens of a territory that we have yet to step foot in.  Shouldn’t we look at a situation like the Middle East and understand that it isn’t about land, peace accords and lines on a map?  This situation is too filled with complexities of pride, grievances, history and power-struggles for a man-made solution to be effective.  The solution exists in understanding that the New Covenant leveled the playing field and ushered in the chance for all to belong to a new citizenship.  It opened up the only, real and lasting chance there is for peace – this doesn’t just apply to Middle Easterners.  And, the way that people will come to realize this is through the current citizens’ obedience to loving sacrifice.

So, I’ll keep reading.  I’ll share as I learn more.  May we all learn to understand more and love better.  Holy Spirit come!

Unrestful Celebration

Cairo, Misrata, Benghazi, Busra – these cities have been at the forefront of my mind the last few months. 


This term has become equivalent to breathing.   Yet the heaviness of the reality of that term is the yoke that working in ministry in the Middle East and North Africa bears.  It taints everything.  Because the term UNREST does not just involve masses of people, challenging ideas and military actions.  It carries with it the reality of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons and dear friends pressed to the point of breaking, pressed even to death.  And, if we stop and ponder just for a minute the grief each one must experience, we can realize that no one chooses revolution and conflict easily.  Yet, there are causes that warrant the sacrifice of UNREST.  Mere existence, freedom of breath and expression, ability of spiritual brothers and sisters gathering for encouragement and worship together, these are worthy morsels worth putting on the line hearts, relationships, homes and life.  

Let’s pause now and not just think of these situations as news stories, as happenings from afar.  Let’s approach these as intimate, tactile, dirt under the fingernails, tear or blood matted hair – real situations.  Unlike the typical headline: More Unrest in the Middle East, we should refer to UNREST in a different light.  A more realistic headline should read:  Breaking News – More Unrest in the lives of Bushra and her daughter Daliyah who can’t find one another amidst the acrid smoke of tear gas and smell of burning tires, who can’t return home because the way is blocked and even if they did, their home now has a gaping hole in the southwest corner from an errant mortar.  And, tomorrow they will need to begin finding a way to scrape together enough money to buy bread since Ali their husband and father was slain as he returned from gathering supplies, in the Middle East town of Misrata, Libya.  This is the meaning of UNREST.

I bring this to you today because I’ve just had my perspective hit with a 7.2 temblor.  While my work requires me to think often about the above scenarios, I found myself this weekend on a furlough in the USA, on the American Independence day.  In some respects it is the most joyful time to re-enter my previous habitat.  This independence celebration is newly joyful but also weightily pensive in contrast to my new region of domicile.  

We took the kids to the 4th of July parade in a local Michigan town.  It was festive, colorful, peaceful.  Celebrating freedom that was won on the backs of hard fighting men and women from long ago is such good place to be.  Sitting in the sun, watching the flags, veterans, kids and candy is so sweet.  I soaked it in with my inner being.  

It also became clear that there is a strong correlation between the sight and sounds of this celebration and the UNREST still on-going in the Middle East and North Africa.  In the midst of a fight ending in either an uncertain freedom or certain death is the pinnacle of tribulation.  The people fighting now are not any less loved by God, are not any less diligent in their struggle, nor less deserving of their freedom.  And, they may or may not actually obtain their goal despite fighting as hard as our forefathers did.  

So, as it turns out our return at this time was a blessing.  The freedom in the USA is a blessing.  But, these blessings are not deserved, nor a privilege of being from a certain location, nor for being righteous.  It is undeserved favor.  If this is true, receiving these blessings without uttering words of intercession on behalf of those enduring or even succumbing to the struggle is far short of the mark set before us.  This idea is causing me to be in a state of UNREST.  Time to pray.  Will you join me?

Acting on Hope

Mustafe and Ahmet Lebanon. You’ve heard about it on the news. Hezbollah. Israel. War. Bombs. Shell-shocked buildings. Yes, those are all part of Lebanon. Yet, those are not all of Lebanon. They don’t even begin to let you understand its people.

This place has experienced so many trials that it makes most other countries seem like a kindergarten playground. Driving around Beirut there are sure signs of past trouble. There are also sure signs of impending trouble. If you look just past the first row of buildings as you drive along the highway, you will see buildings with acne like scars. One very disconcerting site was the anti-aircraft gun that was perched on a cliff, complete with fake-leaf netting, only a few feet from an apartment complex. So, those all too familiar descriptions of Lebanon are there as we have all heard on the news.

But, that’s not nearly the whole story.

Lebanon is beautiful! It is green. It is alive. It has a life and energy that is remarkable considering the uncertainty and repetitive uncertainty year-in and year-out. The people exhibit an unusual ability to continually rebuild. But, they don’t just rebuild. They improve and make every effort to allow their rebuilding to be a beautiful rebirth in architecture, art and expression. Some call Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. I don’t agree. It is much more remarkable – and, I love Paris! To respond to death and destruction with such vibrancy and speed without any guarantees is a testament to the uniqueness of these God-created people.

The people, in my experience, are warm, friendly and caring.  They know how to enjoy life.  This is evident in the amazing food available everywhere.  I found them to be helpful and willing to not just give the quickest answer, but to truly help.  They seemed to actually care that I understood.

To witness this place is more remarkable when you appreciate the fact that the uncertainty of their future isn’t far from their minds.  History says that summer is a time for war in Lebanon.  I’ve heard someone recently say, “There’s the smell of war in the air.”  So, when I asked a driver how he felt about this summer, it said a lot when he responded, “Well, they say that if everything is ok, we will have 2 million tourists.  If it isn’t. . .”  He left it hanging.  The alternative is far short of the livelihood that they would benefit from during a peaceful tourism season.  The alternative is more of the death and destruction. But, for now, they press on, with hope.

Acting on hope. That’s a good concept I would like to embody.  I was reading this article about one of my favorite musicians.  It made me realize that there is much we could worry about and that could limit our ability to serve in the Kingdom.  But, we know we aren’t to worry but are only to simply follow our Lord.  Both Josh Garrels and the people of Lebanon seem to embody this paraphrase of the Gospel well, “I freed you from death, now go be who I made you to be.”

Let’s all do this more, right?

On the Banks

It was an odd feeling to be floating down the Nile River in Cairo, considering the fact that not so long ago I was a young boy who stood on the banks of a rural stream, without a name, in Wisconsin–barefoot, muddy and whose only care was finding a shell, creature or fossil.  It’s been a long journey in every respect.  But, there I was only one week ago taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a world so very different than the one from which I came.  But, lately, that’s what my life is like.

My first night in Cairo took me to the Cave Church located in the heart of “Garbage City”.  Garbage City is the name that is given to the area where the trash collectors of Cairo are forced to live.  By and large this is a Christian area.  Upon entering this borough of refuse, you don’t need eyes to know you’ve arrived.  But, if you open your eyes, you see a thriving community that takes items that other people discard and repurposes them into commerce-worthy product.  There are shops and warehouses that prove the ingenuity of these people.  This recycling operation has become a community-supporting endeavor.  It’s not clean, but it works for the Christians and poor citizens who reside here.  The Cave Church and the Mokattam Mountain, where the church resides, have a long and amazing history that you can read about here and here.

What I noticed most about the Cave Church is that it is a thriving, safe haven for Christians.  Not only is the main cave sanctuary large enough to seat 15,000 congregants, the compound is alive in every respect. I arrived here at 11pm to find scores of adolescent boys playing soccer, having youth groups and enjoying the fellowship of others.  There was pure joy in this place of refuge, within this place of refuse. There are also regular accounts of healings, salvations and active ministry in this Orthodox establishment.  It certainly wasn’t what I had expected!

The next day I was treated to a dinner cruise on the Nile.  I was able to see the clear disparity in classes along the riverbanks.  I was told there are now only two classes in Cairo – the very rich and the very poor.  Along the Nile small farms are active, there are grain depots that collect and distribute feed, and families that fish from their small vessels with nets.   In contrast, there were also 5 star hotels and large office complexes.  Likewise on the streets you are just as likely to be passed by a Mercedes, as to pass a cart and donkey.

I also met with two senior ministry leaders and benefited from their wisdom and perspective.  I was able to tour the SAT-7 Egypt office and studio, made new friends and was encouraged by the Godly focus of the ministry here.

I had to ask myself several times, “how did I get here?”  The answer comes in the following verse:

Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” 
 And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8

And to prove it isn’t an indication that I arrived here according to my own abilities, verse 5 is an accurate depiction of who I am alone:

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Isaiah 6:5

I haven’t seen the Lord with my own eyes, but I know Him and He knows me.  Because of this, He has taken me far from the shores of the unknown stream.