The mission of the church should not be to simply survive; rather, it is called to make contributions to the world, said a theologian from a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partner institution in Lebanon.
George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, was in Louisville last month as part of a trip to visit NEST’s partners across the United States.
He spoke about the effects the Arab Spring movement has had on Christians in the Middle East and the importance of interfaith dialogue between Christians and moderate Muslims. The future of Middle Eastern Christians depends on the future of Islam, he said.
For centuries, many Christians have been preoccupied with survival, Sabra said, adding that in areas where many people have been antagonistic toward Christians, struggling to keep one’s identity is a struggle.
“We should be thinking of more than that—finding ways to contribute to society and not just survive,” he said.
One way that NEST contributes to society is through hosting periodic theological dialogues between Christians and Muslims. These dialogues have been going for 10 years and are open to the public. During the sessions, Christian leaders don’t simply state their positions—they explain the history, challenges and changing perspectives that have led to those positions. It is through these dialogues that Sabra hopes to see a transformation of Islam and interfaith relations in the Middle East.
“If you do them in the right way, eventually they bear fruit,” he said. “You’re focusing on what is permanent in your religion and what is essential versus what is cultural.”
“There is no way we can live together without change.”
Although they’re important, these dialogues aren’t covered by the media because they’re not controversial enough, Sabra said. Christians make up a small percentage of the Middle Eastern population, and many people in other parts of the world aren’t even aware that Christians live in the region.
“It seems to me that the plight of Arab Christians is forgotten in the media,” Sabra said.
NEST has many students and graduates from Syria, and the turmoil there is a topic of heavy discussion at the school. Christians are caught between the two sides of the conflict, Sabra said. The opposition forces are not welcoming of Christians, and the government supports an immoral tyrant.
While it is the job of Middle Eastern Christians to work with Middle Eastern Muslims, Christians throughout the world should take up the task of making sure the region is never without the salt of the earth, Sabra said. He encouraged Christians to learn more about the Middle East and to support long-term Christian institutions there both financially and through deep relationships.