Do We Lack the Moral Imagination? Part Two: Seeing the Other by Suzie Lahoud

  By Suzie Lahoud

By Suzie Lahoud

What man. . . if with a scrupulous attention he searches all the recesses of his soul, will not perceive that his virtues and vices are wholly owing to different modifications of personal interest? . . . For after all interest is always obeyed; hence the injustice of all our judgments. -Helvetius[1]

The vision of humanity is inherently myopic. We are barely able to see the needs of our neighbor in the house, apartment, or even cubicle beside us; let alone to recognize the needs of our neighbor across borders. Yet that is precisely what Christ calls us to do.

Humanity’s natural proclivity is to act, and increasingly so at the collective level, primarily in its own self-interest. However, despite our innate failings, there is a means by which this propensity may be transcended. “In religion,” Niehbuhr writes, in his classic discourse, Moral Man and Immoral Society, “all the higher moral obligations, which are lost in abstractions on the historic level, are felt as obligations toward the supreme person” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2446). “Thus,” he continues, “both the personality and the holiness of God provide the religious man with a reinforcement of his moral will and a restraint upon his will-to-power” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2447-2448).

Niehbuhr goes on to highlight another significant element found in the teachings of Jesus- what he calls “the paradox of Christ.” This, he sums up by quoting the famous Christological axiom in Matthew 10:39: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (ESV).

It is in embracing this paradox, Niehbuhr contends, that “the religious tension which drives toward asceticism is resolved by condemning self-seeking as a goal of life, but allowing self-realisation as a by-product of self-abnegation” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2472-2475).

In conversation with Niehbuhr, theologian Miroslav Volf refers to this process as a “de-centering” of self that must precede a “re-centering” on Christ (Volf, pg. 70)[2]. “It is no longer I who live,” writes the Apostle Paul, “but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20 ESV). In another paradox of the Gospel, it is this re-centering on Christ that further orients us to the Other.

However, Niehbuhr concedes that the social implications of our religious beliefs are often lost when we fall into the pitfall of over absolutizing our obligation to Christ such that the Other is removed from the equation, and over individualizing the out-workings of our faith such that it has no communal repercussions (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2630-2632, 2642-2644). In a sense, we allegorize every aspect of our beliefs until they are stripped of any concrete consequences for a morally just life on the grander scale of society as a whole. This leaves an empty shell of religiosity that is no better than a mere identifier of group belonging-  another measure by which to distinguish “Us” from “Them.”

Yet, at its best, Niehbuhr contends that religious imagination can engender a transcendent concept of love across racial, economic, and sectarian boundaries that considers the needs of the Other as of equal importance to one’s own (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2656-2659). In a stunning conclusion, Niehbuhr reflects that:

In part the religious ideal of love is fed and supported by viewing the soul of the fellowman from the absolute and transcendent perspective. Your neighbor is a son of God, and God may be served by serving him. “What ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me,” said Jesus… It is this religious insight, flowing from the capacity of the religious imagination to view the immediate and the imperfect from the perspective of the absolute and the transcendent, which prompted St. Francis to kiss the leper and to trust the robber; which persuaded Paul that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free”; which inspired an old Indian saint to greet the soldier, who, in the time of the Indian mutiny, was about to put the cold steel of his bayonet into the body of the saint, with the words, “And thou too art divine” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2490-2498).

However, Niehbuhr concedes that this “moral and social imagination” nurtured through religion is rarely able to overcome “the imagination which makes one’s own nation the peculiar instrument of transcendent and divine purposes” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2587-2590). The patriot is as true a worshipper as any other, and he will as surely conform his religious dispositions to his nationalist loyalties as he will place his political preconceptions under the sovereignty of God.

Tragically, what we are witnessing in the world today is something much more sinister than merely misguided patriotism. Somewhere along the way public discourse went into a downward spiral from selfish to scapegoating, and public action deteriorated from marginalization to exclusion and violence. To echo the profound insights of both Volf and Niehbuhr, the tendency for hateful nativist policy and shifting blame towards the Other is not a Lebanese problem. Nor, even in light of the shock and disbelief following the outcome of the US presidential election, is it an American problem. Neither does the rise in xenophobic violence in the UK following Brexit make it a British problem, or the revival of neo-Nazism in Germany make it a German problem. This is a human problem, and it is one that we must expose and repent of before we fall prey to our own primal inclinations.

What we so often lack is a moral and social imagination that can envision the needs of the Other and bring our self-interest and will-to-power in submission to a holy and sovereign God. What I am proposing is that before we place blame, before we engage in political discussion, before we cast the ballot, that we take a moment to pause and reflect. Perhaps a moment to de-center from self and to re-center on Christ. A moment to consider: who is the Other in our current reality?  What does life look like when viewed through their eyes?  How can we better serve them, placing their well-being equal to, or even above our own?

While this may seem the painfully unpragmatic musings of an idealist, even Niehbuhr, the father of Christian realism, grants that such musings can yield significant utilitarian benefits in altering the fabric of society (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 5093-5106). As Niehbuhr writes:

“The truest visions of religion are illusions, which may be partially realised by being resolutely believed. For what religion believes to be true is not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its truth is not doubted” (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2765-2767).

How different would the world be if we fully believed the words of Christ and truly loved our neighbor as we love ourselves?

_____________

[1] As quoted by Niehbuhr, (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 2328-2332).

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribner, 1960.

[2] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Do We Lack the Moral Imagination? Part One: Demasking the Scapegoat by Suzie Lahoud

  By Suzie Lahoud

By Suzie Lahoud

 

“A common danger unites even the bitterest enemies.” – Aristotle

I was recently having a chat with the water filter guy, who is a fount of information. He was bemoaning the fact that, as a former procurement manager in Dubai, he had not been able to find a suitable job after returning to Lebanon. This, he attributed to the large influx of Syrian refugees who had flooded the job market. Moreover, he seemed none too pleased upon learning that I work for a humanitarian organization serving (though not exclusively) this same refugee population.

What struck me about this encounter was not its particularity, but rather, its seeming ubiquity. I have heard this same argument repeated ad nauseum. Politicians and pundits in the media. Neighbors, shopkeepers, church-goers, and corporate managers. I began to wonder at the veracity of the supposition. To what extent could we, in Lebanon, legitimately blame the woeful state of our economy and job market solely on the Syrian refugees?

Why is there no acknowledgment of the fact that Syrian workers tend to compete for primarily unskilled labor that they were relied on to carry out even prior to the crisis (not to mention new restrictions on Syrian employment forcing them into the informal job market)?[1] Why is there no mention of the more than 700 million dollars[2] pumped into the Lebanese economy since 2013 through the distribution of food vouchers alone, or the 120 million dollars[3] channeled towards government institutions via humanitarian agencies and foreign governments purely for the purpose of strengthening Lebanese infrastructure in 2016?

Yes, as a country of previously 4.5 million rapidly inundated by approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon currently holds the highest concentration of refugees per capita,[4] which is astounding to say the least. But have we once stopped to consider that also as a result of the inflow, public schools have been rehabilitated, public health systems have been made more robust, and significant public works have been undertaken funded purely by the generosity of the international community?[5] Moreover, recent studies have found that while the Syrian war has had a predictably negative impact on the Lebanese economy, it has also yielded gains in certain sectors, most notably, due to the increased demand for Lebanese services by the refugee population.[6] In a report released in 2015, the World Bank therefore cited the Syrian refugee presence as a resilience factor in economic growth, noting that “a 1% increase in refugees’ stock increases services exports by about 1.5% after two months.”[7]

And what do the Lebanese politicians do- the ones who can’t even clear the garbage off the streets? They blame our nation’s problems on the Syrian refugees. The perfect scapegoat for their cruel impotence and flagrant corruption.[8] Even our recent and much anticipated election of a new president could not escape the rhetoric of the inherent threat posed by the Syrian population, so eerily reminiscent of the anti-Palestinian sentiment consistently expressed prior to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War. And woe to us who believe them.

I am not denying that the flood of Syrian refugees has taken its toll on Lebanon; I am merely suggesting that it is unjust to place the blame for our nation’s problems squarely on their shoulders. Moreover, that it is all too convenient for our politicians to do so. Furthermore, I believe that we, as followers of Christ, should be vigilant in calling out this strategy of scapegoating, since, as theologian Miroslav Volf points out, we worship a crucified Savior who was, essentially, the ultimate scapegoat (Volf, pg. 292).[9]

However, as Volf observes, people have a predisposition to “remask what has been demasked when it fits their interests” (Volf, pg. 292). He further points out that,

“The tendency of persecutors to blame victims is reinforced by the actual guilt of victims, even if the guilt is minimal and they incur it in reaction to the original violence committed against them. Demasking the scapegoating mechanism will not suffice” (Volf, pg. 292).

Theologian and political commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic treatise, Moral Man and Immoral Society, attributes this cruel pattern of concealing unjust mechanisms to humanity’s innate selfishness and lust for power, noting that,

“The will-to-power uses reason, as kings use courtiers and chaplains to add grace to their enterprise. Even the most rational men are never quite rational when their own interests are at stake” (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 2328-2332).[10]

Niebuhr further argues that this self-deception is exacerbated at the collective level, culminating, in the modern era, at the level of the nation-state. Essentially, the larger the group, the greater the tendency to pursue self-interest at the expense of the Other, though true purposes are often thinly veiled by either outright or unacknowledged hypocrisy somehow pertaining to the “greater good” (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 1899-1914). Niehbuhr further laments that this propensity,

…symbolises one of the tragedies of the human spirit: its inability to conform its collective life to its individual ideals. As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command (Niehbuhr, Kindle Locations 1899-1914).

However disheartening this perpetual reality must be, Niehbuhr does point to a means by which it can be overcome: Religion. Religion, Niehbuhr argues, points to a supreme being who holds our every thought and deed accountable and causes us to strive to be greater than we are (Niebuhr, Kindle Locations 2446). It provides a transcendent ideal exposing the gap between what is human and what is divine. Religion is a powerful force that can lead to great violence when manipulated and wielded in the hands of man, yet it is an even greater force for good when emanating from the truth of God.

As followers of Christ, we see this power for good personified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Without His higher calling to love of one’s neighbor, we would look no farther than the orbits of our own existence, inevitably chained to our own self-interest.  By the light of His life and testimony, our vision may yet be cleared to look beyond self, and to see the Other; not as an existential threat, but as a reason for living.

“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45 NIV)

____________

Photo Credit: Rose Khouri courtesy of Tahaddi Lebanon

[1] Chalcraft, John. 2005. “Of Specters and Disciplined Commodities: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon.” Middle East Report, no. 236. Middle Ea\st Research andInformation Project (MERIP): 28–33. doi:10.2307/30042459.

Chalcraft, John. 2006. “Subalternity, Material Practices, and Popular Aspirations: Syrian Migrant Workers in Lebanon.” The Arab Studies Journal 14 (2). Arab Studies Institute: 9–38.

https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/01/12/i-just-wanted-be-treated-person/how-lebanons-residency-rules-facilitate-abuse

[2] http://reliefweb.int/report/lebanon/back-school-and-second-year-wfp-lebanese-and-syrian-students?utm_campaign=subscriptions&utm_source=sendgrid&utm_medium=email

[3] http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNDPSupporttoLebaneseBrochureEnglish082016.pdf

[4] It should be noted that this ratio includes the large refugee population residing in Lebanon prior to the arrival of the Syrians including Palestinians, Iraqis, Armenians, and Kurds.

[5] http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNDPSupporttoLebaneseBrochureEnglish082016.pdf

[6] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2015/09/16/much-ado-about-nothing-the-economic-impact-of-refugee-invasions/

http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/908431468174247241/pdf/96087-WP-P148051-PUBLIC-Box391435B-Syria-Trade-Report.pdf

[7] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/908431468174247241/pdf/96087-WP-P148051-PUBLIC-Box391435B-Syria-Trade-Report.pdf

[8] http://cskc.daleel-madani.org/paper/understanding-racism-against-syrian-refugees-lebanon

[9] Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

[10] Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Scribner, 1960.

The original article is from: https://imeslebanon.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/do-we-lack-the-moral-imagination-part-one-demasking-the-scapegoat/