Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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When Dreams Are a Luxury
In a recent conversation the president of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon was asked, “What are your dreams for NEST?” The president, George Sabra, paused, then replied, “It may be a luxury to dream when we are trying to survive in very difficult circumstances.” That comment, so honest, so poignant, has lingered with me. What happens to us when dreams become a luxury?
The Near East School of Theology is one of the main centers of theological education for Evangelical – Protestant – pastors in the Middle East. The school was formed by the merger of two schools in 1932 that had been preparing leaders for Arab and Armenian congregations tracing their origins to Congregational and Presbyterian mission work in the 19th century. The school has endured through numerous sectarian and political crises in Lebanon, civil war, wars with Israel, foreign Syrian political and military control, and a large and growing population of refugees, originally from Palestine, and now joined by those fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria.
American seminaries worry a lot about survival. Schools like Bangor Theological Seminary have essentially closed. Andover-Newton is selling its campus and becoming a significantly reduced presence within Yale Divinity School. Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School is selling its campus. Gettysburg and Philadelphia Lutheran seminaries are envisioning some sort of merger. Bexley Seminary is taking up residence at Chicago Theological Seminary which sold its own campus several years ago. Everyone speaks of transformation, but the hard truth is that these decisions were driven by the reality that old financial models were untenable if schools were to survive.
Right now George Sabra has other kinds of problems. One very practical question is how to finance the housing and feeding of students from Syria who, unlike their classmates from other places, cannot return to their homes and their families when the semester ends. Their homes are too dangerous or perhaps in some cases no longer exist. And what of these students following graduation? Where will they serve in a region that is experiencing the relentless loss of Christian communities to violence, threats, and emigration? American seminaries have problems. But NEST’s problems are of a wholly different order. It is no wonder that it may feel like a luxury to dream in such circumstances.
Dreaming is hard throughout the Middle East. The Arab Spring has devolved into chaos in Libya, repression in Egypt, and civil war in Syria. Turkey’s promising democracy is being distorted by the consolidation of power in a President who tolerates little dissent. Kurdish hopes for sovereignty are being thwarted. Iraq faces political fragmentation and escalating violence. Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for regional dominance through proxy wars in places like Yemen and Syria. Palestinians have endured Israeli Occupation for nearly fifty years and several generations of Palestinians have lived in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank for nearly seventy years. “It may be a luxury to dream when we are trying to survive in very difficult circumstances.”
To be deprived of dreams is more than tragic; it is dangerous. Those whose dreams are only nightmares grow cynical, despairing, bitter, and often violent. But dreams constructed of fantasy are hardly a sufficient alternative. Which is perhaps why, in the conversation with President Sabra, we heard more about NEST’s sense of God’s call and its own vocation rather than about dreams. He described it this way: “Bearing witness to the God of life and love.”
What does that look like? Merely sustaining a rigorous program of academic preparation for religious leaders in the region is part of it. Contributing to a vibrant interreligious dialogue in Lebanon is another. Providing a form of sanctuary to students coming from dangerous places is another. Engaging in frequent service days for Syrian refugees in Beirut is yet another. Courageously bearing witness to the God of life and love in a region many of us are prepared to dismiss as a place of death and hatred is prophetic in and of itself, “conjuring and proposing” in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” Perhaps that is what it means to dream in the Middle East today.
Christians in the Middle East will not house all the refugees, will not end all the violence, will not usher in governments responsive to the needs of their citizens. But they will contribute to these things, perhaps not so much by their dreams, but by courageously responding each day to their calling. Our handwringing is of little use to them. What they need is our support, our accompaniment, our advocacy, our presence. Christians in the Middle East don’t need us to dream for them, they need us to trust with them in the God of life and love.
John H. Thomas
June 2, 2016
To learn more about NEST, see http://www.theonest.edu.lb/index.php?sid=1