Thursday, February 21, 2013

Desolation gains a foothold in Bkirki

Put aside for a moment that Christian approval of the Orthodox plan Tuesday seemed a natural misstep for a community bathed in self-doubt about its own future, as Christian numbers have declined. The reality is that the largest Christian community, the Maronites, have as their spiritual leader a man, Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, who has only reinforced this desolate mood by heightening Christian fears. No wonder Michel Aoun called Rai to congratulate him on passage of the Orthodox scheme.

The scheme still has to pass Parliament and Cabinet, which is no easy feat. But how will Christians react to a possible rejection, other than to view it as another example of how the community’s aspirations are usually thwarted. And in this context Rai would have a central role to play, reassuring them that so abysmal a plan would only isolate them further and ensure that opportunities for cross-sectarian collaboration and concord are substantially terminated.

But that is precisely what the patriarch will not tell them, because he is incapable of marshaling such openness. This provincial priest sees isolation as a form of security, and was precisely the wrong man to lead the Maronite Church when he put on the gold, purple and red of a patriarch. Rai has done nothing of what was expected of him when he took office. His church is still in need of reform, yet he has not advanced on that front, presiding over the same gaggle of dubious bishops in place when he was promoted. In fact, as his recent trip to Syria shows, he is a man who does not improve with age. Rai is an ecclesiastical wrecking ball, to be surveyed with constant trepidation.

Only a man devoid of modesty, devoured by self-love and self-importance could take his own verbal idiocies as seriously as he does. Rai recently explained events in Syria in this way to a Protestant delegation. According to one of those present, the patriarch noted that the war there was a U.S. and Jewish plot to get rid of the Middle East’s Christians. Rai always had a soft spot for the Syrian regime, but if anything can be said of the Americans it is that their neglect of Syria has been deplorable. As for “the Jews,” Israel too once appreciated the Assads, but does not seem to hold much hope for Bashar anymore. And the thought that the two would join together to marginalize the Christians, who seem thoroughly marginal to regional affairs anyway, is so laughable as to constitute a punch line.

Rai has missed the entire point of his mission, not surprising for someone besotted by the fantasy-laden view of himself as a grand political strategist. His duty was to heighten confidence in the Maronite community and remind Christians in general that, even though their political power has diminished, they still had a major role to play in Lebanon’s destiny, and much to gain from a rapprochement with Muslims. He could have also been more specific, reminding them that their domination of the economy is still largely intact and that though the Maronite president is not what he once was, he yet retains considerable influence thanks to his position between the often-contending Sunni and Shiite communities.

He could also have looked at Syria and jogged his memory just a bit to recall that the Assad regime, far from being a protector of Christians as he once claimed, broke the back of Lebanon’s Maronites. When Rai stated in Damascus that “Everything that is said and demanded in the name of what is called reform and human rights and democracy is not worth the spilt blood of an innocent person,” what did he actually mean? That faced with violent intimidation it was best to keep quiet and accept the worst forms of dictatorship and corruption?

Is this a message that Lebanon’s Maronites would embrace, they who fought against the Syrian army so often? In saying that human rights and democracy are not worth a fight, Rai is speaking a language entirely out of touch with the direction of the world today, that of a despot’s sidekick. One would never have heard such inanity from Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who, despite his advanced age, understood better that religion must be intimately tied in with a defense of human rights. And Sfeir always refused to visit Damascus because he knew that no one, especially a clergyman, could simultaneously condemn barbarity on moral grounds and also legitimize it.

Yet no amount of savagery by the Syrian regime seems to shake Rai. The bombardment of civilian areas by the regime’s armed forces, the routine slaughter of women and children by government militias, and the destruction of villages and neighborhoods has provoked hardly a dissenting word from the patriarch, hardly an angry sermon on the comeuppance of tyranny. Ultimately this tells us what Rai really is: a man who is ethically loose, insubstantial, whose only true motivation appears to be self-promotion, whose religious integrity is nonexistent, the mellifluous voice there to camouflage the emptiness of the whole.

While Pope Benedict XVI is not inspirational given the abuses he covered in the German Church at one time, he is intellectually far ahead of Rai. The pope’s decision to resign appears to be a result of a frustration with his inability to reform the church’s behavior. No such worries exist in Bkirki. And yet deep down we wish Rai would show the same discernment as Benedict and accept his limitations when it comes to tackling the tasks at hand. Then we would expect him to step down and make room for someone better

No comments: