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No to evil: a choice of freedom

The words of Benedict XVI addressed to the world of culture and politics, and to the young, during his visit to Lebanon.

There is an old tradition of rhetoric about Lebanon that calls it ‘a message rather than a country’. Officially everything is going well, the civil war is now history and concord reigns supreme. “But as a general rule we need to recognise the distance between declarations and actions”, as the philosopher Nassif Nassar recently reminded us. There was all too much likelihood of an uncritical celebration of the people’s life together in the shadow of the cedars in the many speeches of a political nature scheduled for the apostolic visit on the Pope's arrival at the airport on the Friday, and especially in the Presidential palace on the Saturday morning.



However it already became clear in the speech with which the President of the Republic, Michel Sliman, had welcomed the Pope to the Presidential palace, that there was an intention to go beyond the repetition of platitudes. Admittedly there was no lack of ritual greetings and declarations. But the Lebanese President on the one hand had exhorted Christians to play a greater role in the edification of the common good (which may be read as an implicit admission of a problem) and on the other had emphasised with a great deal of concern that the Land of the Cedars must attend to what was going on around it, insisting on the neutrality of the country - which is something on which all the political forces are in agreement. “The Lebanese are hoping that Syria will enjoy the freedom and the spirit of reconciliation that they desire for themselves” was perhaps the key passage. Which amounts to admitting that there are problems with the Lebanese brand of shared existence too.



What lies behind this problem was explained by the Pope in one of the strongest passages in his speech. “Evil is not some nameless, impersonal and deterministic force at work in the world. Evil, the devil, works in and through human freedom, through the use of our freedom. Evil needs man in order to act”. Benedict XVI was particularly saddened by what is happening in Syria, as he stated in his evening address to young people. A conversion is needed if an understanding is to be secured between cultures and religions along with some sense of justice and the common good. This will be the source of a commitment to peace, to religious freedom, in favour of life and against every form of verbal or physical violence, for this can never have any justification of a religious nature.



Just as elsewhere people like to talk about the weather, in Lebanon it is customary to begin a conversation, especially with strangers, by taling about some geo-political issue. When one thinks of the reduced dimensions of the country, sandwiched as it is between powerful neighbours, and of its tormented history, the choice is perfectly legitimate and comprehensible. The Pope observed however that such discussion about the wider context must not be a substitute for concrete action by individuals – for example that of those young Lebanese who are involved with Caritas in bringing help to Syrian refugees. They are facing a reality that is in some sense hidden so as to avoid disturbing the equilibria in the country, in hands-on contact with suffering and powerlessness every day. “The failure of upright men and women to act – declared Benedict XVI, as if replying to them – must not permit evil to triumph. It is worse still to do nothing”.



Living together on the Lebanese model remains an example for the region. It has a providential dimension (“it is chosen by God”), but it is not given once for all: it has to be renewed every day, with the conscious choice that it is better to be with than against, i.e. with a readiness to accept the value of the practical good of being together, that “desire to know the other” which the Pope claims is the foundation of a plural society. “Above and beyond the outward displays, the most important aspect of the visit is that Lebanese Muslims welcomed Benedict XVI not as a guest of their Christian neighbours, but as someone who was coming for them too”, commented Ibrahim Shamseddine, president of a Shiite cultural foundation headquartered in South Beirut.



Lebanon looks vibrant on the economic level, at least in the chic areas in the centre of Beirut, but it seems to be blocked at the institutional level by a fear that prevents any infringement on the status quo. In this sense, the invitation of the Pope for individuals to commit themselves personally might contribute towards creating a climate of renewed trust, which is a prerequisite for any change, even just on the level of political structures.