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Relying on Jesus when you have no other options
My heart was heavy this week when I learned of the bombing of the Coptic churches in Egypt. It’s very personal to me, as you know. Egypt is where my family grew up. Both my parents are Christians, and so they know what true persecution tastes like. In the United States where being Muslim puts you at a disadvantage, it can be hard to fathom a country or a place where simply being Christian puts you at one. To be a Christian in many Middle Eastern countries is far from hospitable, to say the least.
Christians in the Middle East, as I wrote on Facebook this week, are in a nearly impossible political circumstances as they have to choose between an authoritarian brute (like Assad of Syria or Sisi of Egypt) or hostile factions that often want to kill them. The Middle East’s political conflicts are extremely complicated. As hard as a conflict like Syria is to organize and sort out, the least powerful people in the region (or among the least powerful) are the Christians who are often stuck at the whims of those who hate them or are indifferent to them.
But one thing we can learn from the Christians' lack of options in the Middle East is that our hope isn’t in the solutions the state offers us. It’s clear to Christians in Egypt. They often side with the secular authoritarian leader because they settle for a sort of “universal” oppression. The universality of state-sponsored terror is preferable to the illegal and unpredictable non-state terror. Nevertheless, they are under no delusion, from what I can tell, that a strongman leader is really advocating for them. Sometimes, they get lumped into the nationalist dialogue. For example, when Nasser said that Christians and Muslims in Egypt should unite against their common enemy, Israel, but in general, they aren’t under the impression that the state advocates for them. They are often forced to make an impossible decision, but it’s more in an effort to protect themselves than actually find hope in the system.
People living in a liberal democracy can easily be tricked into thinking that our work begins and ends at the polls, or even on the streets. I’m a fan of moral living and even moral activism, but I think we should similarly not be deluded into thinking that any sort of “salvation” comes at the end of it, or that the state offers us insufficient options. The bipartisan system in the U.S. may further delude us into thinking that our problems in the political system are not fundamental, rather that all we need is a better system. To be sure, and I don’t want to sort through all the politics, there are ways to improve our political system (and I have a bunch of friends with some great ideas about that), but I don’t think our hope is rooted in a better system.
I think this is a point worth dwelling on because I am involved activism personally and many of my friends are. I was just meeting with the pastor and executive director of Broad Street Ministry and we were imagining how our congregations could work together to alleviate homelessness in the city. And then I had a cup of coffee with the executive director of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation and we were thinking about gentrification and education issues in the city. I also serve on the Philadelphia Coalition For Affordable Communities, and we are imagining how to get City Council to care about affordable housing (after our efforts at pushing a bill failed). Political activism is important, to a degree, if you care about people. Matt asked me the other night if paying attention to politics is depressing to me; not really, it’s more of a hobby than a necessity for sure, but it’s fun too.
But I have to keep reminding myself that my hope isn’t found in the system. I have to keep resisting the lie that the state is the chief social agent. I have to keep fighting the civil religion’s indoctrination. Even if I divorce myself from the political system by not voting, I still am at risk for mistaking political action, and in turn my action, as salvific.
We don’t make the world better by being good. The world isn’t dark because we aren’t light enough. When we get too far into the activist game, we can think it’s about our perfection or creating a perfect system that saves us. The darkness of the world is made less because we are children of Light. We are children of the Illuminated One. The One whose fullness comes to fruition this week, in his death and in his resurrection. Our relatedness to him is what makes us and the world better.
I don’t envy, by a longshot, the Christians that are oppressed in the Middle East without a political advocate. But if we can learn something from them it’s that while political circumstances can improve (and we should hope that they do), our true hope isn’t in the godless state, but in our Savior.