The Coptic Orthodox Church was in the news again this weekend, having selected a new pope to replace the late Pope Shenouda III. Most of the reports and analysis we have had out of Egypt in recent times have been caught up, and justifiably so, in the so-called Arab Spring revolution and dramatic political changes taking place as a result. However, it is not often that the Christian community makes the news here in North America, which makes it easy to forget that there are millions of Christians of various stripes whose lives are also caught up in the events of the region.
Important things are happening in Egypt, and what strikes me is how quickly the reports we get crystallize into distinct narratives. To some, the situation in Egypt is indicative of a creeping and dangerous Islamism that threatens freedom and democracy and spells disaster for Christians. To others, the revolution was a triumph of the ideals of tolerance and human dignity.
This range of opinion, from my observation, is more or less reflected by North American Christians, from fundamentalists who believe that Christianity is under attack, to liberals who believe that everyone will get along if we (they) just ignore our (their) differences and focus on our (their) common humanity. The former will point to the attacks on churches and Christians by mobs and militants, the latter to the famous images of Christians and Muslims protecting each other at prayer during the Tahrir Square protests. Both are right in some respects, but both are also wrong.
If there is one thing I have learned from the time I have spent in Egypt, it is that there is always another layer to any situation that hasn’t even been scratched—be it political, economic, religious, social or something entirely unexpected. It is true that there are malicious Islamist factions that wish harm upon Christians in Egypt, but it is also true that there are large swaths of politically and religiously unengaged Muslims who are just struggling to survive, and see the Muslim Brotherhood as a welcome alternative to the corrupt old regime. And there are liberal Muslims working toward equal religious rights and freedoms for all Egyptians. It is true that there were Christians at the forefront of the revolution, hand in hand with Muslims in Tahrir Square, but it is also true that many Christians miss the relative stability and predictability of the old regime. And there are some deep veins of anger among Christians, which has occasionally erupted into violence. Probably more importantly, the more I learn about these layers, the less I have to say.
The fundamental problem here is that we in the West routinely pass judgment on these events without seriously engaging the people on the ground. Whether we cast the players as pure good or evil, or as essentially similar with inconsequential differences, we commit the same sin as Job’s friends: we explain the situation in such a way that justifies our previous convictions, rather than truly empathizing with the people who are struggling and hurting in the midst of all the upheaval.
As the Church, I think we would do well to hold our understanding loosely, and hesitate to assign meaning to particular events. We need to do our fellow Christians and neighbours the service of engaging them seriously where they are at, learning the realities of their lives, supporting them through their struggles and fears, but at the same time being unafraid to call out hatred and injustice where we see it. And above all, we must maintain our hope in Christ and work for the redemption and reconciliation of all the Earth.
Nelson Heppner has been a part of saint benedict’s table for about 5 years. He also spent more than a year living and working with Coptic Orthodox Christians in rural Egypt.