Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Gospel lens on pro-democracy protests in/for Egypt

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by Collin David Anderson, under CC license
The world has been watching Egypt over the past week, rapt with the overwhelming waves of protest against the government of Hosni Mubarak. This wave of protests was partly inspired by similar protests in Tunisia, and further protests have risen up around North Africa and the Middle East. Sympathetic protests have also cropped across the US, such as the one seen here in Washington, D.C., a few days ago.

These happenings have even touched our little Mennonite seminary community. This morning in chapel worship we gave thanks for the safe departure of our New Testament and Greek professor, Dorothy Jean Weaver, who had been in Cairo when the protests broke out, and we had been monitoring the periodic e-mail updates from our dean, describing the trials that had to be overcome in order for her to leave Egypt. She now waits in Istanbul, pondering her next move.

The protests around the region were in part organized on digital social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In Egypt, the government responded by shutting telecommunications networks down. (I wrote a bit on this phenomenon last December.) In my own digital social network, I have quite a few friends whom I would (lovingly and playfully) describe as "peaceniks," who are watching this uprising with unadulterated glee at the power of the people to rise up. Others, such as my peacebuilding professor, Lisa Schirch, are rightly critiquing the U.S. motivations in this and other foreign policy issues.

So in what remains after the break, I'll take a statement from Jesus and use it as a lens on matters of democracy, revolution, and social change...

Jesus' "Gospel Realism"
Note: In what follows, I will be relying heavily upon an essay by John Howard Yoder that appears in The Priestly Kingdom, entitled "The Christian Case for Democracy." The essay was originally written in 1977 but was considerably revised before its appearance in book form in 1984.

We find this snippet of a story in Luke's gospel:
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The (rulers) of the (nations) lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves..." (22:24-26, NIV w/ Yoder's adaptations in parentheses)
In Luke's gospel, this little exchange is situated during Jesus' last meal with his disciples, on the night in which he was betrayed by Judas. According to John's gospel, this is the same meal in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. While being aware of the danger in assembling gospel narratives this way, it still seems safe to allow this juxtaposition to stand, presenting as it does a narrative irony in the fact that Jesus exemplifies over and over again servant leadership while the disciples' repeatedly express  a will to power, a mis-shaped desire for greatness in God's kingdom.

Yoder breaks this passage out like so:
The rulers of the nations lord it over them (i.e. the people); and those who exercise authority over them (i.e. the people) call themselves (i.e. the rulers) Benefactors - In this first sentence, Jesus is expressing a sense of realism as it relates to earthly powers that organize and govern societies. There is no value judgment present in these statements, but rather a "calling it as he sees it." Simply put, there are nations who have rulers (elite) and people (populous/demos). The elite can and do hold their power over the heads of the people. Not only that but these rulers will claim that their rule is for the good of the people and predicated on beneficent (even divine) principles. They are, they'll have you know, a beneficent elite. (You're welcome.) Ancient empires, medieval monarchies, or modern nation-states (whether representative democracies or socialist republics)...all will express this dynamic. We should, like Jesus, not be surprised or offended by this.

But you (i.e. disciples of Jesus Christ) are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves - Enter the moral imperative: the Kingdom ethic of humble servanthood (service and humility, taken together). Like the master who washes dirty feet and feeds the hungry, so his disciples in the whole of their lives.

Yoder takes this Gospel realism of the first of Jesus' statements to a discussion on pre/during/post Christendom arrangements for the church. For Yoder, the church mired in Christendom will always stumble on the latter statement of Jesus, the moral imperative. Because the Constantinian church's conflation of Church and World - Kingdom power in the Spirit vs. the world's power - the moral imperative will inescapably be relativized and explained away. In this arrangement, we'll always let the nations' philosophy and praxis of power govern our bodies and imaginations...despite Jesus telling us that's not how we're supposed to be.

What hath this to do with democracy, revolution, and Egypt?
With the Gospel realism of the nations in view, Yoder help us see that democracy is "(o)f all forms of oligarchy...the least oppressive, since it provides the strongest language of justification and therefore of critique which the subjects may use to mitigate its oppressiveness" (Yoder, 158-9). For Yoder, the relative (yet severely limited) good of democracy is that it enables the language of dissent, something that is deeply resonant with the Anabaptist tradition.

We have to be careful not to conflate democracy with modern nation-states. The democratic impulse in classical and modern politics has an inherent tension with the modern State. A systems theory lens reminds us that one of the primary purposes of any system is the perpetuation of itself regardless of the various purposes of its many subsystems. States are complex systems that will militate against forces (such as uprisings from their populi) which threaten its perpetuation (very much so the case in Mubarak's Egypt). What's important to notice in the example of Egypt is the role of the military in the uprising. Thank God, the military is not bringing its terrible power to bear on the people protesting in the streets, and in some ways seems to be supporting and protecting the people. Hunter's work on social change (which I've recently dealt with) helps us see that the role of the military (elite, powerful) may actually be the more primary factor in bringing about regime change in Egypt, rather than popular protest. I'm not saying protest is ineffective, just more limited than most give it credit for. Imagine if the military were not supporting the people's cause (heaven forbid). We would be witnessing something far different and far more terrible.

In his time, Yoder worked variously in Latin American contexts which were heavily under the sway of liberation theologies and torn apart by political revolutions. So revolution was something that occupied his theopolitical thinking. There is a caution for the democratic impulse riding along with the revolutionary fervor in Egypt (and the glee expressed by my friends in the U.S., especially if they be Christian) that necessarily follows from the Gospel realism that Yoder describes, and lessons from recent and current Latin American history corroborate it. Views which hold that "the structures of oppression can be used for good if taken over by the other side" are misled and betray a will to power. "Those views hold that there is some such thing out there as a demos (populous/people), which is capable of ruling, and that if the demos were to rule we would be well governed. There is no such animal. The demos is a mental construct, a useful cipher to stand for the claim of an insightful minority to express some pertinent criticism of the injustice of the present ruling minority and some credible projects for the alleviation of that injustice" (Yoder, 168, emphasis mine). Popular uprisings under the cry "justicia!" may give way (and historically have given way) to regimes more terrible than those which were so previously reviled and popularly, democratically protested and overthrown (often violently).

In closing, Yoder cautions us against Constantinian construals of democracy and revolution. If we keep these distinctions in mind, "we may find the realistic liberty to foster and celebrate relative democratization as one of the prophetic ministries of a servant people in a world we do not control" (Yoder, 165-6). This is a deeply Christian theopolitical statement. So for Christians to pray for a more democratic government in Egypt is a good thing, given that we keep the severe limits in mind. May God's Spirit work somehow in the complex happenings in Egypt and elsewhere around North Africa and the Middle East. May their peoples experience a better quality of life from day to day, and from their leaders. May the disciples of Jesus Christ minister and witness in humble service amidst these circumstances in ways that bring honor to God and joy and life to our neighbors, even our enemies. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment