Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Shadow of the Sword

As the streets of Egypt continue to roar and rumble with the discontent of the Egyptian people, most of the online chatter I hear from my progressive and liberal brethren and sistren seems to be enthusiastic.  Mubarak was, without question, a despot and an autocrat.  He was the classic military dictator, ruling his nation through the power of his connection with the armed forces and some pretty heavy-handed police-state unpleasantness.  For Americans, he seems no friend of democracy or tolerance.

But the challenge we face as Americans is that he was our despot.  His power is a reflection of ours.  Mubarak's armed forces were and are largely equipped and trained and supplied by the United States.   Those M-1 Abrams tanks we see rumbling the streets of Cairo are built in Egypt under contract with General Dynamics. 

Now that Mubarak is certainly gone, the protection his fist of American iron provided to minority groups in Egypt may also soon be gone.  Here, I'm thinking of the largest remaining Arab-world population of Christians.  The Coptic Christian community is ancient, and is 8 million people strong.  It's about 10% of the overall population of Egypt.

They look at the entropy on the streets, and they don't see the Velvet Revolution that freed the former Czechoslovakia from repressive communist rule.  They don't see the same peaceful and passionately democratic impetus.  It's just anger and frustration at decades of repression and decay.  It could be good, sure.  That is my hope and prayer.  But to my eyes, it is functionally leaderless, a populist venting that could quickly sour.  Revolutions against despotism may seem exciting in the abstract, but they are all too frequently horrors, populated by the glazed eyed depredations of Jacobins and Bolsheviks.  And the Al-Ikhwan would all too happily take Egypt to that familiar bloodstained room.

The Copts know this.  It isn't that they loved Mubarak.  There wasn't much to love.

But following the collapse of a despot, elements of a society that have only been held back by the power of the sword can rise up and prey on those they view as enemies, or scapegoats, or unbelievers.  The Christian community in Egypt is justifiably worried about this.

It's a reality that we as comfortable American Christians just can't quite grasp.  We look to a despot, and we see an oppressor, someone who must be overthrown.  But for as much as we hate government...particularly and justifiably dictatorial governments...the chaos engendered by mob rule and the rise of movements that direct popular anger against a convenient "other" are often equally unjust.

For Christian faith, this seems a dilemma of sorts.  We have a challenging relationship with power.  The power of the sword is not the power of Christ, and has been set against the purposes of his Reign since the moment He challenged it.

But while we do not live by the sword, even the most uncompromisingly committed of us live in its shadow.  Take, for example, the Amish.  They are, without question, followers of Jesus who take his uncategorical rejection of violence seriously.  They will not bring harm to another, even to protect themselves.

Yet they are, as we are, under the protection of the sword as wielded by our Republic.   The laws that provide a balance of justice between us, preventing violence and predation, those laws protect...even those of us who have moved on to the one Law.  

It has always been...and will remain...an awkward tension.