Faith and Risk in Egypt

As I write these words on my Sabbath day (Monday), I have just put down the most recent copy of The Economist magazine.  On its cover is a photo of a young man waving the Egyptian flag in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  Within days or even hours, President Hosni Mubarak may have left both his office and the country.  By any account, Mubarak is a dictator who suppresses opposition, sometimes brutally.  Our democratic impulses cause us to recoil at this realization and initially to cheer at the prospect of his ouster.

And yet, for three decades Mubarak has kept peace with Egypt’s neighbor Israel.  He has prevented the free flow of terrorist sympathizers into Gaza.  Additionally, should Mubarak go there is no way reliably to predict the character of the government that would ultimately take his place.  One can read a half dozen periodicals and find a half dozen well-educated and worldly commentators with a half dozen different opinions on this score.  (The best analysis I’ve read is Tarek Masoud’s, which can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/opinion/04masoud.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=harvard%20egypt%20kennedy%20school&st=Search.)

The worst case scenario (other than complete anarchy) would be the emergence of a radical Islamist state abutting Israel.  Such a circumstance both would threaten Israel and likely stifle religious freedom and civil rights in Egypt more than is the case under Mubarak.  Some pundits say the Muslim Brotherhood—a primary opposition group in Egypt and a likely leader in any Islamist government—is tempered by a genuine belief in democracy, but others tie the Muslim Brotherhood to Hezbollah, the terrorist organization making major governmental inroads in Lebanon (which bookends Israel to the north).

How should Christian people respond to the news from Egypt?  First and foremost, we should pray.  Pray for the safety and well-being of the citizens of Egypt, not least of which are roughly ten million Coptic Christians.  Pray for the citizens of Israel and the Palestinian territories, that each side will respond judiciously to the events in Egypt, acting through godly wisdom rather than anger or fear.

Second, stay informed.  I have been impressed by my conversations with St. John’s parishioners on this topic.  At dinner, the water cooler, or coffee hour after church, my experience has been that our people are paying attention to events on the ground in Egypt and expressing concern for all our brothers and sisters in harm’s way.

Finally, while we must each make our own determination regarding what might be best for Egypt and its neighbors, in my own discernment I have returned to a poem entitled “Risk,” by United Methodist William Arthur Ward.  This is the second stanza:

Risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.

He may avoid suffering and sorrow,

But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.

Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

The pessimist complains about the wind;

The optimist expects it to change;

And the realist adjusts the sails.

It seems that God is inspiring the realists at this moment in Egypt.  Where the wind will move their sails is unknown, and it involves risk for them, for Israel, and, indeed, for us.  And yet, in faith, their actions are worth the risk.  May God grant the people of Egypt a new level of freedom, which respects their human dignity and the image of God within them.  May God guide President Mubarak and his allies to respond with humility and for the good of the country.  And may God swiftly bestow peace upon that ancient land.

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