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Religious Persecution and True Godliness

Egypt is a country of contrasts and inconsistencies; the uneven application of justice in relation to the Christian minority is one example. Of course, in the Western news media, we hear of the persecution and escalating terrorist attacks which are often directed against Christians. When a young Christian man is attacked by religious extremist youth who do not want to see him in a relationship with their Muslim sister, his business and home are burned, and his family ousted from their village, there may very well be little support from the police or courts. When a group of Christian boys unthinkingly write something or record a video of themselves saying something that is deemed disrespectful or is suggestively aimed at the prophet of Islam, the youths may be arrested for defaming Islam, tortured by their guards in jail, and tried without due legal process. When a bomb goes off in a single church, the investigative and judicial responses, and the generosity of government and society are very different from instances when a whole group of churches are burned, or when the same bomb is detonated near an embassy, hotel, airport, or government institution—authorities can accept some things, but not others. While records do occasionally show a caring and just response, as in the case of Egypt’s military rebuilding many of the 70 church buildings that were burned by religious and politically motivated riots in August of 2013, this is really an extraordinary example of justice, not the norm.

So what do Christians do in the face of such injustice and inequality?

Last week, I had a powerful conversation with a Coptic Orthodox friend who lives in Tanta, Egypt, where a terrorist’s bomb exploded just a few meters away from him, killing friends and acquaintances he had come to know over his last 40 years attending the church. It was April 9, Palm Sunday. Besides his post-traumatic stress, the only injury he endured was some shrapnel in his leg, which he was able to have removed.

My friend told me that within minutes of the explosion he was already asking himself why he had survived.

Together in his office, we looked at pictures taken a few minutes prior to the explosion. He pointed out the men and youths gathered around him on the stage: which of them would take weeks to heal from broken eardrums, who had shrapnel fragments (and where) in their bodies, and which of them were dead. When speaking about the latter, my friend would stop to mention young children and surviving widows.

The government response had been swift: within hours, additional security guards were posted at the entrances of all Egypt’s churches—but most of them are gone now. The immediate threat has passed. But what is being done about the deeper issue of the targeting of Christians? And, just as important, what should be the response of my friend—and of me? My friend told me that within minutes of the explosion he was already asking himself why he had survived—what did God expect of him? For what purpose was he saved? What differentiated him from his dead peers, or those who had been seriously injured, and not him?

By the grace of God, within those first few minutes a single thought was rooted in his mind—he had to help the others, help the widows, look out for the children. In the days and weeks that have followed, he has been organizing an effort among his friends and colleagues to help address the long-term needs of widows, especially those with young dependents. He is setting up a fund, and is looking for a fair way to distribute the money that is collected.

It is right to hate such injustice—it is in God’s nature to hate such injustice, and we faithfully reflect his image in us when we express such feelings.

But in the quiet of our conversation in his office, he also told me honestly about the heavy feelings of sadness and anger that ebb and flow within him against those who continue to wreak havoc against the Christians, and against a system of injustice that is not set up to support the minorities, but drifts along with the status quo. He longs for righteousness and justice of a kind that will bring peace, not potential pain, to his family and to his Christian brothers and sisters, and to the wider community.

I think, often, we veer toward my friend’s second response—more than we care to admit. We are far less likely to get involved in changing a system than we are to be critical and express our anger about the existing system. And there is legitimacy to this response: when the rights and protections of minorities are not given a priority or public resources, the result is that attacks will grow more frequent, and the ones who are being attacked may grow more afraid. They are less free to be themselves, and to live into their religious traditions and principles, or to express their angst. In the case of Egypt’s Christians, it is a beautiful fact that, to spite their persecutors, or to prove their faith, many grow in courage, and the numbers of Christians attending churches rose in the last month, rather than diminished!

But the bottom line remains the same: perpetuating injustice by failing to act is almost the same as supporting the perpetrator. It is right to hate such injustice—it is in God’s nature to hate such injustice, and we faithfully reflect his image in us when we express such feelings.

This is why I think that my friend’s first response is really where the Holy Spirit is most at work in him.

And yet, there is a proper perspective that we need to have about all of this. Today, I happened to come across words written by Oswald Chambers while he served in Egypt during the First World War: “Never look for righteousness in the other person, but never cease to be righteous yourself. We are always looking for justice, yet the essence of the teaching on the Sermon on the Mount is, ‘Never look for justice, yet never cease to give it.’” This is true godliness. Even when we long for righteousness and do not find it, we must not stop at the point of critiquing the system. Our role, like God’s, is to bring justice, to produce it, ex nihilo—from nothing. And this is why I think that my friend’s first response is really where the Holy Spirit is most at work in him. He is asking the harder question: Not, ‘what are others doing to produce justice in this situation?’ But, ‘what will I do to produce justice in this situation?’

I want to do what I can to work with my friend, even if that means I must be like a star that shines brightly in the darkness, if only so that we become models for others, that are catalysts for a movement of widely transformative societal change.

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