Monday, February 7, 2011

Follow Up from Sunday's Adult Forum

We started a discussion yesterday about what we, as Christians, should be doing in response to challenges in the world that we might consider to be issues of social justice, that was precipitated by the ouster of the Tunisian president by public revolt and the current public outcry in Egypt calling for the removal of President Mubarak.

One of the things that often comes up for people as we assess how to respond is what led to the current situation. For those interested in knowing more about the situation in Egypt, here is some information that I have gathered from the Wall Street Journal, Al-Jazeer, a media outlet in Qatar, and several internet sources:
- Many attribute the start of events currently unfolding in Egypt to a police action ... a 28 y.o. man, Khalid Said, was brutally beaten to death by 2 plain clothes officers, supposedly angered over his YouTube posting of them dividing a confiscated bag of marijuana which he posted to highlight the issue of corruption in the police department. Two official autopsy reports claim he died (choked) trying to swallow a bag of marijuana to hide it from the police. European-based outside experts claim the report was falsified and that he died from an extreme beating. Many people who were near the shop where he was abducted and beaten, all claiming he was brutally attacked, his head bashed repeatedly, even after it was clear he was already dead. The accused officers remain at large and charges have not been filed against them.
- The case of Mr. Said highlights the abuse of power exhibited by the police and brings attention to the fact that Egypt has been under a state of emergency (martial law) since 1981 ... justified by the claim of needing to defend the country against terrorism (this is also, by the way, why the Muslim Brotherhood is, officially, an illegal organization in Egypt ... they are suspected of having links to al qaeda).
- Under martial law, the police have had tremendous power, which the people claim they have flaunted and abused over the years. According to Human Rights Watch, torture in Egypt (by the police) is an "epidemic." It is estimated that over 5,000 people have been held in Egyptian jails without trials ... some for decades.
- Under the current political conditions, the media have been restricted, journalists jailed, and elections have been considered shams to legitimate the positions of those in power.
- Part of the energy behind the current uprising has to do with trying to ensure that Mubarak doesn't use sham elections to hand power to his son, who is widely seen as being groomed to step into his father's role in the next election. The demand for Mubarak to leave office immediately is a demand to try and ensure that he doesn't have an opportunity to manipulate the system for a power transfer to his son.
- Egyptian protesters also claim government corruption far beyond the corruption in the police force (and you'll note that the police force is considered problematic at the moment, and that the military is protecting the protesters from police brutality). ... as an aside, one of the tactics used in the past to repress political dissent by the government was to hire thugs to claim to be "government supporters." Many feel that the current clashes between "pro-Mubarak" supporters and protesters are actually being stirred up by government officials hiring thugs to intimidate protesters and to legitimate the need for Mr. Mubarak to remain in power ... to protect against chaos.
- Some manifestations of the political corruption ... 92% of Egyptians don't own the deed to their home, because the system is so corrupt that it's nearly impossible to complete the ownership process; it's estimated that it would take up to 10 years, and visits to 56 government agencies, to complete the appropriate titles and filings to begin a basic business in Egypt ... so most businesses are, technically, unregulated and illegal, and the environment of slow business development contributes to high unemployment.


  1. A great deal of Christian activism throughout the 19th and 20th century falls within what is described as the social gospel movement, a liberal, protestant movement that applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially social justice and inequality. Many would say that it had its last gasp in the Civil Rights movement (for some it died in the disillusionment after WWI) ... and some would say that what we need to counter a conservative movement (what we often refer to as Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and religious right movements)that addresses social issues from a more conservative perspective is a social gospel revival.

    In academic circles, many perceived the efforts of the social gospel movement, as naive. For some interesting perspectives on social activism in the church, you might consider looking up author names like Rauschenbusch, Brueggemann, and Niebuhr. [As an aside, for those who might be interested in the topic of social justice in Israel ... Walter Brueggemann was originally a supporter of Israel, but later repudiated actions of the Israeli government as fomenting a toxic ideology. In his later writing on the topic, he noted that it's not anti-Semitic to work for Palestinian justice.

  2. One of the things people often struggle with ... appropriately, in my mind ... is the possibility that getting involved in someone else's issues can have the effect of us imposing our perspective on the issue. Of course, we have a long history of governmental and church colonialism, where we have imposed our way of life ... our understanding of things (such as scripture) ... our ideas about solutions to problems ... and so forth.

    In the mission world, one of the ways we guard against inappropriately superimposing our perspective on others is to talk about accompaniment and ministry of presence. When we engage in mission, it isn't to go "fix" someone's problems, or to "tell them" how to fix their problems. Instead, we are there to accompany our brothers and sisters in Christ and support them in whatever way they would like to be supported (mindful that they, too, are responding to their baptismal covenant). We often talk about this accompaniment as ministry of presence. Our friends in other countries know about our $500,000 homes and comfortable cars ... they know we have six figure salaries and that we can go to a local grocer and buy just about anything we want to eat ... they know we have access to more medications in a local CVS than they will probably have access to in their lifetime ... and yet, here we are, accepting their hospitality. We step out of our world of privilege, if only for a moment in time, being willing to sleep on straw mattresses, run the risk of infections, eat their basic food, visit with our friends who have one-room, dirt-floored homes. They tell us that's empowering, that it gives them hope for a better tomorrow to know that we care enough to be with them ... to learn about their issues ... to learn how they are trying to better their own lives ... to learn how we might support them on a systemic level by telling our political leaders when they are helping and when they are hurting. This is ministry of presence. Maybe one of the ways we can be most effective in supporting movements for political change in places like Egypt is to figure out ways in which we, as Christians, can "accompany" our brothers and sisters around the globe.