Nehemiah in Tahrir

After working through my notes to the story of Nehemiah, I sort of lost momentum. I’ve had a lot of ideas about where to go, but it’s been hard to pick one. But recent events in Egypt have caught my attention. There’s even a Nehemiah figure in Wael Ghonim, who came back to his stricken hometown and set up the online focal point that triggered the revolution.

I see the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God (it does, after all, show how God arranges for things to be built). So I recently put down some thoughts about whether the Kingdom of God might be arriving in Egypt:


What does the Kingdom of God actually look like?

This is a dicey question, subject to millenialist fervor and angels dancing on pinheads. Many people eagerly look forward to this heavenly state, but a general lack of agreement over how to define the Kingdom will probably lead to some challenges as it arrives in a world full of stubborn people who think they know what to expect from it – or who simply want no part of such a religious, sexist and hierarchical concept.

We might just miss it entirely.

Some issue dark warnings of “The Chaos” spreading, as though the Egyptian struggle for freedom were the very collapse of civilization. Revolution might very well be chaotic, but not necessarily in a bad way. We should not miss the larger connections behind a corrupt and wicked regime.

Most people are aware that the nexus of Egypt’s upheaval is a piece of land whose name means liberation. Fewer understand exactly how apt that name really is. Where once there were automobiles, now there is a new order.

The more I watch the Egyptian revolution, the more it looks how I imagine the Kingdom of God would look. I didn’t picture the Kingdom breaking out predominantly among Muslims, but I’ve been surprised by God before. And really, it makes perfect sense. Where else would God show up, but among oppressed people in a heavily-armed outpost of the era’s greatest empire. Haven’t we heard that story before?

Interestingly, some of the most moving words I’ve found on Tahrir has come from Jews: Here’s Rabbi Michael Lerner (of Tikkun) offering a prayer for Egypt, in which he recalls that this isn’t the first time God’s people have tangled with an Egyptian tyrant.

Here is one Israeli’s hope that his own society may follow in the Egyptians’ footsteps.

Here’s another who seems to welcome the call rising to hold Tahrir, and “then “liberate Al Quds” (that being the Arabic name for Jerusalem). This sort of statement ordinarily horrifies Israelis.

But I think these writers are onto something. What if – what if – this actually is a real live outbreak of transformation and redemption? What if this is the Real Thing? Do we have any idea what the genuine liberation of Jerusalem would look like?

Cairo now features a liberated zone (nearly 14 acres – and growing!) that some are calling the Republic of Tahrir. Time will tell how durable this little paradise will be, but that is no excuse to minimize the power of what is happening there in this moment.

Tahrir features a very different social order in which the normal barriers between people have collapsed. Even if the movement is crushed tomorrow or tears itself apart in a month, I believe that those who have been to Liberation Square will never forget it.

Here’s a taste from AlJazeera: “The man tells us there is no committee that organises the supply of Tahrir; people simply take initiative. Friends pool money, and those with funds make purchases for the poor.”

Wait. That last bit sounds familiar somehow.

All along, there was never a shortage of attention to God; the protests that liberated Liberation Square flowed out of mosques and churches. On the eve of January 25, the young movement leader Asmaa Mafouz delivered a moving, hijab-clad call for religious unity.

Then, five times a day the street battles stopped for prayer. Or they didn’t stop, but Muslims prayed anyway. I found footage (see 3:20) of people praying while under nearly-point-blank attack with a water cannon. Now that’s devotion!

Tahrir Square had already become the site of massive regular Islamic prayers. I suspect that part of why the regime couldn’t take the place back was that Tahrir had effectively become hallowed ground, a great outdoor house of worship.

But was Tahrir Square specifically an outdoor mosque? What would happen if the “infidels” tried to pray there? Remember that only five weeks earlier, a church bombing had triggered a wave of Christian riots.

But than, last weekend, there was a major breakthrough in the form of a public Christian mass. The Coptic church had previously been telling Christians to stay away from the protests.

So a Coptic mass at Tahrir was a very interesting opportunity. I suspect that many were unsure how the intermingling of Christian and Muslim prayer would work out. I know I was.

Luckily, organizers had been countering religious division all along. Many of the revolution’s slogans referred to the “cross and crescent” working together. And Christians had already come together in gorgeous acts of solidarity, linking hands to hold a sacred space for Muslims, essentially forming a mosque with their bodies.

But would people still come together in love, as happened after the New Year’s Eve bombing in Alexandria? And which continues to happen there and is spreading elsewhere?

Yes, they would.

Not only was the mass conducted without trouble, it became a glorious utopian moment of unity that included such unlikely acts as people raising crosses and Qur’ans, chanting “one hand” and “we are all one,” and even joining together in the Lord’s Prayer – Christians and Muslims!

While lovely, this unity is likely to be ephemeral in Egypts long and difficult transformation. The trick will be turning these moments of profound peace into more durable justice, and expanding this struggle beyond its current boundaries.

It seems we should keep praying, pay attention and take courage. Take action when we feel called.


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