Dignity and Self-Direction
By Charles Rush
February 6, 2011
Genesis 1: 27-28 and Jer. 31: 31-34
(mp3, 3.4Mb) ]
m watching hand-held camera’s January 25th late in the evening as thousands of people are still on the street after the first day of the protest. No major media are even in Cairo, save Al Jazeera, so you have these wobbling hand-held cameras and reporters you’ve never seen interviewing any Egyptian that has taken 2 semesters of English. It had that feel of being literally ‘in the moment’ that history is in the first birth pangs of something new.
are always asking these rather ridiculous questions about what the movement
wants and where it is going, even as people are just showing up literally. They
turned the microphone on a group of twenty-something and one young man spoke
for the group off the top of his head, trying to describe why he was there and
why so many people were behind him.
He turned to
history. He didn’t quote the leaders of the French Revolution, nothing from
Robespierre or Saint-Just. He didn’t quote Lenin or Trotsky or Che. He quoted Thomas Jefferson that “All people are
created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights,
that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He
probably memorized that line for English class and when you think about it,
they may be the most elevated words of the English language penned thus far.
were the common consensus between the Christians and the Deists in 1700, the
common sense conclusion from our secular philosophers Locke, Rousseau, Kant and
the teachings of Jesus that we are all children of God, that we are all made in
the image of God, and that this is imprinted upon the hearts of each one of us
in such a way that no one can take this from you. You are my beloved Child in
whom I am well pleased. You are somebody. You are loveable. You have a sacred
dignity. “You are the Light of the World, and a city on a hill will not be
hidden.” (Mt. 5:14). You are the Salt of the Earth (Mt. 5:13) which gives life
its savor and meaning.
It was this growing
sentiment that sparked the Humanists in the Renaissance to recover human
beauty, human welfare and make it the center of our social and cultural life
sentiment sparked the Protestants in the Reformation to recover religion and
keep it in the service of developing our work in the world, so that making the
earth a better place to live, making our communities fuller expressions of
meaning, making our work in the world the actual place that we make sacred.
sentiment took root, freedom prospered. And, finally, when we had a chance to
start a new constitution in the New World, all of these historical movements
converged, and Jefferson enshrined them in the Declaration of Independence.
They were bigger than he knew.
He could not
have known because he could not have imagined that one day his own slaves would
quote them and stand for their emancipation.
He could not
have known because he could not have imagined that one day his great
grand-daughters would quote them and demand the right to vote, work, and live
He could not
have know because he could not have imagined that one day some kid in Cairo
would quote them on Facebook to galvanize Egyptians from every walk of life to
stand up for themselves and take control of their destiny, and start to re-make
the face of the Middle East.
It has really
been something to watch, as these protests have turned more peaceful and the
force of collective will has started to amass. We don’t know what comes next
but the old order is done, seemingly just like that.
week, David Brooks, was probably right. He mused a loud, “I wonder if sometime
around 50 years ago a great mental tide began to sweep across the word. Before
the tide, people saw themselves in certain fixed places in the social order.
They accepted opinions from trusted authorities.
As the tide
swept through, they began to see themselves differently. They felt they should
express their own views, and these views deserved respect. They mentally bumped
themselves up to the first class and had a different set of expectations of how
they should be treated. Treatment that once seemed normal now felt like an
insult. They began to march for responsive government and democracy.”[i]
these moments, I remember a piece of tape that plays in my head ready to be
re-cued. It was French women in Normandy waving handkerchiefs out the windows
at American Soldiers liberating France from the Nazi’s. That was a simple, but
profound social moment. The Nazi myth of the Master Aryan Race had been
punctured at Omaha beach by a bunch of ordinary boys, farmers from Kansas and
mechanics from Brooklyn. At the time, it was just a wee little hole in this
huge bolt of cloth if you remember that Hitler controlled most of Europe,
Stalin all of Russia, and Mao was consolidating communist control of China. But
to see their heart-felt joy at freedom was so moving and to be the good guys
for a moment like that was very fulfilling.
And Brooks is
right about the uplifting march towards freedom each time we have seen it:
Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent resistance movement that led to the
formation of India, even as his heart was nearly broken by the violent
formation of Pakistan.
In a different
way, Dr. King and our own Civil Rights movement which broadened freedom and
dignity in our country.
In the 80’s, Václav Havel and
Czechoslovakia leading the protest against communism and for self-determination.
Lech Walesa forming a union in Poland and through that a new
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the release of all the
Soviet satellite states.
Steven Biko and Nelson Mandela and the
freedom marches that brought an end to Apartheid (1993).
Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004…
others that have started and not yet broken through.
Aung San Suu Kyi – and the struggle to end
the military dictatorship in Burma.
The Dali Lama,
the spiritual leader of Tibet and the Chinese appropriation of their country.
now Egypt… with all the other authoritarian regimes of the Middle East suddenly
on notice: Yemen, Syria, Jordan, even Sudan. Every monarchy and dictatorship is
on edge and they should be. Something is a foot that is not likely to end all
has proved a powerful thing. I shall never forget being in Moscow in 1990,
shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were invited to many social
engagements. Over and over I would ask people what brought about the end of
Communism. Of course, the deeper answer to that question is very complicated.
But over and over, they would give me the shortest, immediate answer…
CNN… In the
late 80’s technology made it possible for more and more Russians to get TV
signals from the West. What did they watch? They watched the news of Europe.
And when they saw that the people in West Berlin were driving Mercedes Benz
cars through this well lit, clean city, the gig was up.
around at their dysfunctional society and they knew for a fact that their
leaders had been lying to them as much as they had suspected lo these many
years. They had that bitter moment of realizing that the cesspool that was
their cities was not the socialist vanguard paradise and they just quit following en masse.
I too wonder if
what is happening in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Jordan is that people are starting
to become connected with each other, finding out that there are a lot of people
all around them that are genuinely unfulfilled. I wonder if they aren’t
connecting more to the rest of the world through the internet and slowly
starting to realize the depth of corruption, the depth of police brutality, if
they just don’t compare themselves to the first world and realize that there
are enough dysfunctional internal handicaps to their society that they won’t
live like this anymore.
If that is
true, that is very hopeful, because it suggests that what is happening on our
screens right now is not going to come to an end very soon. People will keep
organizing, keep pressing for change. And you might be able to close down the
internet for a season. And you might be able to organize a security force that
can keep them at bay for a season. But the bar has been raised higher for
freedom. People want a stake in determining their future. People want to own
their collective future and they are not going to put up with anything less.
The Bible has
an expression for these seasons when there are so many surprising leaps forward
that you are just riding your work out cycle rather slack-jawed at what you are
seeing. These days, it seems to revolve around a rate of change happening
simply more broadly and more quickly than most any of us ever would have
imagined possible. You just sort of stand there in wonder, watching the monitor
in the airport just to get an update because it is just… unbelievable.
The Bible says
“In the fullness of time”. In the fullness of time…
“But when the fullness of time had come”, writes Saint Paul, “God sent forth
his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the
law, so that we might receive adoption as children of God. (Galatians 4:4-5,
you least expect it, probably after a really long wait, so long that you have
really stopped expecting much. Perhaps after so many subterranean tectonic
shifts have taken place that you were only barely aware of, they suddenly come
together and something new and wonderful is birthed in your midst. It is a
harvest season of life, when things are converging.
We are living
through one of those seasons if we could only zoom out.
Of course, it
doesn’t mean the age of Aquarius is upon us. What is
already evident is that the denizens of Egypt have no real idea of what they
are asking for or what comes next. As one commentator put it, this is no
Jeffersonian moment. That is not even a real option for Egypt.
When we founded
our country, we had several major advantages that the Egyptians do not have, as
Hannah Arendt used to remind us.[ii]
didn’t have a revolution in our country, certainly not like France or any of the
nations from the Old Country. They literally revolted against a moribund
aristocracy and they had to first overthrow the Old Regime. So the French
Revolution is remembered as much for the wanton use of the guillotine as
really had a Constitution, as Professor Arendt liked to underscore. We were
already made up of Colonists who were largely equal in station of life. They
were almost all farmers, small business owners, mercantile and guild workers.
They had quite similar educational backgrounds. They were from quite similar
religious backgrounds, voluntary congregations that supported themselves.
had a very high percentage of people that had democratic values they practiced
in their business, their church, their schools. Even
listening to our news anchors on TV, it is painfully evident that they don’t
really have any actual idea of just how corrupt and limited countries like
Egypt and Syria are in reality. They have no idea how few people own anything, have a stake in their business life, their school
life, their religious life. The Egyptians long for self-direction that is part
and parcel of self-dignity. But they have so few traditions that support the
virtues of self-direction. Americans completely underestimate the difference
between the New World and the Old World and how much will have to be
re-structured in their institutions and in their values and self-understanding.
Just like we
discovered after the fall of Communism, democracy does not just spring into action,
after you end generations of deformation. It will not just spring into life
forget just how much work went into the Constitution. As Professor Arendt used
to remind us, the Founding Fathers sent a substantial delegation to the library
at Rome where they studied all of the Constitutions from Greek City-States and
Roman prefects that they could get their hands on to devise a system of
governance. It took quite a lot of study, debate.
Egyptians have a population of 80 million people, not self-reliant and agrarian
like the founding of our country, they are unlikely to
have the time or the luxury of a substantial Constitutional Congress such as
they really need.
differences will be great, fraught with compromise and even reversals even.
They can’t really understand what they are getting into. As one Iraqi
politician put it this week, “be careful what you wish for”. Self-determination
is a lot of responsibility and a lot of work.
But it is still
a “Kairos Moment”, a harvest time, a time when
pregnancy is about to give birth to something new. It is the way of the future.
And it has the validation of the now. You can feel it. Anderson Cooper found
someone marching through Cairo, one of the only women on the street. She is
from New York. He asked her what she was feeling as she stood in the Square at
night. She clenched he teeth for a moment and said, “I’m proud of my country.
Tonight I’m proud to be an Egyptian.” And he said back to her, “You weren’t
proud before?” Without a moment’s thought she said, “No”. At those moments, you
can feel the future pulling you forward more than the past pushing you to where
you stand. It is the draw of hope.
teach us that the Spirit of God is at work in our lives and our world like
that. We are all connected and through this huge Web we exchange a transcendent
force that evolves, matures, gets broken, gets healed, shatters from the trauma
of terror, and multiplies through synergies of reciprocal prosperity and well-being.
And in these latter days, the complexity of this inter-connected web is
producing faster change, more far-reaching change than any of us really
anticipated. We live in interesting times. Let us pray for the collective
wisdom and moral character to realize our potential. Amen.
“The Quest For Dignity” New York Times, February 1,
2011, p. A27.
Arendt, Hannah On Revolution (New York:
Viking, 1963). I used Professor Arendt in my dissertation. Someone once asked
me which man was the most influential theologian that I studied. I replied, “he was a woman, a Jew, and actually taught in the
philosophy/politics department- Hannah Arendt.” I was glad to read that she
actually gave the lectures for this book at Princeton. Unfortunately, she was
never granted tenure at Harvard or Columbia either and ended up teaching at the
New School for Social Research. Nevertheless, a brilliant
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