Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Truths about Power: Thoughts on the Arab Spring (Part I)

I am not sure how the events known as the “Arab Spring” strike those who do not have a personal connection to the region, but for me it is absolutely fascinating, inspiring, and challenging. The term refers to the spontaneous spread of revolutionary, popular movements in the Arab world which began in Tunisia in January of this year and which have since borne massive impact in the form of anti-government protests and demonstrations in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria... and many more.

The nature of the rise in political activism within these countries and the ensuing struggle with the existing Arab governments is as varied as the countries themselves. In Egypt, protests were largest in the capital, Cairo, while in Syria, they began in obscure regions on the country’s borders and slowly spread to the more populous cultural hubs. Some conflicts have been religiously sectarian, like Bahrain, while others have been tribal conflicts, like Libya. Some have produced real change very quickly, others slowly, and for some, no change is yet to appear.

Yet clearly the timing demonstrates that these revolutionary movements have more in common then they have distinctions. They represent more than just a tipping point of disillusionment with kings, cronies and corruption. They represent a powerful new idea that is igniting a region: individuals are never powerless.

In the time I have known this region, I have observed a consistent trend of fatalism that runs deep in the culture. This trend exists in America as well; we call it cynicism. It is a permeating belief that things don’t change, and people don’t change, and the best we can do is to learn to adapt, to accept all things, whether it’s a job promotion or a parking ticket or an oppressive government, as coming directly from the hand of God and to learn to live with it. In the Arab’s case, of course they know their rulers are exploitative and brutal, but they feel there is nothing they can do about it.

That is, until they saw the Tunisians bring the house down. Then the Egyptians, gathering in a warm, hospitable protest that only Arabs could pull off, ended Mubarak’s 30 year strangle hold on the largest of all Arab nations. If the Egyptians can do it, why can’t we? they said.

I can see it in the eyes of my Syrian friend from whom I buy vegetables. When I come up to him each week he has a mischievous grin, and when I ask him how he is doing he says “great, the revolution is walking right (which means it continues).” At the end of the month he looks forward to visiting his family, so he can risk his life with his friends on behalf of his people by taking part in the forbidden demonstrations.

The revolution is far from over. Every week people are dying in the streets of Syria. But the shift has been made, and I don’t think it can be unmade. The Syrians, Egyptians and Libyans have discovered a profound truth: a living, breathing, speaking, thinking person is never powerless. We are all potential agents of change just waiting for the right combination of inspiration and conviction.

But I wonder, is that profound truth still alive in America? More importantly, is it alive in the church? I don’t mean this just politically- I mean it spiritually as well. Do we still believe that we are agents of change, that we have a voice? And if you say “no, because our political system is bankrupt, and our culture too materialistic,” I would tell you that is not a legitimate answer. Hope lies not in a system or in a culture or a in a political figure, but in the inspiration and faith of individuals. It lies in our conviction that justice can be done, that the prisoners can be set free, that the blind can be given sight. And if you don’t believe it can happen anymore; if you believe that our role is to accept reality as it is and adapt to it, to live our lives with no sense of empowerment or responsibility to bring the Kingdom of God into our world, well then you are part of the problem.