A church is more than timber and stone: on Egypt and not knowing what to think

Protests_in_Egypt_January_2013When President Morsi was overthrown earlier in the summer I knew not what to think. Was this a good thing, a bad thing, or a complicated thing? I wanted to have it decided what I should think, which side I should support. I wanted flash card answers to geo-politics fused with religious tension spanning centuries.

I want the media to tell me what to think. I want the politicians to denounce the bad guys and support the good ones. I want the killing to stop.

When a first hand observer, complete with remnants of shot lodged in his wallet, cannot tell you who started it, and who is on the side of the angels. When confusion reigns, when hopes are extinguished, when lives are taken. I want the killing to stop.

When the US declares it’s cancelling it’s planned joint military exercises, but not its military aid (because that might further destabilise the region), I don’t know whose side they are on.

I don’t know who’s side God is on. The military who are killing protesters by the hundredfold. The Muslim Brotherhood who are burning churches. Bob Dylan wrote:

I’ve learned to hate Russians / all through my whole life / if another war comes / it’s them we must fight / to hate them and fear them / to run and to hide / and accept it all bravely / with God on my side.

But now we got weapons / of the chemical dust / if fire them we’re forced to / then fire them we must / one push of the button / and a shot the world wide / and you never ask questions / when God’s on your side.

In a many dark hour / I’ve been thinkin’ about this / that Jesus Christ / was betrayed by a kiss / but I’ve think for you / you’ll have to decide / whether Judas Iscariot / had God on his side.

Over the next few weeks the airwaves will be crowded with the words of one who had a dream. It is nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King began with these words: I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Freedom. Emancipation. Liberty. The echoes cry down the decades, reminding us of what was achieved at too mighty a cost. A cost borne because freedom holds no one in its debt.

I saw the pictures of churches burning in Egypt this week. I heard the Bible Society had its shops touched. Christians accused of conspiracy in ousting President Morsi from power. The general director of the Egyptian Bible Society, Ramez Atallah, described the scene: “The attackers demolished the metal doors protecting the bookshops, broke the store windows behind them and set the bookshops on fire. They did the same to many stores on those streets as well as demolishing many parked cars.”

And I have nothing. I have no wisdom. I barely have the words to pray.

But another song comes to mind. Another echo from the civil rights struggle. This time from Paul Simon in a song recorded in a seldom recalled solo album produced in the early days of his partnership with Art Garfunkel.

A church is burning / the flames rise higher / like hands that are praying / aglow in the sky / like hands that are praying / the fire is saying / “You can burn down my churches / but I shall be free”

A church is more than just timber and stone / and freedom is a dark road when you’re walking it alone / but the future is now, and it’s time to take a stand / so the lost bells of freedom can ring out in my land.
Churches may be burning. Protesters may be killed. Chaos may reign. Global politics may be confused. The media may be short sighted.

But a church is more than just timber and stone.

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