At church tonight our speaker, a missionary to North Africa, talked to us about Jesus and the Arab Spring. He began by historically and culturally contextualizing Jesus words on retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount and connecting them to the twentieth century tradition of nonviolent resistance epitomized by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These practices have not been what the Arab world has been known for, especially not so in the tumultuous almost-century since the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the European powers divided up North Africa and West Asia as they saw fit. However, the political revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia last year--collectively known as “The Arab Spring”--represented a high profile introduction of this concept to pan-Arab culture.
On December 17th, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of the governor’s office. This tragic event, instigated as it was by economic despair and humiliation at the hands of public officials, electrified the nation of Tunisia leading to the nation-wide protests which eventually ousted the reigning dictator of multiple decades. The revolutions in Libya and Egypt followed--history in the making, as they say.
What filled me with hope while listening to this story tonight was the contrast between these events and those of many American and Christian imaginations this past decade. I recently came across a tape series that somehow ended up on the dirt cheap book rack in the seminary by a prominent and shrill televangelist. Shortsightedly titled “Iraq: The Final War” (it is dated to 2003), its flames and fury iconography succinctly captures the fear-mongering and hate-mongering I am thinking of, positing armed conflicts in Arab nations as harbingers of an apocalyptic end-time scenario in which the barbarous and demonic Muslims do their best to kill every Christian and Jew on the planet. Turns out God had something different in mind.
“He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” ~ Acts 17:26-27
Many conservative Western Christians have imagined the Muslim world as a demonic horde, but as the first decade of the century came to a close we found that political destabilization had revealed our common humanity and even some of the politics of Jesus. Instead of tribalistic warfare or Islamic terrorism, the Arab world’s greatest political change of the last century was wrought (or at least sparked) via nonviolent resistance. This gives us hope, and it should give tired Christian workers hope, because it says that despite our debased fears and despite our conviction of humanity’s potential for brutality, we find that the words and politics of Jesus have a potent traction that can dramatically affect an entire region.
Though the tragic events in Syria this past year are a somewhat of a stinging rebuke to this line of thought, the Arab spring nonetheless testifies of Muslim nations capability for self-initiated and progressive reform. It teaches the church that we cannot get by with reductive demonizations of Arabs and Muslims, and that the wisdom of Christ penetrates and transforms hearts, cultures and countries in surprising and exciting and unpredictable moments and movements. God finds a way.
Part of the story about gospel work in North Africa is that many people needed to experience an existentially shaking event in order to be more open to the message of Jesus. Whatever sociopolitical analysis these events bear out, we should stay mindful and prayerful of their potential for being the basis of a stable and just society where the word of God can spread rapidly and Christ’s church can take root.
“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-2