Prayers of Protest: One Step Towards Embodied Discipleship

Prayers of Protest: One Step Towards Embodied Discipleship

I am pleased to post this heart-wrenching lament (first shared as a chapel sermon) from Dr. Safwat Marzouk, AMBS assistant professor of Old Testament. He decries the ISIS slaughter of 21 Christian Egyptians in Libya last month. He wrestles with this tragedy as a Christian Egyptian who lives and teaches in the US, describing the different ways those in the midst of the atrocities and those at a distance respond to the violence. From Habakkuk he has learned words of lament that empower him to speak against cycles of injustice and violence, even from the distance. — Sara Wenger Shenk

It has been more than 40 days since ISIS released the video of the slaughter of 21 Christian Egyptians by the Mediterranean shores in Libya. The violence that ISIS has been committing against minorities in Syria and Iraq has raised a vital question about our Christian witness of God’s shalom and God’s reconciling mission. As the church relies on God’s power to dismantle the power of evil, it still ponders on the question “what are we called to do in the world towards the oppressor and the oppressed?” This question is not new. It is another form of the long-standing debate about ethical responsibility towards the weak and the Christian understanding of how to carry out this responsibility.

In this blog post I want to share with my readers some of the challenges that I have been wrestling with as a Christian Egyptian who lives and teaches biblical studies in the US. The struggle that I have been going through for a few years now focuses on the difference in dealing with violence and oppression between those who are in the midst of chaos and those who view these atrocities from outside. This tension does not arise only from the difference in geographical location (e.g. living in Egypt vs. living in the US); this tension also arises from two clashing worldviews that have merit but are usually set in opposition that a dialogue between the proponents of both views find it difficult to enter into a genuine and a productive dialogue. One worldview seeks to deal with the systemic causes of violence, while the other view seeks to deal with the situation here and now.

To illustrate this tension I will compare some of the reactions that some members of the Christian community in Egypt put forth to the brutal slaughter of the Egyptian men and my reaction as a Christian Egyptian who lives abroad. Some Christian Egyptians found comfort in considering the 21 Christian Egyptian men as martyrs. They were killed because they were Christians and therefore they are martyrs; Jesus welcomes them to heaven because they died for his name. Some of the same people who named the Egyptian men martyrs found relief in the air strikes that the Egyptian army launched on ISIS. These different postures signal the struggle that the Christian Egyptian minority faces as it tries to make sense of the events, especially that they feel caught between terrorism on the one hand and being powerless to do anything about it on the other hand.

My personal reaction, which I have posted on social media, was this: “Now one might wonder why did these Egyptians choose to live in Libya, do not they know that Libya is in a state of civil war between different militia? This question might seem to blame the victim. And, indeed, it does! I am not bringing it to discussion in order to blame the Egyptians who were killed; rather in order to expose an important and essential reality that these Egyptian workers and many others like them experience on daily bases. The reality is that there are many in this world who have no options other than dying slowly in poverty or taking risky chances (like living in Libya) thinking that there might be some hope out there. All they found back home or over there was death and despair.”

My response to the brutal killing of the Christian Egyptians sought to unpack the systemic injustices that have led these vulnerable men to the jaws of monstrous terrorism. Discussing systemic injustice would then entail exposing how British and French colonialisms have created nation-states in the middle east discarding religious or ethnic affiliations, and how local oppressive regimes have deprived their peoples of opportunities of political and economic change, and how neo-imperial economic and political practices including the war on Iraq in 2003 and the sunni-shi’a conflicts maintain the status quo.

But those who are in the midst of the fire wanted to talk about what should be done now!

As a result to this tension I started wondering: Do I say what I believe I should say paying no attention to the real struggles of the people to whom I preach? Do I say what pleases the audience? How do I find a way to remain faithful to my commitments but be able to speak to the context where people are? How can I be contextual without compromising my commitments, and without turning my commitments into an ethical burden on those who are facing the sword of the ISIS militants? How can I be prophetically relevant while I am at a huge geographical distance from those whom I preach? How can I be prophetically relevant to those who live in a reality in which they choose between the bad and the worst?

I have started to ask myself about “how embodied is my discipleship!” My sermons will be more real and more effective if I accompany those who are suffering, those whose reality is caught between different oppressive powers. The most obvious way of living this embodied discipleship is to physically be in places where people are facing death at the hands of terrorists or at the hand of oppressive regimes.

One step forward towards embodied discipleship takes place through prayers of lament. The language of lament allows us to accompany those who are suffering but without compromising our commitment to the kingdom of God. When we lament with those who face oppression and brutal deaths we overcome the gap between where we are and where they are. The prophet Habakkuk provides us with a model in which we name the injustice and the tragedies, and we do not settle for choosing between the bad and the worst. Along with the sufferer we urge God to create an alternative.

The book of the prophet Habakkuk, who was active during the latter part of the seventh century BCE, contains bitter prayers of lament to God concerning the vicious cycle of injustice. The prophet offers two prayers of lament pleading to God to intervene against the injustice conducted by both the local Judean and the imperial Babylonian oppressive systems. The prophet challenges God as he cries out, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab 1:2). The prophet claims that the violence and injustice is so overwhelming that the righteous ones are unable to act faithfully, with the result that justice comes out only “perverted” within Judah (Hab 1:4). The LORD answers the prophet pointing to the Babylonians, the fierce and mighty empire which, states the narrator, will act as a divine agent to punish the disorder that is taking place in Judah (Hab 1:5-11). Of course the Babylonians did not perceive themselves as the agents of Judah’s God nor did they perceive their imperial expansion as a divine punishment over the oppression in Judah. They defeated Judah for their own “interest” in the region. This empire is compared to a leopard, a wolf and an eagle in its swiftness and might to capture, kill and destroy.

The prophet responds to the divine plan by engaging in lament against the violence and injustice that is committed by the Babylonian empire, which is depicted as temporarily acting as a divine tool. This divine tool however makes its power its god and it exceeds its limits (Hab 1:11). This is perplexing to the prophet. It is as if the world is caught between two polarities that are alike in their injustice and oppression; these polarities are the oppressive systems of both the local Judean and the imperial Babylonian power structures.

The book of Habakkuk laments injustice in either case and refuses to give up on demanding God to establish a reign that brings shalom as an alternative to oppression by both the local and the imperial powers. Thus the prophet declares, “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1). Ultimately the prophet receives a message that proclaims divine judgment over the Babylonians: “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” (2:12). He also receives a word of encouragement to the righteous to hold on to their righteousness in spite of Judean injustice as well: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (2:4). What gives hope and assures the righteous in the midst of chaos is that God reigns. “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (2:20).

In this liturgical setting, with all eyes fixed on the temple, the microcosm of the divine rule, the LORD appears as a warrior who is coming to put an end to the disorder (3:1-16). Such a vision moves the prophet to rejoice in the LORD despite the shortcomings and lack of prosperity (3:17-19). This vision of divine sovereignty and the faith that brings hope despite the current chaos and the apparent disorder would not have taken place without the human initiative of lament.

From Habakkuk I have learned that through words of lament I can speak against cycles of injustice and violence while disciplining myself to listen to others who are suffering and to accompany them in their struggle. Prayers of protest are a step forward towards embodied discipleship in which we do not have to compromise our commitments to expose systemic injustice and cycles of oppression but at the same time we do not turn our own commitments into an ethical burden on those who are caught between the bad and the worst.