It’s not about “us” and “them”

by Kristin on January 10, 2011

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by ItzaFineDay

“Egypt’s Muslims attend Coptic Christian mass, serving as ‘human shields”

It’s the sort of headline I find impossible to ignore—it’s packed with intrigue as well as the promise of being the sort of story we hear all too rarely in today’s world. You mean people who disagree—who are fundamentally different—can set those differences aside to help and protect one another in a significant way?

The story below the headline does deliver on that promise of hope:

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Egyptians are all-too familiar with violence and terrorism; there, it’s the Christian minority (about 10 percent of the population) that’s most vulnerable to attack. Most recently, a brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria left 21 dead on New Year’s Eve, an incident that was the final straw for Muslims who decided to organize a strategy to help protect their fellow Egyptians.

Tragedy at home

On Saturday, when I heard about the shooting in Arizona that killed six people and critically wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, I was horrified. I was also aware of people living in parts of the world that are braced for this type violence every day.

In the hours after the Arizona shooting, the inevitable finger-pointing began, deepening the already enormous chasm between Republicans and Democrats. And although the shooter’s motives are still being investigated, local sheriff Clarence Dupnik “pointedly blamed hateful political rhetoric for inciting violence,” as the Reuter’s report says.

“The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” Dupnik said.

Bridging the gap

Can we follow the lead of Egypt, where people have realized that if they can’t live together, they will die together? Can we decide to stick up for each other, rather than just look out for ourselves and those who are like us? Can we, as Americans, humble ourselves and admit that we don’t have everything together here at home, even as we criticize other parts of the world for intolerance and violence? Is the Arizona shooting the final straw for us? If not, what will it take?

And for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus: Are we willing to reexamine what it means to love, and who we’re supposed to love—who is our neighbor, our brother, our sister? Because it seems clear to me that, as a whole, we’re not succeeding at love. And the world needs it desperately. Now.

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  • Meredith

    I happened to be off-line when news of the AZ shooting broke and when I came back to the Internet later that evening, I too was horrified – not only by the shooting but also by a lot of the tweets I saw in my Twitter feed. The sheriff and members of Congress weren’t the only people placing blame on our national political rhetoric – a lot of my friends, both online and off, were saying a lot of things about the circumstances of the shooting, even when all of the information hasn’t been collected and even when we still don’t know what the shooter’s motives were/are.

    You asked if we are willing to reexamine what it means to love and I think that is the key question. I actually wrote about this myself today, but it comes down to this: I have to be willing to change the way I think and talk about people I disagree with. I can’t, in good conscience, ask someone else to change their habits unless I’m willing to do the same thing. It has to start with us – one person at a time. If we keep waiting for our so-called opponents (political or otherwise) to make the first move towards change, then we’re never going to get anywhere.

  • Dan J

    I was extremely happy to see the moderate Muslim population in Egypt stepping up to show their disdain for extremism and to help the Christian community.

    We are very often a part of different groups when there is an us/them situation. The “us” seems to vary quite a bit. Is it “us” the atheists (in my case) against “them” the religious extremists? Is it “us” the Fighting Illini against “them” the Cornhuskers?

    We seem to forget that the biggest and most important “us” should be Homo sapiens sapiens: Human Beings. We won’t always agree on everything (otherwise, independent thought wouldn’t exist), but we should be able to agree on some things.

    I would like to start with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but we can’t even get everyone to agree on that. There are still some extremist holdouts. How do we go forward from here?

  • Ray Hollenbach

    In the same news cycle we learned of heroism in Egypt and horror in Arizona. We saw signs of hope in a war-torn region and were simultaneously reminded of the thin line between civility and violence at home. Yet, I’m inclined to think we can live together in diversity, Kristin, and that even in light of the horror in Arizona–perhaps because of it–we should take inventory of the blessings of diversity already in operation here in the U.S. Here are three facts that should give us peace–and resolve.

    The fact that we have elections here free from violence is a talisman: all over the world, even in well-established democracies, there is an regular loss of life associated with an election cycle. I detest the tone of negative advertisements by both right and left, and we should work to ensure that all Americans have freedom to vote, but we should also acknowledge the security with which we exercise our rights.

    Likewise after the voting, we regularly watch as the party in power peacefully turns political (and military!) power over to the other side–with whom they deeply disagree! We should never take this for granted, it is both a grace and a treasure to be protected. It’s also a beacon to other countries around the world.

    Finally, my father was a lobbyist in Washington for the last thirty years of his life. A right-wing, pro-business, policy-writing, deal making lobbyist! His funeral was attended by hundreds, and amazingly there were people of every political stripe. The memorial service included speeches from academic, socialist-leaning Progressives who called him their friend, and military, America-firster types as well. We all retired to his house after the service, drank way too much and told stories of friendship and memories. It’s not widely known outside of Washington how friendly people are despite their political leanings. The rest of us in fly-over country think that the political difference are played out in backyard barbecues as well, but that is largely untrue. The blogosphere differs radically from the lives of men and women who oppose each others policies but call each other neighbors.

    There’s work to be done, hearts to be examined, and prayers to be said, but I find hope still alive in America.

  • Jennifer

    Excellent, sister. You handle the world and the smaller community so well in this piece, addressing each tiny piece with the exact right touch. Thank you for this timely, thoughtful post.

    As a personal aside, in my small way, avoiding political conversations with a divided family is one way I strive for love even when I passionately disagree. We each have a right and a voice for our opinions. We can find a way to respect that, can’t we?

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  • Sam

    I love this. It’s so hard, when you feel you disagree with someone on such a fundamental level. But I know that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ and I disagree, but does that cancel out the all-consuming love and power of Christ? Absolutely not. The selflessness of the Muslim community in Egypt is a lesson for us – talk about stepping up to ‘lay down your life for a friend, there is no greater love than this’. A humbling reminder to American Christians, especially.

  • ThatGuyKC

    Stuff like this needs to be highlighted in the news more often. Thank you for sharing.

  • Kelly

    I could not possibly agree more. And unfortunately, I don’t think the Arizona shooting is going to be the last straw for us. I think that many people (on each side) are angry and they’re going to keep yelling and being angry. I don’t think that politicians (or anyone besides Jared Loughner) are to blame, but I think that being a decent person is always a good thing to aspire to. :)

  • Kristin T.

    Meredith, my experience was very similar. We don’t have TV and I wasn’t on line all afternoon, as we ran errands, worked around the house, etc. Late in the afternoon I checked Twitter and was filled with dread as I tried to figure out what exactly had happened (but was too afraid to find out). While we don’t know exactly what the shooter’s motives were, we can be sure of what they were not: love, respect, understanding. And it seems like there’s plenty of rhetoric lately that fits that same description. That’s why reexamining love does seem like the only safe and sure first step toward a better world.

    Dan, your description of the various “us and them” scenarios we encounter is right on the mark. There are so many variables that you’d think we’d all be relieved to fall back on the only thing that’s stable: we’re all human beings. Unfortunately, there are some that are too angry and stubborn to go there. I think the rest of us have to move forward together, carefully and respectfully, without them.

    Ray, you’re absolutely right–we have many blessings in this country, even several that respect and rely on diversity. I tend to want to compensate, though, and lean toward the less commonly-held beliefs and perspectives, at least in my writing. The wonderful things you’ve highlighted are recognized and applauded by far more people in our country than the things I chose to highlight (like our need for more humility and the fact that there are things we can learn from other countries–even non-Western ones). I’m glad as always, though, to have someone here helping to balance and compensate for me. :)

    Jennifer, that is no small feat that you accomplish when you decide to go the route of love rather than debate your points at every turn with family members. That’s exactly the sort of small but important steps we all need to be taking each day as we interact with others at work, via social media, etc. Thank you for sharing such a great example (and for choosing to live it).

    Sam, the disagreements I have with others who identify as Christians yet see the world so differently from me are the most difficult sort of disagreements for me to stomach. I’m much better at giving grace to people who are a lot different from me than I am at giving grace to those who seem sort of the same on the surface and so different underneath. Does that make sense? Anyway, that’s the thing I really need to work on. I guess we each have our own hurdles to clear as we move closer to a greater love.

    ThatGuyKC, I know! Doesn’t it make you mad that something so positive and hope-giving was happening in Egypt, and yet so few Americans had/have heard anything about it? Sometimes it feels like our country is addicted to hopelessness.

  • The Modern Gal

    What a beautiful act of love by the Muslims in Egypt! I hope it inspires more cooperation in other situations.

    I’ve been thinking since Saturday that if the shooting will encourage everyone to cut down on the vitrol (even if it wasn’t political rhetoric that prompted the shooter), then maybe there will be a blessing that comes from this horrible event. Maybe the fact that people seem to be talking about it more is a blessing, but only if action follows. The thing I hope and pray for is that people don’t respond to the hatred that has taken hold of our politics and rhetoric with just outrage. I hope and pray that people will turn their outrage into love, and that the love will catch on.

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