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Amid the Arab Revolt of 2011, Asking the Christian Question

Posted: 02/ 8/2011 8:47 am

Amid the protests in Egypt, a former student e-mailed me, writing that he and other Egyptian Christians in the streets were protesting alongside Muslim and other demonstrators. It led me to ask where U.S. Christians stand amid the inspiring drive for new freedoms waged by Arab peoples -- in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and maybe elsewhere to come.

In this moment, it is time to pose the "Christian Question," although in a more judicious manner than the so-called "Muslim Question" usually gets obsessed over: Can the Muslim world have its Reformation or Enlightenment? Can it fend off its radical Islamist wings and join the "democracies of the West?"

These questions are misplaced, for Islamic thought and Arab culture deserve to be held in question no more than Christianity. The "Christian Question" should move more to center stage now, especially in the moment of Arab revolts of 2011. This question is two-fold.

First, can Christians, especially in the U.S., discern the extent to which their own nation is an economically and militarily exploitative power in the Middle East/West Asia, and then voice and organize as part of a counter-power to that U.S. hegemony?

Christians will have to contest the standard media lines. President Obama is often portrayed as walking some fine line between honoring an ally, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, while also responding to Egyptians' protests. Actually, this is a slight of hand, claiming to celebrate Egyptians' valiant demands, while refusing to acknowledge the politics of abuse the U.S. has long tolerated in Egypt for its interest in controlling oil prices and maintaining alliance with Israel. Mubarak has long been the U.S. strongman in Egypt, servicing both U.S. politics of oil price control and alliance with Israel. His regime is the second largest among recipients of U.S. military aid. Israel is number one.

Instead of supporting a truly alternative politics, Obama calls instead for a transfer of power, apparently to another strongman, Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief and a reported facilitator of "extraordinary renditions" to Egypt. Mubarak's legacy of stolen elections, increasing use of torture, his servicing of Egyptian and transnational elites that plunges Egyptian people into deeper poverty -- all this has become too much for Egyptians. And it should be too much for U.S. citizens, too ("enough!" as Egypt's protestors proclaim) because the Wall Street that exploits Main Street here is a part of the transnational elite serviced by U.S. neocolonialism and its strongmen abroad.

Will Christians find their voice to name this U.S. imperialism? Will they do more than announce their prayers for all sides?

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, writing from Cairo's Tahrir Square, proclaims "We Are All Egyptians." This is too easy. We need to take on a harder task. "We all" need to act in conjunction with Egyptian and Arab movements against U.S. imperialism, in ways both subtle and dramatic. Will significant numbers of Christians oppose their own government for its decades of vicious neocolonialism, without overlooking the freedom struggle that women, labor and racially disparaged groups have forged and still wage in the U.S.? That's the first aspect of the "Christian Question."

The second concerns Israel. The U.S. is homeland to large numbers of Christian Zionists and American Christian theocrats. These are not just patriots for U.S. nationalism. They also send material aid to auspices supporting Israel's policies, through nearly 25,000 churches and organizations with multi-million dollar budgets. They thereby strengthen Israel's illegal actions in Palestine -- its occupation, "apartheid" wall, demolition of homes, and also its siege of Gaza. Other studies track U.S. Christian Zionist activity in organizations like "Stand for Israel" and "Christians United for Israel."

Christian liberals in the U.S., while criticizing Christian Zionism, to date have not stepped forward in sufficient numbers to decry the U.S.-Israel connection. Progressive Christians often fear the charges of "anti-Semitism" they encounter when doing so.

Even to criticize the military strongmen in Arab nations, who service the U.S. and Israel, often brings upon Christians vigorous criticism by the powerful "Israel Lobby" in the U.S. Hate mail and death threats, too, can be visited upon both Jewish and Christian critics of Israel, from the most disturbed U.S. elements of the U.S./Israel axis. This creates what some activists characterize as "PEPs" among Christian liberals -- "Progressive Except on Palestine."

So, the second aspect of the "Christian Question" is this: Can Christians find a vigorous critical voice on Israel and against U.S. ongoing support of Israel, without resorting to its ugly past of Christian anti-Semitism, and without being cowed by Israel supporters who often dismiss every critique of Israeli policy with charges of anti-Semitism?

I am not optimistic that the "Christian Question" will anytime soon be resolved. One discouraging sign is the way U.S. and European churches have resisted statements from the global south, like the Accra Confession, which bore witness against the ravages of Western imperialism.

Still, there are Christians who sew hope. There are those Egyptian Christians walking side-by-side with their Muslim brothers and sisters and all Egyptian peoples, opposing Mubarak and U.S.-backed hegemony. The efforts in the U.S. by Tikkun and Jewish Voice for Peace, both expressing a U.S. solidarity with Egyptians, is a model for Christians. Among Christians, the Sojourners community's public outcry against Mubarak's crackdown on protestors is one start. From these seeds some redress of the "Christian Question" may come.