If you are like me, you probably spent a fair amount of time over the past three weeks watching the revolution in Egypt unfold on CNN. As I was watching I was also reading the Eric Metaxas biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was a strange combination, I admit, but it helped me to think about how I should respond to what I was watching.
Channeling Bonhoeffer is tricky business because he can be used as an example for almost anything. Yet Metaxas drew out some of Bonhoeffer's most salient words which I think can be helpful in this situation.
Unless you've disengaged, you now know that government supporters are attacking protesters in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. As the citizens continue to protest, the dictators are baring their teeth. In Libya we now know more than 200 people have fallen victim to gunfire from security forces trying to quell the protests. In Bahrain funerals are being held for protesters shot by security forces. In Yemen a grenade exploded in the midst of a peaceful crowd. Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it seems many are now hoping the spirit of revolution will sweep its way into their own country. As they voice their opposition to governments, they are being met with guns and bombs.
Taking lessons from what they saw occur in Egypt, heavy-handed rulers seem resolved to ratchet up the violence in order to keep hold of their power. At stake is not simply Mid-East stability, but the fate of millions of people who live their lives under the thumb of authoritarian rulers. Is there also something at stake for the American Christian? Should Christians somehow speak up for our Muslim brothers and sisters who are struggling under dictatorial rulers?
In 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took the radical position that Christians were required to "aid the victims of state action." This is a requirement of our Christian faith and is binding whether or not we share the same faith or nationality of the oppressed people. Although he did not state it outright, it was clear Bonhoeffer had in mind his Jewish friends and colleagues who were falling victim to the ever more brazen anti-Jewish sentiment fomented by the newly en vogue Nazi party. His conviction that Christians must speak for their Jewish neighbors was based upon his own Christian identity, and it transcended national interests.
Some who were opposed to Bonhoeffer's position protested on the grounds that they did not share the same faith as the victims. Yet Bonhoeffer insisted that every Christian, and indeed the Church itself, had an "unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community." Bonhoeffer's argument was that Christians are required to help the victims of any unjust society; shared faith was not a prerequisite for this obligation. He believed, after all, Christianity must be known as a faith of action not simply of beliefs.
Some who were opposed to Bonhoeffer's position did so because they were English, Dutch, American or Swedish. What did German Jewish troubles have to do with them? As a part of the ecumenical movement, Bonhoeffer lobbied tirelessly for Christians in other countries to attempt to put pressure on the German government in any way possible, to quell the violence. For Bonhoeffer, our identity as Christians must come before any national identity. Our allegiance to the church and to the kingdom of God comes before any other allegiance, be it country, race, gender, affluence or family. Shared nationality must not be a factor when deciding whether or not to speak.
Bonhoeffer's view of Christian responsibility is quite relevant for American Christians. The church can play a key role in speaking out for those who are marginalized both in our own society and in other countries. The example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer teaches us that the Christian has a responsibility to support the victims of the state -- any state -- whether or not they share our faith. This is now part of what it means to be a Christian in a global community. Christians should follow Bonhoeffer's lead. While I do not know if raising your voice in support of our Muslim brothers and sisters in places like Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen will make you a good American, I believe it can make you a good Christian.
What does this mean for you?
How can you speak for those who are being shot at as they raise their voice and ask for a more just way of life? Perhaps it means simple conversations with co-workers, telling them of your support. It could mean monetary support for relief organizations helping victims of the violence. It might mean learning about the situation, studying it, then writing to your representatives in Washington. Bonhoeffer teaches us that we can never really see how high the stakes may be. Whatever it means to raise our voice we must try to do so -- our faith in Christ demands it.