Friday, January 23, 2015

The Clanging Cymbal, a Church With a Loveless Creed

First published in DNE on 11 January 2015
“People talk about human rights, but what about God’s rights?” said Pope Tawadros in his sermon on the eve of Coptic Christmas on 6 January. These words, and most others in the same sermon rang hollow, as I recalled the opening lines of chapter thirteen in the book of Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Aside from the pope’s continued bashing of human rights, what are God’s rights in a faith that preaches love? Is it not love for God and others? The pope and the church have shown very little of that, except to the regime.
It is no longer possible to write off statements by Pope Tawadros as simply uninformed remarks that ought to be corrected. It is clear that every statement released to the public aims to appease authorities rather than offer spiritual guidance.
In his most recent interview with Sky News, the Pope claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood led Christian youth into confrontations with the army and then fled the scene. This was in reference to the Maspero massacre on October 9, 2011 where the military attacked and ran over unarmed Coptic protesters, and state media incited sectarian violence.
This is certainly his most problematic statement, but perhaps a crowning of his previous work cozying up to the government. This statement is problematic for several reasons; the most important of which is that it extends beyond an opinion you may agree or disagree with. It is a statement that asserts a historic fact. A fact that happens to be fictional.
Earlier in an interview with the Spanish Paper El Mundo, the Pope even said that he did not know the perpetrators of Maspero, because he was not Pope at the time. It is worth noting that the manner in which the Maspero protesters were murdered by the Egyptian military has been documented on their tombstone and that the Muslim Brotherhood’s position at the time had been in support of the military.
So why would Pope Tawadros offer this false narrative? An easy answer is that he was misled by his sources, which leaves us with a misinformed Pope unable to determine the truth of history.
The more likely scenario is that the Pope understands full well what he has said and that his distortions of the truth were deliberate, in which case we may only speculate as to why.
Political rather than spiritual gains are to be made. By falsifying what had happened at Maspero, Pope Tawadros undermines Christian activists and antagonises the revolutionaries, particularly those who participated in the march or had witnessed its atrociousness. He made it appear as if they did not stand for anything, and died for nothing. By doing so, he will have appeased a larger base with a price of clear animosity towards the revolution. The wager is that this entire wave of revolutionary rhetoric and fervour will be obliterated completely, and its remnants will dry out. The plan is seemingly to garner enough support from the regime to make legislative changes that deepen the Church’s control over its own matters and its constituency.
Yet even with cold, calculating practicalities, this wager may fail.  It is precisely because it is cold and calculating and devoid of any spirituality, departing from Christian teachings, that it may fail. But aside from that, it may fail because it is a significant political gamble.
In fairness, the Church is caught between a whirlwind of forces. It must balance its positions against Islamists, revolutionaries, military interests, old NDP businessmen, along with their state security connections. Both Islamists and revolutionaries offer the Church nothing practical, and animosity towards both in favor of the regime is a small price to pay. The revolutionaries’ moral high ground may become a problem later on if their rhetoric survives the current crackdown, but for now they seem incapable of making a dent. Other forces have something to offer Christians imminently, but must fight for the Coptic vote in upcoming parliamentary elections.
The battle for control between different security apparatuses rages on. Thus the regime is no longer a cohesive block you can appease.  Parliamentary majority will be determined by the victor in this internal battle, and since the Pope is playing politics, he must choose which side to support, and have the Coptic community back him up.
Because of such complications, politics within the Church are closer to a gamble at the moment. So far all the calculations and compromises have given the church nothing in return; a surprise visit by Al-Sisi to the Coptic cathedral on Christmas Eve, but nothing tangible that fundamentally addresses the state of Copts.
Christians continue to be forcefully evicted, and imprisoned in defamation of religion cases. Churches still require the president’s consent to build or reconstruct. Damaged churches, which the military promised to rebuild, have not been rebuilt. Copts in Libya are being kidnapped and slaughtered with no serious concern or reaction by Church or state.
Rather than speak inclusively to spread love and tolerance, the Pope went on to support the constitutional referendum, discredit human rights, attack atheism, call for segregation of boys and girls, and jump on the state’s bandwagon of witch-hunts.
The Church turned to a new loveless creed that mimics the state’s in praise of rulers rather than the Almighty. Numerous priests have been reciting it. Anba Bola declared Al-Sisi as the Christ he saw when he visited the church on Christmas Eve. Father Makary Younan has also claimed that Al-Sisi was a saviour, prophesied in the book of Isiah. Much earlier, a priest called Boules Ewaida declared his passionate love for Al-Sisi and excused the women for being in love with him. Besides bordering on the delusional, these statements can be regarded by many Copts as blasphemous.
As an effect of political calculations, the Church has wandered its farthest from Christian teachings. Appeasing the regime in every way may cost the Church leverage over politicians, and if it is done at the expense of Christian beliefs, it may cost the Pope control over the Church’s constituency. The Pope will need to stand for something other than the state, because by standing with injustice, he betrays his post and his Church’s denomination. It would be far better for the Pope to stand up for Christian principles than to continue these political manoeuvres.
It is unfair to single out the Pope, because a majority of the Coptic community stands in line with his positions. It is also important to recognise that this is a community that has much to fear, having been discriminated against for so long. It is a community trying to survive, even at the expense of justice. Yet in a way, this survival has cost the community its soul.
How can we give credence to a Church that has lost its spirit? There is nothing spiritual in excusing injustices and propagating false narratives. In the same chapter of Corinthians the closing lines read: “These three remain; hope, faith and love but the greatest of these is love.”
In Pope Tawadros’ Church, this love cannot be found, replaced by self-interest and survival. The words of the church become a clanging cymbal. These are not motivations to blame, yet they have caused the Church to drift from church teachings and Christian faith. This faith preached the value of love above all others, even faith, so much so that it boldly claimed that God is love. I look before me at a community devoid of love, worshiping a brass calf, and full of fear. And if love, praise and glory is what you give God, why does the Church give to Caesar what is God’s?