Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thoughts about the Jasmine Revolution

It’s way too early to know what the uprising in Tunisia will mean in the long run, but it is already being compared to the Velvet Revolution that helped bring on the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Few popular revolts have leaders as noble as Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Adam Michnik of Poland, nor are many truly nonviolent, but the flight of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali from his lavish digs on the Mediterranean on Martin Luther King’s weekend awakened many thoughts about the mighty acts of God in human history.

An article in The New York Times quoted a 53-year-old woman, Sonia Ben Sultan, who said she had coughed through clouds of tear gas for hours in the demonstrations. “It was the best day of my life,” she said. “No political party, only God. Not terrorism. I want freedom, I want equality, I want righteousness. That is Islam. I cover my hair, but I don’t cover my brain.” For the first time in a while, I though that we were seeing a face of Islam that Christians might recognize in the Day of the Lord.

The number of evangelical Christians who have a world-historical outlook remains very small in the global North, in spite of numerous powerful voices from the 20th century that are revered more than they are heeded. Many biblical theologians in our time have understood the link between personal faith and the movements of God on the world stage (they are named in my post However, it has been extremely difficult to get evangelical Christians in the United States to lift their sights beyond the personal to the geopolitical. This remains a great weakness in white American Protestantism. In the Episcopal Church it sometimes seems that we have to choose between “liberal” theology that reduces the sacrament of baptism to the promise that we will “strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every person”—even the pedestrian phrasing gives the impression of setting the living God aside—or the teaching that focuses almost exclusively on a personal relationship with an undemanding, anodyne Jesus. I exaggerate, of course, but it is disheartening to see that evangelistic programs continue to trade in personal need rather than the call of the Kingdom of God.

The work of the theologian and ethicist Paul L. Lehmann, one of my most important teachers, is being freshly appropriated twenty years after his death. His most audacious book is The Transfiguration of Politics (1975). It has been called dated, but a new generation is mining it for insights into the way that revolutionary undertakings and nonviolent resistance can be the locus of God’s activity in the world. It remains to be seen how nonviolent the Jasmine Revolution actually is, and how consistent its goals, but I can’t help thinking of a story I heard in 2000 from an American man who was present in Belgrade for the fall of Milosevic. He was grabbed by a citizen who said joyously in halting English, “Freedom must to be!”

(See also my sermon “Between the Two Thirteens” in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel.)