Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, February 13, 2011

February 11, 2011—“an angel in the whirlwind”

As almost every commentator and analyst said today via television, radio, and satellite, the flight of Hosni Mubarak before the irresistible temblor of a popular uprising is a “seismic,” “tectonic” event, a day for the history books, the most stunning overthrow of tyranny by nonviolent means since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The cliché “triumph of the human spirit” should be retired, but if it is to be used at all, this would be the day.

But is this principally a triumph of the human spirit, or does that triumph derive from another source altogether? During the American Revolution, John Page, a Virginia statesman, quoted from the book of Ecclesiastes in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, writing: “We know that the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this storm?”

The book of the prophet Isaiah is preeminent in its emphasis on God as the One who commands men and armies, nations and peoples, the currents and forces of history. He does this whether his agents know it or not. His call to the pagan king Cyrus (Isaiah 41:2) to do his bidding is the best known of these passages, but the theme pervades the book.

Here are some verses from Isaiah 19:

An oracle concerning Egypt. Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt; and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them. 2 And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, every man against his brother and every man against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom; 3 and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out...and I will give over the Egyptians into the hand of a hard master; and a fierce king will rule over them, says the Lord, the Lord of hosts…

…How can you say to Pharaoh, “I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”? 12 Where then are your wise men? Let them tell you and make known what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt….. 13 The princes of Memphis are deluded; those who are the cornerstones of her tribes have led Egypt astray. 14 The Lord has mingled within her a spirit of confusion; and they have made Egypt stagger in all her doings…

19 In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. 20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them...

24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Now I do not mean to suggest that this is meant to be taken literally as a prophetic reference to the exact circumstances of today. Not everything in the chapter “fits.”. And yet, in the circumstances of this unforgettable day, it seems right to recall the prophetic proclamation of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah’s characteristic title for God) as Lord of history, the mover and shaker of nations:

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust…
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; 23 who brings princes to nought, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. (Isaiah 40:15, 22-3)

Israel is God’s inseparable possession (Romans 9:4-5. 11:29), but all the nations belong to him, and the movements of history are in his hands:

Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings… (Daniel 2:20-21)

In a dream, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar received this message:

The Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men. (Daniel 4:17-18)

It would be a mean spirit indeed who would begrudge the Muslim people of Egypt their historical place in the annals of nonviolent revolution. Many of them are indeed “the lowliest of men.” One of the people in Tahrir Square today, his first day out among the protesters, was asked by a reporter to tell what had impressed him particularly. Without hesitating he said he had met a man, a protester for many days, who had been reduced to selling one of his kidneys to feed his family. I have just looked up a passage in my forthcoming book which I derived from The New York Times a few years ago:

The Old Testament prophets are well-known for their indictments of whole groups of people. The indolent rich, judges who take bribes, tradesmen who cheat the poor are harshly judged by the Lord God. The poor have an unobstructed view of this. A news article told of an apartment building being constructed in Cairo. The building, nicknamed Tower of Power, contains apartments for sale at prices beginning at two million and rising to 15 million and more. A mechanic who lives in a slum nearby said to a reporter, “The only people making this kind of money in Egypt are merchants of powder [cocaine].” The average per capita income in overcrowded Cairo is $600, and housing is scarce. “This [apartment building] is not for our kind of people,” said a 38-year-old taxi driver who lives with his wife and six children in the slum. “I think you have to steal to live in there. I am not envious, but I believe these people will be accountable on Judgment Day.”

Nothing that happens in this world is complete or finished. The Egyptian Revolution may end in disappointment—or worse. But whenever the aspirations and longings of downtrodden human beings come to the surface and make themselves known en masse, the God of Israel (yes) is on the move. I think it was Thomas Friedman who wrote yesterday that humiliation was the strongest human emotion and overcoming it was the second strongest. There’s some truth in that, although I might reverse the two. Today, the humiliation of Egypt’s poor, neglected, and oppressed citizens found its vindication. An Egyptian-American of my acquaintance has been working for years to help the hovel-dwellers and garbage-pickers (literally) of Cairo. Her small efforts are honored today; they have been magnified a thousand-fold by the angel in the whirlwind.