The Children of Job

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Little can be added to the considerable corpus of writings on the Book of Job. It remains the most unique and problematic of all Biblical texts, perhaps the only one where God pays tribute to Man. Still, the book calls to us to consider its ambiguous lessons in this season when the celebrations of major religions crowd each other and contend for our attention with daily calamities.

We must consider the impossibility of discerning divine intentions in actions subject to human agency. God undertook a wager with Satan (the accuser) in direct contradiction to human understanding of his omniscient nature. This inscrutable action should dissuade us from seeing his hand in such events as the election of a leader, as the Rev Franklin Graham does. Whether we are free or subject to God’s whims, or Satan’s designs, is unknowable, and therefore we should act as if we are free, focusing on the consequences of our actions.

We should also see mystery in the death of the innocent. The disasters that befall Job are either focused on his person (boils) or are impersonal, such as the theft of his property. Except, of course, for the death of his children who die when “a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house.” The book makes no mention of any guilt on their part. Nor were they the last of the innocent to die. We live with the children of Job every day now; on a street in Aleppo, a Church in Cairo, a square in Europe or a school in Connecticut.

Nor can we be comfortable in our judgements. All too often we drift from disapproval of an act to condemnation of the actor. The book cautions against harsh judgements in the persons of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Unable to understand the heavenly plans, they unjustly condemn Job, judging his misery to be evidence of guilt they can not uncover.

Any attempt to construct a human order identified as “God’s plan” is bound to end up with a monstrosity, simply out of a lack of understanding. God waves away Job’s attempt to understand his reasons with a simple and mocking admonition, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

The only avenue left open to humans is to honor whatever divine spark is within us by actions, both small and grand, that tilt the balance not so much toward “justice”, which is ultimately unknowable, but to smaller and more tangible ends, such as mercy, kindness and affection. “History”, if it is indeed an actor at all, tilts in no particular way. We must jerk it along.

— Maged Atiya

 


Equations

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The above cartoon, promoted by many official and Church channels in Egypt provides an equation (reminisceint of old style Socialist Realism agitprop)

Muslim + Christian = Egypt

A more relevant equation for all to contemplate is

Egypt – Christians = ?

— Maged Atiya

 


To Restore A Church

Several days after the terrorist explosion at the Boutrosiya Church Egypt is still dealing with its repercussions. A state funeral for the 25 victims, mostly women and children, was tightly organized. President Sisi attended and read out the name of the suspect. Later, Pope Tawadros II presided over the services for the victims, who were interned after scenes of heart-rending grief. Today the Egyptian government announced that the Army will undertake the repair of the Church in 15 days. While the alacrity is commendable, it is also unnecessary, and possibly counter-productive. Anything less than an exacting restoration will add to the grief of the community and further diminish Egypt’s dwindling cultural heritage. The Church represents a unique history and the preservation of its structure to the standards of its builders should be the primary goal of the effort, not speed.

The Boutrosiya was built to honor and serve as resting place for the only Coptic Prime Minister in Egypt’s history, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, in a crime tinged with sectarian feelings. His three sons undertook the construction effort; the learned Naguib, a one time government official and philanthropist; the worldly Wassif, the Foreign Minister who negotiated for Egypt’s independence from Britain, and the private Youssef, who bought and tended his brother’s lands, and was father to diplomat and UN Secretary General  Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali and grandfather to the man responsible for Egypt’s economic turnaround in the late Mubarak years, Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali. The sons spared no effort to build the most magnificent structure they can afford. When Egyptian artisans could not do well enough, they imported Italians. It opened as a trumpet call announcing their faith to fellow Copts, their prominence to all Egyptians, and Egypt’s rising status to outsiders. If the Church was built to project power and status, it was also appropriated for an entirely different purpose by another of Boutros Ghali’s grandsons, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The grounds served as home for much of Merrit’s cultural interests and outreach. Merrit, a polymath who was fluent in several European and African tongues, established the Society of Coptic Archaeology and ran it from the Church (actually a misnomer since he undertook repair of Islamic antiquities as well). At one time, the Church contained over 13,000 volumes of books, some exceedingly rare. He made friends with many other scholars, who followed his template to establish other cultural centers and initiated a variety of efforts. Men such as Murqus Simaykah, who founded the Coptic Museum, Yassa ‘Abd El Messih, who cataloged the St Catherine Monastery rare collection, Sami Gabra, who co-founded the Society of Coptic Archeology, and with Aziz Atiya, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Labib Habachi, who excavated Nubia for the University of Chicago, Ragheb Muftah who rescued ancient  Coptic Church music from oblivion, and many others too numerous to name in a short post. All these men passed through the Church at one time or another because of Merrit. These were interstitial men, neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, yet better able to bridge the cultural divides. Most wanted to serve Egypt, but the confluence of Army men and Muslim Brothers made them focus more closely on Coptic culture. Even there, they struggled mightily to raise scholarship to eminence above hagiography, and sometimes suffered Clerical reproach for it. For these men,  work was prayer and learning a higher piety. They elevated their fellow Copts, even if the majority is barely able to recall either their names or their accomplishments, much less so other Egyptians.

The notion that the Army can fully and faithfully repair, in 15 days, significant damage to the Church which was a background to these activities seems miraculous. It is more likely that the job will be hastily done to meet a political deadline. The Church hierarchy may feel compelled to accept this seemingly generous offer, but lay Copts, especially those abroad, should advise caution. This is a historic site, and excellent restoration can be done, but likely at a painstaking pace. It deserves no less. As does the memory of men who strove to elevate their peers. The work of nations is varied, but the building of a nation is primarily cultural. A meticulous effort, supported by a communally raised fund, and done under private supervision of qualified art historians and restorers may well be the single ray of light in this bleak episode.

— Maged Atiya

 


On The Church Bombing – A Modest Proposal

funeral_imagedIn almost all Coptic Churches women and children sit in separate pews from men. At the end of the liturgies, both groups crowd the Altar to receive Communion. It is usually a joyous occasion, as the faithful are a bit closer to heaven than to their quotidian worries. At a little before 10 AM Cairo time, 8 AM GMT, on Sunday December 11 2016 an explosive device ripped through the women’s section in the Boutrossiya Church in Abassyia, Cairo, killing 25 mostly women and children, and injuring dozens more, some of whom are barely clinging to life. When the dust settled, the responses were familiar. The Egyptian State expressed outrage at the terrorists it has been battling for the better part of 50 years. The Coptic Church reminded its flock, in all likelihood needlessly, of the words of Tertullian. Outside observers who felt capable and eager to opine on such matters placed the blame on a variety of historic ills and practices. Most arguments felt tired and worn out, as most people have barely inched from their deeply held beliefs and saw the occasion as an opportunity for further hectoring. Well meaning souls from around the world extended prayers to Copts, who are notorious for the frequency and length of their prayers. Sending prayers to Copts is about as useful as dousing a drowning man with water.

All that was too late for sisters Marina and Veronia Faheem Helmy, and for Ensaf Adel Kamel, and Ensaf-adel and Aida Mikhail and Eman Youssef and Amany Saad and Amany-Saad-Aziz and Neveen Adel Salama and Regina Raafat and Nadia Raymond Shehata and Nadia-Raymond and Varina Emad Amin and Samia Gameel and Sohair Mahrous and Mohsen Elios and Widad Wahba and Samia Fawzy and Marcelle Guirguis and Neveen Nabil Youssef and Jihan Albert and Suad Atta Bishara and Sabah Wadih Yesa and Nabil Habib Abdallah, and for many more victims. Liturgies will be read for them today, and their souls consigned to Heaven, and sadness at their passing assigned to those who survived them and will forever miss them. But what about the living? What can be done for them?

The response to such an event should be grounded in reason, not anger; in desire to protect the living rather than merely avenge the dead; and to display an unwavering commitment to the sanctity of every life. One modest proposal, which skips past all the grand plans for historical changes, is to borrow from practices seen around the world in public buildings. Copts should protect their own Churches more effectively, to save lives and frustrate terrorists. The proposal is simple. The Church and the community can purchase their own detection devices and employ, at their expense, a civilian corp to man them. We are bound to hear from conspiracy-obsessed Egypt that such an act is a prelude to a “Coptic militia” to “divide Egypt”. If such concerns are valid, then they could easily be put to rest with simple steps. The corp should be unarmed, composed of men and women who are Egyptian citizens and of Muslim faith. The leader should be a government security official. The State can vet potential members, who should be paid handsomely, as it does the current police and army officers. The President of the Republic should be able to disband this corp at any time, and without giving reason, by a simple decree. This is hardly a cure for the persistent sectarianism of Egypt. A future happier Egypt should not need such a corp. Until then, we can at least save a few lives.

— Maged Atiya