This article was first published at The Table.
Many have been impressed by the forgiveness Coptic Christians have offered to their enemies. Beheaded, ambushed, churches bombed, shot in cold blood – they have not retaliated. Instead, though anger boils, they pray for their persecutors.
In the links above you can explore the opportunities I have had to write about this suffering community, and in one article I partially translated a poem circulated on social media that one Copt directed to ISIS. The Arabic original is here, and the full translation is below:
I will not speak (as some have done)
And curse your religion whatever its name.
I have come that it be known:
My fathers’ religion and what it proclaims.
My fathers’ religion has love at its heart,
The meaning of which will call you to peace.
My fathers’ religion, right from the start
Offers forbearance that conflict will cease.
Your hatred and killing in no way suffices
To stop us from loving and praying for you.
My father’s religion, oh dear Uncle ISIS,
Is not a weapon to pierce you straight through.
I wish that you could come to see
Or just one time the answer seek.
That while you bomb and murder, we
Stay strong as if a mountain peak.
My fathers’ religion of spirit consists.
It is not a body whose end is the dust.
And for the spirit—despite death persists—
Awaiting are loved ones residing in trust.
My fathers’ religion, if you could discern,
Offers each wounded the medic of life.
Tomorrow when you will repent and return,
You will come to know just who is the Christ.
It is a phenomenal sentiment. Which is why I was surprised – and then cut to the core – when my Egyptian friend helping me translate it called it: Haughty.
When I showed him my translation he said: Well done. It is even more arrogant than the original.
My friend is a Muslim, but non-practicing, with a respectful dismissal of religion in general. Perhaps one can say such a person of any background might be offended by strong claims of religious conviction. I have previously written critically when it is labeled bigotry.
I don’t think this is true of my friend. He has a generous heart and speaks tongue-in-cheek. But while I cannot judge the heart of the one who wrote the poem, I can discern the heart of the one who translated it.
And my friend is right.
It is my job to represent what I understand to be the reality of Egypt. This poem, I believe, is an authentic expression of the Coptic community.
But it is more than that. It is an expression of the way I would like the Coptic community to be. Many are not there. Many struggle. Yet many of them hold as an ideal that this is what their Christianity calls for.
So the poem represents also my conviction, but once again more. It represents my triumphalism, my sense of the moral superiority of Christianity. I have written about this before, and it is not necessarily damning. We all judge deficient that which we find to be false.
These days, much of the world says this should not be done with religion. Fair enough. It is hard to weigh between metaphysical matters. Even so, is it not right to let each religion be tested according to its merits, its morals, and its history? Few issues are as important, once one believes in an eternity.
But set all that aside. When I translated the poem I was rejoicing in more than my conviction, I was rejoicing in my identity. When I shared it in the article I was not just encouraging fellow Christian readers with the example of brothers-in-faith. I was encouraging also an us-versus-them mentality.
The ‘them’ is everyone else. There is nothing in it particularly against Islam, but Islam is the context. In Egypt, Christians are surrounded. In America, we are media saturated. I wish to be of generous heart toward Muslims and their faith. This too, with the yearning expressed in the poem, is part of what I understand to be Christianity.
But is that yearning for the glory of God, or the wholeness of my fellow man? Too often, it is the yearning for a pat on the back, the placement on a pedestal. And who better to offer, than a forgiving, grieving woman turned into an icon? Do I truly care for her in the loss of her son or husband? Or do I care for the message we can make out of her?
This is haughtiness. This is arrogance. My friend knows me well, and I’m afraid he exposed me. At the least, he helped God reveal.
Perhaps a bit of Arabic and Egyptian context is helpful. The opening line of the poem, my friend explained, recalls a verse from the popular poet Gamal Bakheet. “Their fathers’ religion, what is its name?” was written at the time of the 2011 revolution, and is a thinly veiled jibe at the Muslim Brotherhood. (See his Arabic recital here.)
The poem speaks of “our fathers’ religion” in the context of sublime values. It praises not only Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism – and even the non-monotheistic religions. And it criticizes those outsiders who want to bring something more defined, more exclusive, and more politically instrumental to Egypt.
My friend has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood, but his father – of whom he speaks respectfully – was a regional leader.
There is another context, even more illustrative. “Your fathers’ religion” is a common insult in Egypt. You can say it to anyone, regardless of their faith, to curse them and their whole ancestry.
In this light, the Coptic poem dips deep into Egyptian waters. It says it will not curse – but even in mentioning the phrase it practically does. It is a redirect, yes, to speak instead of “my fathers’ religion.” But it is soaked in the context from which it emerges. How many Copts have heard this expression hurled by wayward Muslims?
So let us salute them all the more, when they rise above and bless those who go far beyond insult. But remember, and be chastened by, the inherent temptation to pride.
The Bible tells a story of Abraham coming back from a battle, reclaiming his goods taken during a regional war. Upon meeting a friendly king he receives a blessing and yields a tenth of the spoils.
New Testament commentary establishes this king as a prefiguration of Jesus, establishing his covenant of grace as superior to the covenant of law that would be developed through Abraham’s descendants.
For the non-Christian reader, allow the logic to be complicated. But note the verse concerning Abraham and the king. “And without doubt, the lesser person is blessed by the greater.”
How easy it is, when we rightly note and idealistically contemplate the near-impossible calling to bless the enemy, to put ourselves in that superior posture. How easy it is to imagine ourselves in a greater community.
How easy it is to be haughty.
Is the poem a healthy encouragement and impassioned exhortation, or an arrogant celebration and smug self-validation? Only the poet knows.
The translator? The question hits too close to home. It is better to lean toward repentance.
How many of us should consider similarly?