Crucifixion and Liberation in Cairo

Hisham Rizk
Hisham Rizk

Last summer the body of Hisham Rizk turned up in a Cairo morgue. The 19 year old graffiti activist had been missing for a week, and the official autopsy labeled him as having drowned in the Nile River.

No further information was given on the English language Ahram Online. But withholding comment only fuels speculation – rampant among many revolutionary activists – that the security apparatus is coming after them. Orchestrated to begin on Police Day, the January 25 revolution humiliated them but now is the time for payback. So goes the theory.

Rizk was a member of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street Graffiti Union, whose images are among the few to remain prominently displayed in Cairo. They are at the site of terrible clashes in November 2011, between protestors and police on a side-street off Tahrir. They contributed also to the rift between revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood, who did not participate in defense of the square.

The Brotherhood has since suffered its own terrible losses at the hand of police. Though these groups share a common enemy, there is little sympathy offered. During their year in power the Brotherhood marred revolutionary icons and dismissed the ongoing struggle with the military and security apparatus, with whom these activists say they readily accommodated.

News of Rizk’s death reminded me of my last visit to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, several weeks earlier. President Sisi was not yet elected, though his victory seemed inevitable. An interview subject postponed our meeting two hours, so I had lunch in McDonalds facing the ubiquitous graffiti.

To pass the time I alternated between reflecting on the images and reading ‘A Theology of Liberation,’ tucked away in by bag to read on the metro. It was written by Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Latin American priest who demanded that Christianity pursue justice for the poor, as reflected in the character of God. For Gutiérrez, the cross of Christ represented the total involvement of God in the suffering of mankind. As such, Jesus identified with all victims, and his resurrection presages their own, toward which his followers must strive.

Consider then the following picture, as seen behind the bars of McDonalds, while eating French fries and a cheeseburger from the Egyptian equivalent of the dollar menu:

Here is the image in question:

McDonalds GraffitiThe three crucified pairs of legs are covered by a belt bearing the name ‘Central Security,’ the revolutionary activists’ archenemy. What is not clear to me is what the symbolism means. Are these the victims of police, mocked and tagged with state insignia? Or have the police themselves been stripped, hung, and crucified? Does the image commemorate, or anticipate?

If the former, it is a remarkable statement of the power of Christian imagery within a revolutionary struggle of Muslim majority. Islam rejects the cross of Christ, believing instead God saved Jesus from the humiliation of crucifixion at the hands of his enemies. But the clashes and aftermath of Mohamed Mahmoud represent a losing moment for these activists. To depict their suffering they drew a cross.

To my knowledge there is no revolutionary graffiti of an empty tomb. They can hardly be blamed; they have had no victory. Initially pleased with the military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, many now see in President Sisi the restoration of the security state. But some Christian revolutionaries have spoken of how they comforted their Muslim colleagues with tales of Jesus. Struggle involves suffering, they said, and perhaps even death. But victory comes as God resurrects.

This is how most non-revolutionary Egyptian Christians view the emergence of President Sisi. They, with millions of Muslims beside, project upon him the image of savior. He is the answer to their prayers, the remover of the Muslim Brotherhood.

And now it is the Brotherhood which is now being crucified, though this particular image is not found on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Their opponents might cite a different Biblical parallel in the story of Esther. Following the failure of his plot to exterminate the Jews, Haman was hanged on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai.

Crucifixion GraffitiInstead, the graffiti interpretation is possible that it is security which receives its comeuppance. A triumphant revolutionary movement finally secures the reins of power and holds the police accountable for its crimes. Their execution is in order. Perhaps the picture draws on Islamic imagery: Crucifixion is among the punishments commanded for those who sow discord in the land.

Liberation theology anticipates such a grand reversal. Salvation is not simply from personal sin, but from the corruption of society which binds the poor in their place. Certain strands of this theology call for participation in the necessarily violent struggle to overthrow the powers-that-be.

Certainly those who fear God should be involved in the pursuit of justice. The question is how best to interpret justice, and where on the spectrum of participation a red line should be drawn.

But the alternate interpretations of the graffiti – whether identifying the Brotherhood or the security on the cross – should not be tolerated. Neither is consistent with the Jesus who cried out, ‘Father forgive them,’ according to the Biblical account. Jesus intended his crucifiers also to be beneficiaries of the liberation he offered.

For according to Christian theology, his crucifixion was the wisdom of God to put right the universe. This is not the case for Hisham Rizk, even if he drowned a martyr. It is not the case for any of the revolutionaries who have died for their cause. They represent a tragedy, a reminder of a world not yet put right. Whether one fights nobly, foolishly, or not at all, death is still the reality for everyone amid extensive injustice.

But to put it right, God expects his followers to work for justice in the face of death, unafraid. Such is the glory of a martyr, who will receive God’s compensation in reward of uncompromising faith. Many revolutionaries have been motivated by this promise.

The hope of liberation theology is that the promise is greater still. It is that through crucifixion resurrection comes. This is certainly true of personal Christian theology. It is only through death to self and identification with Christ on the cross that God’s life can inhabit an individual, in this world and the next. But is it true for society as well?

Here, liberation theology appears to be of two minds. For one, the answer is yes: We struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed and whether or not we die, we await God who will put right all things through our sacrifices.

For another, the answer is no: It is obvious our idealistic struggles fail, so we must in a sense crucify the other and wrest power from him. Then we can put right all things in view of what God has commanded.

The first is of faith, perhaps naïve. The second is of pragmatism, perhaps ungodly. Where in this analysis is Egypt?

Perhaps Sisi has put all things right. Perhaps he is struggling to do so. Perhaps he only pretends, putting all things wrong.

Let each Egyptian judge, mindful of the following: Faith must be lived in the world, but the ways of the world must not sideline the convictions of faith. Countenance no manipulation, and avoid no crucifixion.

Securing the first assures God’s blessing; enduring the second enables God’s liberation. Such is the hope of faith.

Even as I type I am filled with dread should such hope prove empty. If Hisham Rizk died an inopportune death, where is the liberation to follow? Is it found in his enduring images on Mohamed Mahmoud Street? Is there some collective cosmic tally to which he contributes?

Perhaps. Paul wrote that his sufferings filled up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. Jesus said his followers would do even greater works than himself. An earlier prophet summed up all requirements: Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly.

The world will not be put right until God puts it right. But God desires us to put it right in the meanwhile, flawed and incomplete our efforts will inevitably be.

Wherever Egypt is along the path of progress, she has not yet arrived. Blessings to all Egyptians who seek to move her forward.