Tunisia, the lessons of nonviolence, and 'messianism'

By Simon Barrow
February 1, 2011

AltMuslim, a very stimulating US/UK website that offers global perspectives on Muslim life, politics and culture, has been reflecting on some of the lessons of the largely unarmed revolution in Tunisia last month (January 2011).

What Mas'ood Cajee writes in his inspiring '10 lessons from our Tunisian brothers & sisters' is pretty much exactly what we would also want to say on Ekklesia, from a Christian perspective.

He declares:

1. Courage trumps tyranny. It just needs to be nurtured and kindled.

2. An authoritarian police state is no match for nonviolent people power. Ordinary people can change their own situation.

3. Expect no support from the “international community.” In fact, at best, expect ambivalence and a steady supply of tear gas canisters.

4. Change can occur without strapping explosives to torsos or vehicles, without bombs or bullets.

5. Change isn’t easy or free. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of martyrs, as Thomas Jefferson once said.

6. Once fear of the tyrant and his minions is removed from the hearts of the people, the game is up.

7. Once the tipping point comes, once the paradigm shift occurs, things change rapidly and suddenly. The mighty will fall quickly. The tiger, you will find out, was made of paper after all.

8. You don’t have to wait for a Great Leader. You don’t have to wait for the Messiah. You don’t have to wait for “Salaheddin.” You just need good grassroots organising and will. Mosques and churches help. New communication tools like mobile phones and social media also help.

9. Cruel, callous regimes won’t last forever. Regimes that limit freedoms and crush dreams certainly cannot last.

10. Tyrants are not immune from revolt. Revolts are not immune from tyranny either. The gains of change must be defended against chaos, anarchy, and other bad happenings.

This is accompanied by a wonderful picture of unarmed Muslim protesters prostrated in prayer, in contrast to a line of police officers adorned with shields and riot gear.

The original, full post (c) can be found here: http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/d/4142

Maybe the one footnote I would choose to add, as a Christian peacemaker, to that excellent series of lessons, concerns the nature of 'messianism' in Christianity - a faith that, after all, affirms Jesus Christ as Messiah ("the anointed one", or "the promised deliverer").

One strong strand of expectation in Jesus' own Jewish religious heritage concerning the Messiah was that of the 'kinsman redeemer'. That is, a leader who would (violently) deliver his people from oppression and establish a Godly political order on the basis of the temporal, nationalistic one.

Jesus, however, chose a different path: that of nonviolent refutation of the domineering 'powers that be'; gathering a voluntary association of change-makers, rather than creating a nationalist-religious state; practicing self-sacrificial love, instead of violent compulsion; and being willing to endure and absorb humiliating death, rather than inflict death on others.

To discover the heart of God at the core of these narratives concerning the life, death and risen life of Jesus is to find oneself challenging and rejecting many other human and religious constructions of 'messianism' (including those of the religious right), just as our Muslim friend is doing in this article in fact -- though perhaps in a way which would seem strange or even incomprehensible to a certain kind of Muslim conscience or conception of the divine.

Rightly understood, this difference provides material not for a war of words or for division among faithful Christians and Muslims, but for an important, constructive inter- and intra-faith conversation ('dialogue') over the theological grounds for human and social transformation.

Why intra-faith dialogue, also? Because a great number of Christians have rejected or marginalised the nonviolent, cruciform way of Jesus too, opting instead for imperial, war-justifying or 'other-despising' versions of Christianity which have, among other things, made enemies of those from other faith and non-faith traditions. (Jesus, by contrast, embraced the 'religious other', as well as those deemed 'unclean' by the religious authorities, creating a fresh solidarity among those pushed to the religious and political margins.)

Again, from the dissenting Christian position in which I live and move and have my being, the matter is well summed up by Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder, writing in 1972: ""That Christian pacifism which has a theological basis in the character of God and the work of Jesus Christ is one in which the calculating link between our obedience and ultimate efficacy has been broken, since the triumph of God comes through resurrection [the unconditional divine gift of life] and not through effective sovereignty or assured survival."

Thanks to the Anabaptist Network of South Africa (http://anisa.org.za/) for reminding me of that quotation from Yoder's The Politics of Jesus.

AltMuslim's full website is here: http://www.altmuslim.com/ They also have a weekly newsletter that you can subscribe to.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia

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