If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water;
stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
Before each person are life and death,
and whichever one chooses will be given.
For great is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power and sees everything;
his eyes are on those who fear him,
and he knows every human action.
He has not commanded anyone to be wicked,
and he has not given anyone permission to sin.
Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No';
anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew 5: 37
I was in Egypt just before the revolution started. I had no idea that things would flare up the way they have. Traveling with other clergy and then on my own, I saw the beauty and energy of that nation. We arrived just after the Coptic tragedy of New Year's Day and learned that Muslims, including high profile Imams, had attended the January 7th Christmas worship services with the Coptic communities -- literally putting themselves in harm's way as they sat in pews to protect Christians.
There's a lot to like about Egypt -- its long history, culture, archeology and energy. To be with busy and hardworking Egyptian entrepreneurs is to witness firsthand the can-do attitude and "put the customer first" approach that makes it obvious that they want to grow their business -- beginning with you!
And it's also easy to see the poverty. It's hard not to be hit hard by the realities of the disparity between the haves and have-nots. You hear talk about unemployment -- that 40 percent of the younger people who want to work have no jobs. People work hard for small salaries. You can feel the unrest that festers when people sense that their hope, that their wanting to believe they have a future, could evaporate suddenly.
But most people we have seen and heard during the last few revolutionary weeks have not given up hope. They have channeled their frustrations and anger into protest -- most of it not violent. They have been non-violent even when they have been attacked by thugs or by government officials. The people in power -- who have the most to lose if things change -- have tried all the old tricks to undermine reform.
No wonder one of the most dangerous aspects of America's relationship with Egypt right now is how what we say is heard. The situation is complex. Chaos and violence could be deeply injurious to the emerging nation. But words that obfuscate the facts or stall addressing the real issues are understandably met with great hostility. Sure -- you don't fly the plane until you know where you want to land it. Yet, expecting people to be "patient" when they have been oppressed, lied to and tricked time and again, is simply insulting and will backfire.
I actually trust the American officials charged with responsibilities in our diplomatic relationship with Egypt -- obviously, we have our own interests as a top priority. I know some of them and know how much they also care about Egypt and about freedom. So it always pains me when the allegations and distrust appear to be a result of the misuse or misunderstanding of words, not the substance of positions.
I think Jesus' teaching, "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No,'" is helpful. That kind of simple clarity is not only good for us and our relationship to each other; it can also frame how we embrace what it means to be a child of God. Again and again the Biblical narratives remind us that we are making choices, and that our words not only matter but often determine our direction and outcomes as well. H.G. Wells said, "I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there." Perhaps more often the choices will not be so dramatic, profound or impactful. But there will be times -- and often the "small choices" are cumulative -- when the choice before us is between life and death -- at least spiritually. George Orwell wrote in his essay "Politics and the English Language," that "political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." We can do better than that. And Egypt deserves better than that.