“Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.” That famous and oft-repeated statement best describes the caution emanating from many countries watching Egypt’s unfolding turmoil. This caution rightly results from the complexity of the situation. Egypt’s present government is far from democratic. It contains only one viable political party and gives few protections to its people to live and speak freely. Many have been arrested or received other terrible treatment by the government in response to their lifestyles or words. Through all of the noise of the current protest, a common link appears to be the hope for a freer, more populist state.
However, what kind of regime actually would come out of this revolution, a revolution often bordering on chaos? Would it be reasonably functional and moderate? Or would the new regime descend into anarchy and oppression? What will be a new government’s cooperation in combating terrorism or treatment of our other allies such as Israel? What will be the treatment of religious minorities, including Christians? One important reason for America’s tepid support of Mubarak up until this time came from worries that the alternatives risked too much. With the safety and lives of millions in the balance, one sees the gravity of the decisions being made. President Obama’s response has been a solid defense of democracy, though his actions reveal how the complexity of the situation can produce strong words but little action. America simply is not sure what is the right level of response. Such lack of surety is understandable.
As Christians, the intricacies and significance of the situation should encourage humility. While better and worse choices exist, determining and implementing the best possible action is far from obvious. We should take these complexities into account when judging the actions of world leaders, including our own. We should further remember God’s sovereignty, taking comfort that despite the incompleteness of our knowledge and impurity of our wills, God will use the leaders and nations of the world to realize His plans.
The difficulties should further drive us to prayer. The Bible consistently calls on us to pray for our leaders and for the good within the political realm. Even more, we should pray that God will not just protect the Christians who already reside in Egypt but will do a work in the Muslim community. A move to democracy often entails greater religious freedom. Perhaps God will use these means to bring many to himself.
Finally, we can use the possibility of changing regimes to move beyond discussing particular policies and toward more fundamental political considerations. Democracy currently holds the moral high ground as far as legitimate regimes. Monarchy and oligarchy—while still operating in pockets of the world increasingly keep power by fear and not loyalty. While Scripture does not uphold a particular type of state, applying Biblical principles to democracy is especially useful considering its increasing influence.
Democracy finds its basis in the concept of equality. Equality entails that one man may not justly rule over another except by the other’s consent. But what is the ultimate basis and nature of this equality? Humans certainly do not possess equal intellect, strength, or moral disposition. As Tim Keller persuasively (though not originally) argues in Generous Justice, Christianity can offer the concept of the imago dei—the image of God—as the ultimate source of equality. Humanity is created in the image of the Creator. This common image allows for the many manifest distinctions among us while still ascribing to each a common dignity.
This common dignity further shows that a just democracy will not be the pure will of the majority. As we think about what a just regime would look like in Egypt, we must remember that a tyranny can take the form of one man or of 51% of the population. Absolute majority rule could result in terrible actions toward minority populations who cannot defend themselves at the ballot box. But if democracy’s legitimacy is based on the inherent, equal dignity of each individual, then a vote for oppression is itself illegitimate. For oppression loses all power by undermining the very dignity that underscores democratic majority rule. You cannot use the result of equality—majority rule—to destroy that equality. Our respect for and care-taking of others should be lived out in light of the truth of the equal image of God.
Finally, Christianity can lower the intensity and hence the danger of politics. It does so in several ways. First, it claims space and identity for the individual apart from the political realm. According to the Bible, we are more than mere citizens. We are also members of families and of the Church. These institutions do not owe their existence to the state but are directly ordained by God. Second, Christianity declares that politics is a mere passing entity whose human ends are far from ultimate. Human beings find their ultimate end in God, something accomplished through the Church and not through politics. These principles show how losing an election is not a cause for despair or violence. It shows how our ultimate meaning does not come from a national or political identity. It reveals the Church’s non-political origins and thus creates space for religious tolerance and freedom. All of these understandings lower the intensity and importance of politics while still recognizing its legitimate, crucial place in the world today. It allows Christians to be good citizens but not only citizens.
Once again, these conversations do not necessitate accepting democracy as the only legitimate form of government. They do recognize how Christian principles can make democracy better. As we watch and pray for the situation in Egypt, let us seek to also make our own political experience more honoring to Christ. Furthermore, let us pray for God to do mighty things in Egypt and the Arab world. Regardless of how we wish political events to develop, this is something to wish for without reservation.