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January 29, 2011
It was too early to turn on the radio -- Q was still asleep. But it was almost noon in Cairo, and I wondered what the news there might be. We fell asleep to two sounds, one very loud and one very quiet: angry Egyptians in the streets, burning cars and facing down riot police. And the careful tiptoeing of diplomats around the situation, the same gingerly response we heard last week in Tunisia. Yemen, too. Algeria. We hear nothing from Saudi Arabia, not yet -- who knows? But it is clear that a region long nicknamed "the powder keg" has, once again, ventured very near the flames. What will happen is anybody's guess.

Americans have a natural inclination toward those who wish to free themselves of despotic rule, a powerful mythology about ourselves and our origins that makes us reflexively sympathetic to them. And yet we know from experience that no revolution in the Middle East will be a copy of our revolution: different heritage, different culture, different lots of things. And this is a different century, for heaven's sake: think of how long it took for news of the difficulties in America to travel across the sea to the Court of St. James. And then think of Twitter.

And so what happens in Egypt or Tunisia might surprise those of us who have failed to give these events more than an approving glance -- and this is why the diplomats tiptoe. Just because both we and a new government in Egypt or Tunisia spring from revolutions does not mean that the newcomers will recognize us as natural allies. Quite the contrary: the new order in these countries may well be distinctly less welcoming to American interests than the old ones. Our old habit of propping up questionable leaders to the detriment of the local scene has backfired on us before, and it could do so again.

I think of the infant Christ, now a month old. Of his parents -- political nobodies, an ordinary couple who just wanted to raise their little boy in peace. Of how troubling it must have been to them when people reacted so strongly to their baby's presence -- when old Simeon broke into song in the temple, when foreign potentates showed up bearing gifts, how horrifying when they heard that other people's babies had been slaughtered for his sake. Yes, yes, I know that the December birthdate of Jesus was probably a later embellishment to the story, and I know that the Slaughter of the Innocents is not attested in any sources save Christian ones. But I am less interested in the journalistic truth of our story than in the story itself: a story of ordinary people caught in the web of world events they did not shape, seeking and finding God's guidance in the midst of them. We are not given a choice as to whether or not to be affected by politics -- like it or not, we will be.

And so I listen to the radio and wonder what will happen -- I, who have no worldly power to change a thing in the Middle East or anywhere else but my most immediate surroundings. And I remember that a Jesus in shackles told a very worldly ruler, one who had the power to put him to death, that his kingdom was not of this world. The categories of justice and power which the world recognizes are not the final word about either justice or power. This world is not the only world there is, nor is this life the only life. In it, we do not always win. Many people find it offensive when someone suggests that the country we love might not win every time, that we might not always be first. But nothing lasts forever. Nobody is first forever. We need not control everything. Indeed, we cannot.

What this means for our prayer about the world is similarly humbling: prayer is not incantation. It does not summon God to our side, a powerful but obedient genie who must do as we ask if we ask in the right way. Or if the right people ask. "God with us" does not mean "God on our side against someone else," as a political alliance with an earthly king would mean. Rather, it is a constant invitation to us to go deeper into what it might really mean to be righteous.

Nations will always act according to their perception of their own interests -- and that usually means their immediate interests, at that. This is the limitation of politics as moral yardstick -- standing alone, it makes a poor one. Righteousness is something different. We do not expect much of it in politics, yet we know that God is not far off from any human activity, and politics is nothing if not human.

And so we pray for God's nearness. And we wait for word.
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