“This is normal for us”
Look at this photo and say those words out loud. This uncomfortable and chilling reality lived by many in the Coptic community in response to the attack on two Coptic Churches in Egypt today, which happens to be Palm Sunday, around the world. These are the words spoken by a people who have been experiencing this type of violence on more than one occasion. Today’s attack comes soon after ISIS announced its intentions to wage a full scale attack against Egypt’s Christians. The cathedral bombing in December, and the forced exodus of Christians from Sinai in February are just a few of the targeted acts of violence that have lead up to today’s attacks.
In Egypt, extremists have decided that the high holy days of Coptic Christians are the perfect moments to slaughter their ‘favorite prey’. This is especially cruel, in the sense that these are the moments where victims are most vulnerable. In their churches, they arrive with their hearts open to receive blessings from above and from each other. As a Copt myself, I was taught many things about what it means to be in church.I was taught that church is where life should be different. While the streets are places to keep our guards up, it’s in our churches that we are to take off our masks and lower our defenses. It’s a place where we are to welcome strangers, and love our enemies. We are commanded about halfway through the Sunday service to “greet each other with a holy kiss”; a time where we all exchange a greeting (a custom dating back to the time of the Apostles). This is a time for reconciliation, even with those who may have offended us for some petty (or legitimate) reason weeks before. Sunday in church is a sacred space where we can just connect with each other and with a higher power, in devotion, prayer, and in sacramental life.
After services are over, this connection continues as we share instant coffee and traditional Egyptian foods like ful medammis sandwiches. But while this may appear more casual, it is no less sacred. While we are outside of stone altars made by hands, we connect as human sanctuaries filled with life. But while we hold these ideals, we often fall very short. We are imperfect beings trying to connect with the best of ourselves, and we do so with all our flaws and shortcomings. But, however imperfect we are, this is the intention and context in which our people gather on Sundays, on holidays, and most other special occasions, to live out this greater existence that we’ve become a part of, by birth or otherwise. This is not unique to the Coptic experience. It is why all people who practice various faith traditions will gather with their fellow believers to work out their attempt to understand the unknowable
And it absolutely sickens me, that this is the place, these are the people, and these are the moments that have been chosen by these extremists, to carry out attacks against humanity. This strategy is nothing short of criminal, cowardly, and psychotic.
“This is normal for us”
Is this a statement born out of callousness or acceptance? And frankly who am I or who is anyone to judge the honest reactions and feelings of people who are living amongst this kind of violence. In the context where this has become commonplace, what should the response be? In a context where an elderly woman is stripped and paraded around a village, without repercussions or justice, how else could someone respond? A good friend asked me, “what do Copts think the solution is?” And I’m not sure I have an answer to that either. I think that being American, part of a post-revolutionary experience, we have a legacy of activism and freedom-seeking that sets the tone of how we believe things should be.
Among those Egyptians I have spoken to, both in the USA and abroad, we don’t speak about solutions. Those who survive are thankful to be alive but are deeply mourning not only for those they may have known, but for the loss of life, the blood-soaked pews, and the innocent men, women, and children, whose lives have been so brutally cut short. Many relate deeply (and proudly) to the expected suffering and trials that people will have to face, especially people of faith. Many do not think about fighting back. While they wish this reality were different, these moments are not resisted. Egyptians today, as well as thousands of years ago, will share this idea that the afterlife is just as, and even sometimes more important than the current one. This belief in a continuation of our story after death, is also a driving force in how our people are responding to today’s attacks. Many of my own family members who live close to one of the sites of the attacks, are responding in love and forgiveness. This is our history and this is where we come from. Yes, we are a people who have a legacy that is countless and boundless. We have been amongst the greatest of nations, with invaluable contributions to society, and we have a very violent history filled with loss and being conquered, and in the most brutal moments of our history where we have fallen victim to foreign powers who sought to subdue us, we tell the stories of courage and hope, of the thousands of men, women, and even children who never gave up in the face of their greatest fears. Our legacy is not just pyramids, hieroglyphics and the various wonders showcased on television documentaries; our legacy is the ability to stand strong in the face of our own mortality, and to stand hopeful with our necks against the sword.
But even in the presence of this legacy of which I’m deeply proud of, I do believe that this is not normal, nor should it ever be. No person deserves to live under this kind of threat to their safety. And if I do believe that this should not be normal, then my actions have to line up with this belief. My friend reminded me today that “faith without works is dead”. So what should our actions be in response to these tragic events?
“This is normal for THEM”
In America, when we hear reports of attacks coming out of Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm, we are shocked. When we hear reports of bombings and violence coming out of Baghdad, Cairo, and Islamabad, I think we aren’t as shaken. It’s not because American’s are callous and insensitive to others, but I think it comes from the fact that we have an innate need to find ways to feel safe. If we can separate ourselves culturally, maybe the terrifying moments we witness on the news are less likely to affect our day to day. The more likely we are to be affected, the greater the response.
Yet at the same time, I’ve been so moved by people in the USA, who have spoken out on behalf of refugees and it reminds me that goodness can be found in everyone; that we can find compassion across cultural barriers. Love has to go beyond barriers. Radically. Love has to be shared in between communities. The victims today were not all the same. In Alexandria, the bomber detonated his device outside the church doors, killing almost a dozen people, including a doorman and two muslim police-women. These victims were of different genders, religions, social classes. Each doing the same thing, protecting a house of worship. I only hope we can stretch these “muscles” of empathy to allow for a greater capacity to love and care for those who are most different from us, otherwise what kind of future can we expect?
“This IS normal for (all of) us”
What happened in Egypt today reflects the human condition. We cannot separate ourselves from what happened in Egypt because it has already been happening everywhere around the world and without discrimination. It is the same story, generation after generation. The only differences are the players and the victims. Look at the Ntarama Massacre in Rwanda, The Yazidi Sinjar Massacre in 2014, The Orlando gay club shooting in 2016, the Emmanuel Church Massacre in South Carolina. We should not believe that it is enough just to say how awful this situation is, and we absolutely cannot pretend that this only happens somewhere else, to someone else. And when it does happen to us, we cannot separate ourselves from all those who have been needlessly massacred before us.
In U2’s iconic song, after which this article is named, we hear about one of many bloody Sundays in the history of Northern Ireland. The violence between Protestants and Catholics there has been described as cyclical, and spanning several generations; a bloody legacy without end. One of these Sundays in particular became the subject of a very expensive investigation by the British government, which lead to the great Power actually taking responsibility for their brutal actions:
The firing by soldiers… on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury… The immediate responsibility for the deaths and injuries on Bloody Sunday lies with those members of Support Company whose unjustifiable firing was the cause of those deaths and injuries. – Excerpt from The Bloody Sunday Inquiry
There was no violence that erupted after this announcement. Many believe this particular cycle is over. And if so, what is possible for the rest of us?
Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week (or “Passion Week”, by some), a 7 day journey filled with readings, chants, and various traditions commemorating the last week of Christ’s life on earth before crucifixion. During this week I ask myself many questions. What is the best way to honor the fallen and the innocent? What is our response to the perpetrators of such violence? We must collectively meditate and lean into these questions, if these lives are not to have been taken in vain. It is in this collective space that I could possibly fathom some sort of hope for our future.
But for now, until the healing begins, I enter this Passion Week in a broken state, for all those who fall to violence, for all those who perpetuate such violence, and the likelihood of even more violent events ahead of us. But to be broken, sometimes is the most honest response. But in the silence, I will continue to cling to hope. I will leave you all with a familiar quote and an unfamiliar song.
I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil – J.R.R Tolkien
From the Coptic Psalm chanted during Passion Week:
Also published on Medium.