Where is my anchor?
For some inexplicable reasons, I was inspired to go to church last Saturday evening. Glad I did; it was an awesome experience and like to believe that I came back home, at least, a little bit more spiritually and morally uplifted. The few times I had been to the house of God, my church of choice had been and continues to be the Tewahdo church. I’m a firm believer that if I can’t find whatever I’m looking for in the church of my ancestors, then I know I can live without it. By choice and conviction, I’ve to be rooted in the Tewahdo church. Blessed are those who find whatever they are looking for in their own people, church, country, culture and history.
I’ve lived almost all of my life outside the country of my birth and know quite well the eternal feeling of alienation and the constant barrage of explicit and occasionally subtle reminders-and quite often by people who mean well-that you’re an outsider. After a while, one gets tired of hearing the three-words and grammatically incorrect sentence, “Where you from?” One can’t help but imagine what life would have been like had fate decided against life in exile. It is the saga of a life of a refugee spent wandering, always in love with the idea of home but never home itself. What has happened to the dream of exodus? Didn’t Wedi Tkul, the legendary Eritrean singer promise us “Hanti meAlti ala rahwa nre’ela.” Our own making or not, a ferocious erosion is rapidly changing the political, social and spiritual landscape we once intimately and comfortably knew. The old sign posts on the road of “NAmeta ab Adna yeraKbena” have disappeared and we seem to have lost our bearings. With more Eritreans fleeing the country in droves, it seems foolish to talk about “bzey hager kbret yelen,” “nrsti ywageala anisti”. A new guide for the perplexed is needed; a sort of a reevaluation of our values. The love and longing of the homeland most of us nostalgically cling to, reminds me of the poem I once read by Sir Walter Scott:
Breathes there the man with a soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said:
“This is my own, my native land”?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned,
From wondering on a foreign strand?
(A few lines down the poem, Sir Walter Scott says, “ab zeyAdu zhabtemen ab Tselmat z’sa’ese’en Hade.”)
Living, shall forfeit their renown;
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) from the poem, “Love of Country.”
In times of confusion and perplexity, the Tewahdo church and the proud history of Habesha civilization that sprouted from it has been my refuge. It has enabled me to curve a little identity in a world that is increasingly becoming homogenous by the juggernaut of globalization and cultural imperialism. In the words of the 16th century words of the monks of Debre Bizen, I say “nay abo nemen nhabo.” These were the church leaders that defended the history, beliefs and practices of the Tewahdo church against the attacks of the Jesuit Portuguese who came to Abyssinia to defend Christendom against the Jihad of Ahmed Gran. The “Yeabo haymanot” was the apologia of the Tewahdo church.
Nowhere is the conservatism of the Tewahdo church more evident in the North (Eritrea and Tigrai) than in the teachings of abune Ewostatewos, one of the earliest Christian victims of persecution who died in exile in Armenia on September 15, 1352. Abune Filipos, the founder of Debre Bizen was a student of abune Ewsotatewos. Debre Bizen is such an important part of the Tewahdo church that King Menelik had rightfully refused to sell it to the invading Italians. In today’s boundary lines both abunas would be from Tigrai: Ewsotatewos and Filipos. The Tigre, Tigrai, Tigrinya, Amhara and many others in our region’s history runs deep and these commonalities, if we could just wise up, could be the launching pad for future collaboration and the rebirth of a new Habesha age.
Dying Vs. Killing
It is a Saturday evening and necessity dictated that I had to go to the nearest non-Tewahdo church, a multi-cultural and non-denominational contemporary church. Needless to say, I felt at home; I liked the overall ambiance of the church, the music, the songs and the sermon. The music was not too loud; more like the Lutheran “mezmur” of our traditional Kenisha. The familiarity induced a familial easiness. Isn’t it interesting how the two words are etymologically rooted in one? It is a policy recommendation we quite often miss. Knowledge is what tears down any barriers between strangers. Familiarity makes us family.
After a few songs like “There is no God like our God,” the young preacher gave a riveting sermon and in an uncanny way, I felt I was listening to my own words; it was a message particularly tailored for me. The preacher spoke beautifully of the importance of courage in defending our freedom, families and faith. It was Winston Churchill who said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” If one has all human virtues but lacks courage, it means nothing. To illustrate this point, the preacher aptly-and partly contradicting himself-showed a clip from one of my all-time favorite movies, Braveheart, where William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, had to inspire his proud countrymen by saying, “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live-at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom.” Wallace fought and killed in the name of freedom and bringing an end to tyranny and his legacy/legend lives on.
The central message of the sermon was the importance of courage, overcoming adversities and success in life as Christians. Earlier in the morning, I had the opportunity to read the Book of Revelations and Ismael Omer Ali’s article, “Islamophobia, Islam and Terrorism” and most of it was fresh in my mind. Coincidentally, the young preacher had his main focus on verse 12:11 from the Book of Revelations: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” The first part speaks of the sacrifices Christ had made for humanity’s freedom; and, how in return, Christians need to live that freedom in the service of humanity and making the necessary sacrifices in Christ’s name; the second part is the testimony Christians must bear through evangelism and Christ-like way of living, and the last part is the courage Christians must have in living Christ’s example and die for their faith if the situation calls for it. So far so good; it’s what I expected and was so in tune with the whole thing. To my surprise, the young preacher proceeded to explain the difference between Christians and Muslims: the Muslims kill and Christians die for their faith. The overly simplistic, but pithy and catchy summation offered no context for a true comparison. In the absence of a meaningful context, the statement could only incite bias and hatred towards Muslims who make about 25% of the world population. The preacher further elaborated by pointing out that what is currently happening in the Middle East is not merely a political conflict but a spiritual battle between evil and good; and has to be understood in a wider Biblical perspective.
While writing my first book, “Hearts like Birds” I had spent countless hours learning about Islam and how it is viewed in the West and was not terribly surprised but, nevertheless, felt some pangs of discomfort. And before I could take stock of the whole thing, a minute or two later, the sermon came to an end which mercifully spared me the agony of wrestling with the moral conundrum of whether I should walk out or not. In fairness to the preacher, I also, in my limited understanding of the New Testament believe that Christ does not prescribe violence to effect change. He was as the New Testament says a prince of peace who shunned violence; a fact that made Mahatma Gandhi, the 20th century patron-saint of non-violence to utter these immortal words, “I like your Christ. I do not like you Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Almost 19 centuries later, Gandhi beautifully captured the essence of Christian evangelism as practiced by Christ and his early followers when he said, “I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” It is no coincidence that the first martyr of Christianity, Stephen died while praying for his killers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Christianity as preached and practiced by Christ is about loving yourself, God, neighbor, enemy and turning the other cheek for the peacemakers shall be the sons of God. But this is not the end of the story of Christianity. A loving heart must also be an understanding heart; and even an alleged enemy must be understood in the right context. A stranger is a friend to be made; an enemy is an ally to be made and all it takes to bring them to the fold of a family is familiarity. Let’s know each other and we shall see it’s good. Uttering half-truths devoid of any contexts are tantamount to falsehood and could be potentially dangerous to peace and harmonious coexistence.
The Violence in the Old Testament:
Christianity is not a completely new and independent religion but a continuation and fulfillment of the Old Testament and as such, and unlike Islam, it has fully embraced the scripture of the Old Testament as it is/was. Jewish and Christians could only differ on their interpretation of the Old Testament; they have the same books and bestow equal honor and respect on them. Islam, however, has its own book and, although it confers due respect on the New and Old Testaments, it has not embraced them as they are. Because of this fact, it is a lot easier for Muslims to talk about the corruption of the Bible without the provision of any proof. The Quran is the only proof they need. But since Christianity has not disowned the Old Testament, whatever applies to the Old Testament also applies to it. The Old Testament is full of violence, and any cursory reading of the Bible would make one question whether the gentle Jesus belongs there. Sometimes, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I even wonder if the God of the New Testament and the Old Testament is the same God. I’m well aware, this could easily be a problem with my understanding and not with the Bible, per’se. Some Christians who subscribe to Replacement Theology have been able to get away with this evident contradiction but I happen to belong to a Tewahdo church where the Old Testament comes alive on every occasion. Yeabo haymanot is why we circumcise, honor the Sabbath, and adhere to dietary regulations and many other Old Testament rituals. God’s covenants are not evolutionary but eternal; and this is one of the main Tewahdo creeds. It is therefore important to take a holistic approach on the Bible, both new and old Testaments to see where the Bible stands on violence. Does the Bible categorically shun violence or regulates its use? As far as the Old Testament is concerned, the Tewahdos were the Messianic Jews before the idea of Messianic Jewry came into existence. As long as the Old Testament is part of Christianity, it will be hypocritical to say that the Christian Bible does not prescribe violence at all. Jesus was preaching in a time and place where Rome, the most powerful empire in the world, was reigning supreme. The Quran and the Old Testament place heavy emphasis on justice. Can there be peace without justice?
Jesus, unlike Moses, Mohamed and many Old Testament figures was not a political leader. He was a rabbi; a spiritual and moral teacher who taught his followers to “give unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus through example has demonstrated that one does not have to live under a Christian regime to live a Christian life. Suffering and the burden of the cross is what was sought after and enthusiastically welcomed by early Christians. A Christian’s desire by choice and necessity is to partake in the passion of Christ. A Christian longs for the return of Christ to live in the City of God. While waiting for His return, blessed are those who are meek for they shall inherit the earth.
Moses and Mohammed on the other-hand, besides being moral and spiritual leaders were also political leaders, statesmen and founders who have to deal with the nuts and bolts of governance. It is a messy business that requires practical solutions to practical problems; a constant balancing act between idealism and realism. For the communities of Moses and Mohamed to thrive and succeed they have to live under Jewish and Islamic regimes respectively. The City of God on this earth under the rule of God’s anointed representatives is the highest aspirations for these two religions. Governance in its barest bone is, however, the same whether sanctioned by God or man. The first thing any government does is, of course, regulate the use of violence by its members-quite often taking full monopoly of it–in return for the provision of security, order and peace. Raising an army, police force and other public institutions are the primary duties of any political community. This is even truer for founders like Mohamed and Moses who had to legislate an all-encompassing constitution of life for the new community from ground up. Mohamed and Moses were founders who could not afford to make the distinction between the word and the sword. Rules are instruments of justice in any political community and rules without the policing force of swords are meaningless. It is for this reason why the Old Testament and Islam are heavily legalistic. Islam, etymologically speaking, means surrendering to the will of God to attain peace. Wherever there is justice, there is peace. Peace is the end result of justice; it does not necessarily mean an absence of war. It is a manifestation of a “balanced community” as the Quran says.
The question, for the purpose of this article, is not therefore whether the Old Testament and Islam prescribe the use of violence to effect change, but to know under what circumstance is the use of violence just and necessary. King Solomon (prophet Suleiman for the Muslims) was the wisest man in the Old Testament and according to him there is a season for everything: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh…” It is not therefore the use of violence that is inherently evil but how it is used and for what purpose. Both Judaism and Islam have made use of violence, conquest and war to expand their domain, subjugate others and to glorify God as sanctioned by their respective scriptures. Christendom has also committed similar acts but it has done so in utter contradiction of the New Testament. A non-Christian Hindu, Gandhi carefully examined the soul of Christianity (New Testament) and found it to be compatible with his non-violent moral teachings. Just as he said he loves Christ but not Christians, would Gandhi say similar thing about Mohamed and Moses? Would Gandhi love Mohamed and not Muslims? Would Gandhi love Moses and not Jews? And not many people can categorically argue that effecting change through non-violence is the only right way. I happen to believe that our Eritrean armed struggle was just and necessary but armed struggle in our present circumstances to effect democratic change is not necessary. We can effect an enduring change through the non-violent struggle. There was a time when we had to rise up in arms and it is now time to lay those arms down. We had a time to kill; it is a time to heal and healing is what we need now.
Eritrea must be and remain secular:
It is a lot easier–scripture-wise–for Christians, fundamentalist or not, to be secular than for Muslims and Jews. No wonder, we still have a Jewish state and many Islamic states. For all intents and purpose, Christians all over the world, due to religious freedom and diversity, have given up on the idea of a Christian state. This has been misconstrued by many Muslims as moral laxity and decadence, but the Christian West leads the world where it matters: philanthropy. When calamity strikes, it is the West that comes to the rescue of people regardless of their religious affiliation. In my reading of history, the Christian West is by far, with all its excesses and deficiencies, the most benevolent civilization that has done more good for the progress of humanity than all the rest. The rest of the world can learn a lot from the West. The West’s imperfections, short-comings in practice, lofty aspirations and ideals are what make it the ideal subject of inquiry. The West reflects the collective wisdom and folly of mankind. When the rest of the world grows up, it can be like the West or unlike it, but it will always have to use the West as a benchmark. The West stands tall because it stands on the shoulders of other giant empires that have faded from popular memory. The West has come to value freedom above all other values because it is the engine that drives the wheel-fortune of humanity. Democracy is the best way to institutionalize this freedom and secularism is part of this great Western heritage.
A Christian can make the distinction between Caesar and God and does not feel guilty about compromising Christianity. The good news is if a Jewish state can be a democracy so can an Islamic state. Iran has proven so. In a monolithic or less diverse society, secularization does not seem to be a prerequisite for democracy. Muslim societies in dar-al-Selam can practice democracy without having to give up their dream of Islamic States. But in dar-al-Suluh or in dar-al-Harb secularization is the only recipe for peace and coexistence and any legitimization of Jihadist groups in the name of tolerance and democracy is counter-productive. Tolerance for intolerant groups is foolish.
On Ismail Omer Ali:
At the risk of over-simplification, I think I can summarize Ismail Omer Ali’s article as follows: Muslims are as bad, if not less bad, than other non-Muslims when it comes to violence and killings, but, because of the media bias, Muslims are receiving disproportionate media coverage and consequently are wrongly associated with terrorism. It is an argument that we have heard before by other groups like African Americans. It is true that the media sensationalizes crimes committed by African Americans, but this bias, valid as it may be, does not explain why African Americans commit more crimes than other groups in light of their overall population numbers. An African American male has a 30% chance of serving jail. Similarly, most of the terrorist acts in the last few decades have been committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. I’m sure you can understand Ismail, why people, particularly in the West, would associate Islam with terrorism. The media bias you have mentioned contributes, but so does the terrorist acts themselves. Whatever bias one might have against the Tewahdo church, no one can accuse it or its members of any terrorist acts. Why? Because no crimes, no bias. Prejudice is never formed in a vacuum; it always has a grain of truth to it. What makes prejudice wrong is it always judges the general from the particular.
Ismail has provided, conveniently and unfairly I might add, a host of examples to show how particularly the Christian West was responsible for most of the killings of the 20th century. I’m not disputing the facts but to underscore that a similar case can be made against Islam and Muslims. For one, most of the killings in Europe took place among Christians themselves and most of the wars were not inspired by their religion. But it suffices to mention that about 80 million Hindus were killed in the name of Jihad between the 10th and 14th century when Islam was the dominant power in the world. I understand why you want to use the West, the most powerful civilization in the world, as a reference point but if you want to judge Islam you would also have to pick an era where Islam was in a similar position. Sadly, Islam is not a world power now and in the corridors of power where international policies are legislated, the voices of Muslims are shockingly absent. The G8 and G20 meetings seem to be an exclusive club of Western and Christian powers. The Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos are making progress but Muslims are lagging behind. I completely understand the frustration Muslims feel all over the world, but blaming others never solves the problem. Why do some Muslims, regardless of their number, resort to violence to effect change and even more so to terrorism? If you can answer that question, Ismail, you’ll greatly enhance our understanding. The media bias, at best, can only explain half the problem; you and other like-minded people have to provide the rest. And Ismail, I’ve read you for a long time and I’ve no doubt that you’re uniquely qualified to wrestle with this important issue. I’ve always admired and appreciated your intellectual courage, temperament and intellect.
Tewahdos got the bad end of the deal:
I want you to understand that the main events that shaped Christian Europe like the Crusades, the Reformation and the Protestant revolution mean nothing to me as a Tewahdo Christian. I’m not intellectually, spiritually, historically linked to it and as an outsider I tend to see it with no emotional attachment. As a non-Chalcedon church, the Tewahdos have not been influenced by Western Christianity till the advent of colonization. The Tewahdos’ experience with Western Christianity (White man’s burden) has not been that much different from that of Muslims. It is a history of humiliation, domination and subjugation and in Eritrea no religious group has suffered more than the Tewahdos. The Tewahdos were denied education and their church’s land was confiscated, thus rendering the church poor and without any resources to adopt modern educational system. Muslim Eritreans had access to education as early as 1904; Catholics and Protestants had their missionary and Italian schools but there was none for Tewahdos. If you ever wondered why they were not and are not many Tewahdos in leadership positions in Eritrea, this should give you a clue. If you think Muslims had/have the bad end of the deal, think again.
The EPLF for most of its existence was led by a Muslim while the ELF was invariably led by a Muslim. 36 out of the 71 leaders of the EPLF were Muslims- that is more than 50%. I agree that the EPLF was made predominantly of Christians, but that is also true in post 1975 ELF. The overwhelming majority of the 64k martyrs in our liberation struggle and the more than 70% of the dead in the 1998-2000 border war were/are also Christians. Christians are now the ones that are leaving the country in droves. You need to rethink your outdated ideas before hurling unfounded accusations towards Christian Eritreans. Christians Eritreans today are suffering in Eritrea, if not more, as much as their Muslim counterparts. I think you’re callously committing the sin of exaggeration to make your points. Most of the new organizations/movements, for example, that have sprouted recently have all agreed to work under the auspices of Eritrean National Commission for Democratic Change (ENCDC). I agree with you that we need to do a better job of preserving, maintaining and enhancing our exemplary coexistence. We need more inter-faith, intra-faith dialogue; the solution is always more and not on less of it.
Nhnan Elamana is a model:
Some people have developed a habit of badmouthing Nhnan Elmanan . Let me spell it out clearly and simply: it is one of the best documents I’ve ever read in Eritrean political literature. It is a book that needs to be taught in every Eritrean college. It is a short book that meaningfully narrates the “we and our objectives,” the prevailing circumstances that precipitated secession and the limited choices the new organization had, deficiencies, how the organization wanted to be viewed and most of all where it was heading and how it wants to realize the democratic and national aspirations of the Eritrean people. It doesn’t have any implicit or explicit attack on Islam or Muslims and I cannot fathom why few people are condemning this great book. Perhaps, it takes one bigot to recognize another but I’ve not found anything thing which is remotely bigoted or biased towards any Eritrean group. Bigotry can sometimes blind one to recognize one’s own bigotry and there is a slight chance I might be guilty of that, although, I doubt it. I’ve read it more than three times and every time I finish reading it I come out with more respect and admiration for the two young men who wrote it: Isaias Afwerki and Mesfin Hagos. I recommend that the Eritrean opposition come up with its own version of Nhnan Elamanan.