The Common Good

On Scripture: From Egypt to South Africa, We Are Each Other’s Keepers

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, has been in the hospital for more than two months. Nearly 20 years after his election South Africa remains, despite myriad troubles, a stable, multiracial, and democratic country.

Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. Photo courtesy nebedaay/flickr.com
Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square. Photo courtesy nebedaay/flickr.com

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Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt after the world-changing protests in Tahrir Square led to the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, has been out of office, by way of military coup, for more than one month. He is now being held by the military under house arrest at an undisclosed location, and the mere mention of his name divides the citizens of Egypt. This division has led to the death of more tha five hundred Morsi supporters this week alone. In response, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters have attacked dozens of Coptic Christian Churches.

As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze — and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration — it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today). The peaceful transition and election of President Mandela was hailed by as a miracle by religious and nonreligious alike. Looking at the events in Egypt over the last month, indeed over the last half century, makes one believe that only a miracle could establish a truly just peace in Egypt. For some, this may drive them to despair. For others, it may inspire hope that if miracles once happened on Africa’s southern tip that they might happen on its northeastern corner as well.

How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”

Cain, Abel, and Democratic Politics

The first 11 chapters of the biblical book of Genesis describe the primeval creation of the world. In those brief chapters we are told that our world of ecological and cultural diversity came into being through the loving work of God. In those few stories we find the first biblical use of the word “sin.” Perhaps surprisingly, the first instance of that word does not occur in the famous story of Adam, Eve, a serpent, and a tantalizing piece of fruit. No, the first time the Bible uses the word “sin” is in Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel. In that story Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel. In this moment of sibling rivalry God speaks to Cain and says, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

As the story goes, Cain does not heed God’s warning and kills his brother Abel. God then asks Cain if he knows where his brother is, and Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”

Nelson Mandela understood this. In concluding his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela reflects on his life and says:

Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the twenty-seven years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed…I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity…For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Out of this conviction — that one’s freedom is tied to everyone’s freedom and that one’s humanity is tied to everyone’s humanity — Mandela forgave his political enemies and invited them to join him in building a new nation in which everyone is truly free because everyone lives in a way that “enhances the freedom of others.”

It is now clear that Morsi was unable to cast such a vision. Those skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood never lost their skepticism, and Morsi’s actions as president encouraged those who did not support him to doubt that they would ever be included in the future of their nation. And, sadly, the military leadership, simply by virtue of how it came to power and how it has treated Morsi and his supporters since taking control of the nation, has thus far proven unable to cast and embody a political vision that will enable its citizens to be one another’s keepers. Hope seems to be dead. But hope and history have surprised us before.

From ancient times humans have desired to live as if we are not each other’s keepers, and history is the record of the violence that has resulted. Some read that history and conclude that violence is simply the way politics works, and they see the events in Egypt as evidence of this belief. However, there have been times when people have recognized their interdependence in ways that Cain was unable. We often refer to those times as “miracles.” In reality, they were the times when we were most human. In these troublesome times we should remember that Africa is the birthplace of humanity, and Egypt is the place out of which the most human of humans, the Prince of Peace, once came. It has given us miracles before. Indeed, it seemed to give us one just a year ago. Here’s to hoping that it has another miracle to give to the world.

James W. McCarty III is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Society at Emory University. He is writing his dissertation on the ethics of transitional justice and political reconciliation, and has published on these topics in journals of law, theology, and religion. Via Odyssey Networks.

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