I have been granted a privilege in being invited to take part in a series of interviews on Aghape TV. But I wonder if I may have gotten myself into trouble last night … you be the judge.
The topic of discussion was the challenges of the next 50 years for the Coptic Church in the Western world. Among many other challenges, I suggested to my genial and longsuffering interviewer that one of the challanges was going to be the clash between cultures in the area of how we do things in the Church.
In Egypt or Sudan, Christians are forced into certain practices just to survive. These practices might include bargaining a price down vehemently, negotiating ruthlessly to gain some sort of advantage in a contract, using contacts and influential friends to get things done, misrepresenting the truth in order to achieve a worthy goal, or the ever popular “koussa” (zucchini), a popular euphemism for a small bribe paid to attain a certain goal. People are driven to these practices, often just to survive, or to maintain their sanity.
I recall the true story of a relative in Egypt who was shuffled from government department to government department for the better part of an afternoon, trying to get some document signed and stamped. At the last office, a minor functionary told him that the office that was authorised to stamp his document was in fact not in Cairo, but in Alexandria, and that he would have to take it there. With some frustration he travelled to Alexandria the next day, only to endure another day of being shuffled from office to office, and finally be told that he had actually come to the wrong place. The right place was definitely the department he had started in in Cairo!
I don’t think I could survive in such a climate. The men in white coats would certainly be called on to deal with my reactions! So I have a great deal of sympathy for those who resort to a little ‘greasing of the palm’ to maintain their sanity, so long as they are simply getting what any sane society would normally take for granted, rather than trying to get some unfair or undeserved advantage or causing loss to another person.
The problem for us stems from any attempts to apply these strategies to how we do things in Church, and especially in Church in the Western world. I can see no place whatsoever for such practices within the Church, whether in Egypt, Sudan or Australia. Within the Church the love, compassion and trust of Christ should and must prevail, or else we are no different to those who without Christ. This is a very serious issue, and cuts to the very heart of who we are as Christians. Keep in mind that the Lord Christ reserved His harshest condemnation for those who were hypocrites, the Pharisees and scribes, for example, for although they possessed the knowledge of the truth, they practiced a lie by not being faithful to it.
What compounds the problem for us is that young Copts who have grown up with the Western sense of right and wrong are often seriously offended when they see their elders employing Egyptian-style tactics to get things done. Who of us with first generation parents has not at some time or other cringed when the parent they went shopping with insisted on bargaining down the fruitshop man to get a discount on the mangoes? Who of us has not been infuriated when the Coptic tradesman promised solemnly on his mother’s grave that he would be there first thing on Monday morning … two weeks ago?
But when it comes to employing these methods within the Church, that is something altogether more serious. The work of God must be done in accordance to the laws of God, and young Copts know this: they are not stupid. What is more, they see other Aussies, non-Copts and even non-Christians who are quite capable of living their lives happily without the need for lying or seeking unfair advantage or using contacts to gain advantage over others. So when they see people within the Church, even servants within the Church doing such things, they begin to question the Church that produced such people. If those people are respected within the Church community, that makes things even worse, for that means that their way of doing things is accepted and even honoured.
This creates a conflict in the mind of the youth that is very difficult to resolve. Does she stick to her principles, or to her Church?
To me it seems horrendous that our Church should ever subject its youth to such a dilemma. I recall with anxiety the words of Christ:
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble , it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
All of us who serve in any capacity whatsoever in the Church have a very serious responsibility to ensure that what we do is not just the right thing, but also done in the right way. If we in the Church are unable to adhere to the most basic ideals of honesty and integrity, how can we expect our congregation to do so in their own personal affairs, as is compulsory for the authentic Christian?
As Copts in Australia, we have the opportunity to pick out the best of both our cultures, Egyptian and Australian, and discard the worst of both cultures. There are many beautiful aspects of Egyptian culture that can enrich our lives, such as the warm and generous tradition of hospitality to others, the closeness and mutual support within the family unit, among many others. But the practices listed above seem to me to be quite clearly in the ‘worst’ category, and certainly, they are not in harmony with the words of the Bible that we all revere.
So what do you think. Am I going to get in hot water?