Emigration out of Egypt only began in earnest in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There were a number of factors that drove the Egyptian people, hitherto quite patriotic and devoted to their native land, to leave it in search of greener pastures.
Perhaps the main factor was economic. By the late 1960’s, the socialist reforms of President Gamal Abdel Nasser had squeezed the life out of many a middle class businessman and made it impossible for them to maintain their standard of living. Another factor was the opening up of the world that came with the advance of technology. Television and movies brought new cultures into the field of vision of the average Egyptian, particularly western culture with its motorcars and soft drinks and apparently unlimited potential for personal development. The advent of affordable and safe air travel also removed the obstacle of the three month ocean voyage that had until then been the only feasible way to emigrate.
It is little wonder that the countries that received the largest numbers of Coptic immigrants – USA, Canada and Australia – were the countries that seemed to offer the most of what they yearned for: freedom of religion, economic and educational opportunities, and social sophistication.
It is a fact of history that most immigrant Copts came from the upwardly mobile middle classes. The upper classes had no reason to emigrate and the lower classes did not have enough money to emigrate. Until today, in these diasporic lands, the Coptic population has a disproportionately high number of professionals, even if the more recent immigrants have been unable to find work within their own profession. This is usually seen as a very good thing, something to boast of, but it also has its downside.
For example, the pressure that Coptic parents exert on their children to succeed in their studies is legendary. I wrote some weeks ago about the Coptic community’s view that if you don’t become one of the “Big Four”: a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer, then you have pretty much failed in life. That was slightly tongue in cheek; but only slightly. Now it is true that this kind of pressure often does lead to our kids working very hard at their studies and achieving quite highly, but it is also true that many of them suffer badly, whether emotionally, psychologically or spiritually from the experience. And what of all those people who ‘fail’ this unrealistically high standard? What of the fact that there are far more gifts and talents than this limited bunch, and far more to life than making money?
Another drawback is the danger of elitism. Any community within a society that sees itself as somehow better than the rest of society is in grave danger of falling into a superiority complex. And to be frank, this just is not Christian! Feelings of superiority are used all the time in our community for the noble task of producing successful future generations. How many times in their life does the young Copt hear this: “Don’t copy what those people are doing. They’re bad people. We’re not like them!”
I like the first part of that advice. The Bible tells us not to conform to the ways of the world, but to be different (Romans 12:2). But the reason the Bible gives us is certainly not that we are better than those who live in the world! If anything, we are warned to remember that we are all just as weak and susceptible to sin deep down as anyone else! (Romans 11:30, Ephesians 2:11-13). No, our reason for not copying others is because we have met Christ, and you cannot remain unchanged once that happens. He changes us, not because we are better than others, but because we have understood that we are worse. There is no room here for any feelings of superiority.
Herein lies the danger. “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” said Jesus (Mark 10:23). As immigrants or the children of immigrants, we have come to our new homelands to strive for a better life for ourselves and for our children. Yet if we succeed in this very striving, we run the grave risk of losing our place in the Kingdom of Heaven!
Perhaps the solution lies in not being drawn into the ‘game’ of modern western society. I am always stunned (and a little repulsed, frankly) by the underlying premise in virtually every single American movie or TV show I have ever seen: that to be valuable, you must achieve something, and make something of yourself. These stories are usually about someone who has failed to make something of themselves; their family is ashamed of them, and they are ashamed of themselves, but by the end, they come through and prove themselves by scoring the winning touchdown or getting that promotion. Sound familiar?
If you had a view of life that was firmly founded in the Bible, it should sound anything but familiar! It should in fact trouble you. Since when has getting a promotion been a priority for Christ? When did Jesus ever tell His followers that they had to make something of themselves in order to be valuable? His message was the exact opposite of this: we are valuable not because of anything we can take credit for, but only because God loves us. He loves us not because we are lovable, but because He is Love. THIS is where the Christian draws their sense of self-worth and value.
That doesn’t stop the Christian from using the talents God has given them to achieve things. Nor does it stop the Christian from rejoicing in this success. But the big issue here is what is the priority? Is my priority to achieve above all else? Or is it to live with God above all else? If I strive for the first, I lose the second. But if I strive for the second, I will often also win the first. And even if I don’t, it matters little: I will still be content with my life.
Australian society is a lot less success-driven than American society (and so say everyone I’ve met who lives in America and visits Australia). But we are moving slowly in that direction over the years. I am probably betraying my Australian bias here, when I say that Australian society is far more relaxed about life. The average Australian is proud of what they can achieve, but they also take great pride in achieving it with as little effort and as little fuss as possible. And if they fail, it is no big deal – for that is not the source of their sense of self-worth. Life is too short to waste stressing about stuff like that.
Further, Australia is (supposedly) a classless society. In theory at least, the Prime Minister may hobnob with a bricklayer on absolutely equal terms. This too provides some protection for the successful Christian from the temptation to feel superior to others.
So we are left with a number of questions:
Where do you derive your sense of self-worth?
What is it in your life that makes you feel good about yourself?
Must your feeling good about yourself come from putting others down?
Does your happiness come from things that are eternal, or temporary?
And is it in line with the Gospel?