God, Egypt, and the Fear of Freedom

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I’m watching Cairo with mixed feelings.

For the most part, I find it all exhilarating. I agree with Thomas Jefferson about those “unalienable rights” embedded in our common humanity. And I agree with John F. Kennedy that we should “pay any price, bear any burden” to “ensure the survival and success of liberty.” Who couldn’t cheer the downfall of a lawless, autocratic regime such as that of Hosni Mubarak? But, on the other hand, I know why President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton so carefully parsed their words at the beginning of the uprising. After all, isn’t there something to be said for stability, for treaties kept? What if, as in other places, the fall of the dictator simply leads to a bloody terrorist theocracy?

I’m kind of ashamed of my ambivalence on this even as I recognize that this is a complicated foreign policy question. Callous realism and utopian idealism have both led to chaos and bloodshed, and it’s often hard to sort out the consequences of such world upheavals.

But my mixed feelings have pointed me this week back to a deeper, more primal ambivalence about a different sort of Egyptian freedom: my own. In so doing, I find myself sympathizing with those who, spiritually speaking, still want the stability of a strongman.

Egypt, after all, isn’t really a foreign country to those of us who are in Christ. We were there. The Exodus account, the story of God’s rescue of his people-in-exile from slavery to an Egyptian overlord, is our story too. The Apostle Paul tells us these were “our fathers” who came through the waters out of Egypt, and that the story of it all was “written down for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). And the story is about, among other things, the frightfulness of freedom.

Liberation is messy, especially liberation from sin and guilt and death and curse. Overturning a flesh-and-blood tyrant can lead to chaos, but overturning the primal spirit powers can seem even more anarchic, at first. Exodus is exhilarating and all, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’s terrifying to look back on waters filled with chariots and corpses. And it’s even scarier to see nothing but desert on the other side.

As soon as our ancestors came out of Egypt, they were confronted with fear. They immediately concluded that God had dragged them out into the desert to kill them. They were nostalgic about their days under tyranny, when at least they had meat and bread and cucumbers and melons (Ex. 16:3, Numb. 11:5).

Moreover, without a visible, palpable God (except, of course, for the fire by night and the cloud by day), the people wanted a deity they could touch and see, to be reassured that he would fight their enemies for them. They wanted a Pharaoh, so they melted together a calf made of gold. They were free, but their fear of freedom kept driving them back to tyranny, if only the tyranny of their own wills.

You and I were in the same situation. We believed ourselves to be free, because we did what we wanted, without ever considering that our desires themselves might be captive to a foreign power, a Pharaoh of the air who drove us along to our destruction (Eph. 2:2-3). When we encountered the truth that could make us free, initially all of us couldn’t bear to hear it (Jn. 8:43). We were comfortable with the situation as we knew it, with a dictator who allowed us the opportunity to pretend to be a puppet ruler of our own lives.

In the gospel, though, Jesus has bound the strong man and plundered his house (Lk. 11:21-22). Jesus understands the fear of instability. He warns that unless a new order fills the void, the kingdom of God, then the defeat of the powers is for nothing. When one spirit is sent off, another, with seven more just like it, rush in (Lk. 11:24-26). Only the kingdom of Christ can permanently form regime change.

But the freedom of the kingdom can be scary because the kingdom doesn’t come with signs to be perceived. It is, at first, more like the rushing of wind, the scattering of seed, the penetration of yeast. And, in the meantime, we always will be tempted to go back to the stability of our Egyptian autocracy, whether that was in self-indulgent hedonism or in self-righteous moralism. This is why the New Testament continually asks believers why we want to go back to our slavery to gods who were no gods (Gal. 4:9), back to useless rules and regulations that could never subdue our sin (Col. 2:20-23).

When I watch what’s happening in Cairo, I say two cheers for the revolution. I’m hoping for freedom, and praying against something worse. I’m praying for human rights and human dignity and religious liberty. But I do so knowing how unstable and risky it all seems in the meantime. Whenever one dictator falls, there are at least seven more ready to take his place.

As I pray for Egypt, I pray for my own continual tendency to slide back to the seeming order of tyranny, most especially the tyranny of my self.

The gospel grants us the freedom of the glory of the children of God. But, if I’m honest, I sometimes want the stability of slabbing out those strawy bricks. Perhaps you do too. The kingdom of God is dawning, but, sadly, sometimes it seems less frightening to stick with the Pharaoh you know.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).