Egypt’s Angels

Last night I had the privilege of potluck and conversation with an interfaith group that gathers in our area once a month or so. We have settled — for now — on the practice of checking in by telling our names and briefly stating the topic we’d like to engage for the evening.

One of us said he’d like to talk about angels; he is a retired Jewish man, an amazing storyteller. Several people offered their happy acquiescence to the idea; when I checked in, I said I’d like to talk about what’s happening in Egypt, and would love to see the connections we could draw between the two topics: angels and Egypt. This idea too found agreement. And we were off …

My storyteller friend spoke of his understanding of angels as messengers: that they came to us, found ways to communicate their messages (from God) to us, and went away again. They do not stay with us; they are not changed by us; they give their messages and are gone.

I was thinking about the Talmudic saying about angels, that every blade of grass has its angel bending over it, whispering “Grow, grow.” If every blade of grass has its angel, perhaps each of us does, too, hovering near to comfort, accompany, or help call us to our best and highest selves.

Walter Wink has a more corporate understanding of angels, explored in his book, The Powers That Be. He describes his wonder at noticing the letters to congregations in the Book of Revelation are addressed not to the congregations but to the congregation’s angel. “The angel seemed to be the corporate personality of the church, its ethos or spirit or essence.” In searching out other biblical references to corporate angels, he found references in the book of Daniel to the understanding that entire nations each had their angels, representing the nations in a celestial “court.” Cities and people had angels, too, he found.

Wink argued that this understanding meant that everything had a spiritual aspect, indeed, had Spirit at its core, and that “Everything is answerable to God.”

Not every institution’s spirit is benign, though. The spirit of a person, congregation or nation can become warped and twisted. In Wink’s words:

Corporations and governments are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased. They become “demonic.” … [And] if the demonic is the spirituality produced when the angel of an institution turns its back on its divine vocation, then I coud not only believe in the demonic, I could point to its presence in everyday life. And if the demonic arises when an angel deviates from its calling, then social change does not depend on casting out the demon, but recalling the angel to its divine task.

Thinking of these ideas, I spoke to the group about the pictures in my head, of Egyptians in the protests for freedom, each with their angel bending low, whispering, “Grow … grow toward freedom, the freedom to love each other and take care of each other and your nation.” I imagine an enormous angel, bending over Egypt, brooding like a mother hen, whispering “Careful now … peacefully now. You can do it. Wake up … come on.” And she’s in league with the other angels, whispering peaceful insurrection.

Fanciful? Perhaps. But certainly in line with the prophetic will expressed in one of this week’s texts, Isaiah 58:6 —

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

The yoke on Egypt’s people is breaking up right before our eyes, and our own leaders and the world press are struggling to keep up, as indicated in an article in this morning’s nytimes.com, which had an all-too apt typographical error:”…as high-powered diplomacy between Cairo and Washington unfolded at a blistering peace.”

(That typo has since been corrected; but as the pro-Mubarak supporters engage more violently, I am thinking the “error” may be true. It may indeed become a blistering peace ….)

In last night’s conversation, my friends usefully brought us back to (local) earth; one of us shared that although he watches the far-off events, he feels his energy is best spent closer to home, where he can see that he makes a tangible difference in the lives of the people around him.

Another reflected that if angels are messengers, then the Egyptians are our angels, rather than we being theirs. They are showing us that nonviolent, hopeful protest can bring change. The degree of our surprise and/or chagrin at this may be a sign of the level of arrogance on our part, blinding us to what we can learn from the rest of the world, and what it looks like when people finally decide they have had enough, and must force their government to respond, to change.

Hmm.

I am left wondering at the power of contagion that has operated so far in Egypt. First it was young men using social media to declare a protest. Then the Muslim Brotherhood got behind the young men, so as not to frighten those who would perceive and fear an Islamic revolution. Then the women began to come, too, bringing other family members, children, even.

The contagion of freedom … does it only spread when enough downward pressure is applied, such that the differences among people don’t matter as much as the oppression on them?

I am watching and listening to the angels of Egypt. May they recall the people and their government to their divine tasks. May they loosen the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke — and teach us to do the same.

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