What Price Democracy?

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the Crimean War. If you want to know why, the answer lies in what is happening in the Ukraine. The situation there is complex and disturbing, with implications for both Western Europe and Russia. Sometimes policy-makers are aware of history; sometimes they aren’t; but those who disregard history altogether tend to repeat the mistakes their predecessors made. I have a hunch we may be about to do exactly that with regard to the Ukraine.

In the West we have tendency to make an idol of democracy, but that sometimes leads us to applaud essentially undemocratic processes. I myself believe that democracy is the best form of government available to us, but I think we are often selective about the value we place on other people’s democracies. The policies of the Muslim Brotherhood do not appeal to me personally, but as a democrat, I am ambivalent about the situation in Egypt. Was Mr Morsi legitimately elected or not; and if he was, shouldn’t the West be questioning the way in which he was removed from power? Had he become a tyrant? If so, what are the grounds for thinking that, and are they sufficient to justify subsequent events? In the Ukraine we have an analogous situation. If we take all our ideas from Kiev we may take one view, but the further East we go, the more another takes shape.

At times like these we can feel confused and completely powerless, forgetting that, in fact, we are far from powerless. We can invoke the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit; but if we are to do that, it cannot be through some throw-away utterance that takes two minutes of our time and leaves not a ripple on the surface of our thoughts and feelings. Prayer is hard work; and to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit into a complicated and dangerous situation means to pray with all our heart, mind and soul. Are we ready to do that? Or, as I ask above, what price democracy?


Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of our community’s foundation and I had intended one of those joyful little posts in which one enumerates the many blessings the community has received over the years, not least the fact that David is still around when many a monastic Goliath has bitten the dust. Then I read of the closure of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. The monks are still there, as they have been since Justinian’s time, but they have closed their doors to visitors because of the dangerous situation in that part of Egypt and now the livelihood of the town that has grown up around them and the 400 workers they themselves employ has been put at risk. It suddenly seemed heartless to proclaim the mirabilia Dei we have experienced when others are suffering.

That, of course, is a perennial problem. Today, as we pray and fast for peace in Syria and the Middle East, we in the West are very conscious of how privileged we are to enjoy the blessings of peace and stability. There are even signs that the economy may be improving (though I have some doubts about how equally that will be experienced). In short, we pray from a position of plenty for those in a position of want and that is troubling, for it feels top-down, not quite in keeping with the solidarity we think we should feel. The important thing to remember, as always, is that we pray as we can, from where we are, which is not necessarily where we would like to be.

There is a wide divergence of opinion about Western military intervention in Syria, but there can be no disagreement about the desirability of peace. How we attain it, I do not know; but I sense that for peace to be achieved internationally, there must first be peace in our own hearts. So, if today we want to pray for peace in Syria, we must first cleanse our own hearts of every un-peace. We must apologize for the wrongs we have done others and do our best to put right every act of violence or aggression of which we have been guilty. The unkind word, the stony face, the clenched fist, they are all destroyers, no less than bombs or bullets.

‘Peace comes dropping slow,’ wrote Yeats. We need the drip-drip of peace to wear away everything that puts up barriers between human beings. Ultimately, if we do not pursue peace, we shall be destroyed, too.



A Terrible and Bitter Irony

There is a terrible and bitter irony in the fact that Egypt, the land to which Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to find refuge from the murderous pursuit of Herod, should today stand as a land of blood in which Christians are being persecuted unmercifully. The struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood grows every day more violent. The crackdown on the protest camps has cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people.

So today, instead of writing about the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I would simply ask your prayers for the people of Egypt. Perhaps those of you who have a devotion to Our Lady as Mother of God would join me in asking her intercession: for peace, for the dying, for all her sons and daughters.

Note: if you would like to read something about Catholic devotion to Mary, this short post may be useful.


Fear of the Unknown

Yesterday I learned that I shall soon be having some surgery done, but because I have sarcoidosis (a funny disease which, among other things, makes breathing more difficult), it won’t be possible to have a general anaesthetic. Most of me is quite relaxed and happy about that. It’s just how it is. Part of me has gone into imaginative overdrive and envisioned all kinds of horrors which I won’t detail here. The truth is, I really don’t know what to expect and that is precisely when fear takes hold.

We don’t know what to expect in Egypt. Already the prophets of doom are stalking the land, talking about the death of democracy. Some may think Egyptian democracy too frail and delicate a growth to last, and that what has happened was no more than was to be expected. But it is certainly worrying. The fact that the army has stepped in to remove a democratically elected president should not be taken in isolation, however. The Muslim Brotherhood presided over by President Morsi appeared to western onlookers to be partial and profoundly undemocratic in many of its enactments — curtailing women’s rights, for example. To an outsider, it is not clear whether the army’s action should be interpreted as safeguarding or destroying the nascent Egyptian democracy. While we wait and hope (and, if we are believers, pray), we know the world will react with fear. Already oil prices are going up, for fear of what may happen. Western leaders are delicately trying to formulate ‘responses’ appropriate to any outcome, and who can blame them?

Perhaps we could use what is happening in Egypt as an opportunity to look at what we fear in our own lives. We may think we are not afraid of anything, but the chances are that some of our behaviour is driven by the need to assuage a doubt or placate a fear. The unkind word, the boorish gesture, the selfish act, the determination to have the last word — all may have their roots in some fear or insecurity we are reluctant to acknowledge. Honesty is just another step on the road to holiness, but it is one we all need to take.


Of Flags, Flowers and Dreams of Freedom

One of the minor pleasures of modern mass communications is seeing what world leaders like to have as backdrops. The President of the United States of America is invariably accompanied by flags; the President of Russia seems to prefer some nondescript bits and pieces of technology and some very grand paintings (not difficult when one has at one’s disposal the treasures of the Hermitage); the Egyptian Military Council has flags, of course, but also some rather stiff arrangements of flowers improbably placed around the Council’s horseshoe desk.

During World War II my father served in North Africa. Some of his books are filled with wild flowers picked on the battlefields or gathered on ‘sight-seeing’ trips during rare intervals of rest and recuperation. This morning I found several from Egypt: fragile, crinkled blooms of unfamiliar flowers. They made me reflect that tyranny, like the poor, is always with us, only the names change. The thought that today is the anniversary of the Dresden bombing is a further reminder of the dreadful things we can do in pursuit of freedom and peace. Those flowers around the Egyptian military are surely meant to be reassuring. Let us hope that they presage better things for all Egypt’s citizens.


Ideals versus Interests

Half the world has its eyes on Cairo at the moment, and there is every chance that this blog post will be overtaken by events. One aspect of the reporting which has fascinated me is the way in which it has shown the uneasy tension between the west’s ideals and interests. On the one hand, democracy is canonized; on the other, the west’s diplomatic and commercial interests seem paramount.

I’m not sure any western leader would really like to see a democratic Saudi Arabia (Osama bin Laden for President, anyone?) but it’s difficult to press purely selfish concerns in the light of what is happening in Egypt. Personally, I was much heartened by President Obama’s latest speech, in which he came down firmly on the side of his ideals. But he knows, as we all know, that if President Mubarak doesn’t go, he’s got to continue to work with him for many months. That is realpolitik, twenty-first century style.

To pray for our leaders, to pray for our governments, is no idle prayer.