On the Eve of Great Change

Last week, Ingleside’s young adult ministry launched The Summer Gathering, a mid-week worship service for young adults. It’s more liturgical than the church’s usual services, and even seemed more reflective. Or more contemplative. Anyway, it was for me.

Blake’s sermon focused on God visiting Jacob at the river Jabbok in Genesis 32, the wrestling match that ensued and lasted all night. The gist is that this restless, sleepless night came on the eve of great change. Jacob knew that when he went to bed. He’d see his brother the next day, his brother who might want to kill Jacob for his past trickery and theft. He knew his life was about to change, and he was so afraid, and though he began to wrestle with God wanting to win, when he finally learned that he was hopelessly outmatched, Jacob just wanted to hold on long enough to convince or compel God to bless him. In reality, God changed Jacob’s name and very nature, and Jacob because Israel, father of a nation.

As I sat in this cozy space, warmly lit with sandy carpet and translucent curtains, I remembered one of the longest, most restless nights I’ve ever experienced.

I was camping in the desert in Egypt. It was the white desert, so named for the chalk imbued with shells and shark teeth and littered by fragments of petrified wood—evidence of the long-ago sea in this area—that has been carved by the wind-driven sand into sculptures. It was the final night of a two-week trip, led by my favorite professor, to study the country’s politics and role in that area of the world. We’d had class in a Nile garden, visited the military museum, climbed inside a queen’s pyramid at Giza, attended a mosque during a service, and been followed by secret police. We’d visited a legal group, rested at a Coptic monastery, and been ordered not to photograph the facade of a Jewish synagogue. We’d also had plenty of internal strife, acting either too much or nothing at all like the siblings we pretended to be, fissuring viciously as a few of us tried to hold hands across the seams.

It was the last night. It was January. The evening had been pleasant by the fire and within an open-air room of carpets, eating roasted chicken and listening to our drivers and guides speaking Arabic across the table from us. But now we were in sleeping bags, weighed down by blankets so heavy I could barely roll over. I was in a very small tent with Kristen—my friend, ally, and fellow Christian—that was barely wide enough to hold us both and not quite long enough to also hold our suitcases. Exhausted, cold, after dinner we nestled down until the sleeping bags were over our heads and fell asleep.

It was horrible. The wind whistled and rippled the canvas. The temperature continued to drop. And nightmares plagued me, waking me too frequently to count, sometimes still paralyzed, and exhaustion always pulled me back under. Amongst other things, in the very late and very quiet, I dreamed someone had come into the tent and drugged us, then kidnapped Kristen. I woke, but the environment and sigh of the wind were exactly the same as they had been in the dream. I tried to roll over but couldn’t, the thick blanket too heavy. I tried to twist my head around enough to see her, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the mound of my own shoulder.

I was starting to panic, not sure if the dream had been a dream, so I said into the air, feeling small and alone, “Kristen?”

Immediately, she answered, “It’s okay, I’m still here.”

Relieved, I lay my head back down and returned to sleep.

In the morning, one of our leaders woke us so we could watch the sun rise, something we’d been excited about the night before. Now I wanted to cry because the night was finally over. We dragged on coats and trudged into the sand, not speaking. Our group found private places, away from each another but staying in sight. At any time, I could count us, just as I, the oldest student and pretend big sister, had been doing all trip. The only reasonable one among us worked to restart the fire. Silent, facing east, we waited. And when the entirety of the sun had crested the sands, spilling intense golden light on our faces and pinkening the sky, we climbed down from our chalk mountains and bunched together around the fire.

We had all had nightmares. Every American, which concerned our translator and guide, Ahmed. Most of us had had more than one, had woken frequently or laid awake for what we assumed was hours. We’d suffering from our dreams, all of which had involved each other. Car crashes and murders. Returning to Cairo to find the airport burning. Kristen had dreamed that something vague but terrible had happened to me, but she’d been facing me when the nightmare woke her and could see that I was okay. She didn’t remember reassuring me. She didn’t know why she said what she did. When I told her about the dream that had prompted me to say her name, she shivered at how eerily her own words had matched my fear.

As we broke camp, it rained. In the desert. None of our guides or drivers had ever seen that before. Ahmed didn’t even know the Arabic word for rainbow when we saw one arch from horizon to horizon on our way back to Cairo. Later that day, Tunisia ousted its president. The first protests in Egypt, organized by members of that legal group we’d visited, were held in Tahrir Square that day. Sitting at our gate that night, waiting to board our flight to Istanbul, we watched the Egyptians watch the news, their faces opening with wonder and possibility. That day was the beginning of the Arab Spring, which saw the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak and the police state we’d spent 2 weeks studying from within. Footage in the coming months showed clashes on the same streets we’d walked and in the same squares we’d bought shawarma. Coptic monks were gunned down outside their monastery, and I’m still not sure if it was the one we visited or the monks who’d hosted us.

Even now, when I hear of a bombing at an Egyptian church, I remember the little girl who prompted us to take off our shoes before entering the prayer chapel in the Coptic church, I pray that she and her parents and baby brother are safe. I think of the Last Supper and picture the stone table in the dining hall at the monastery, at which the bishop sits with the oldest monk on his left and the youngest on his right. I remember the reedy spot by a high wall where tradition says Moses was found as a baby. I picture the sign on the interstate pointing to the wealthy suburb where Joseph’s wife came from. When a rainbow comes into my sky, I wonder if another one has come into Ahmed’s sky in the past 6 years. All those wonderful people. All those English phrases offered on the streets, “Welcome.” “Hello.” “Come please.” “Welcome to Egypt.”

My night before great change was long, restless, thick with cold and nightmares. Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp as a result of his long, restless night, but he discovered that his brother no longer hated him and even embraced him. And his life by no means became easy, but he was blessed, and he did move through the world differently. In a small way, so have I.

On Mongols and Walls

One day last week, I spent my lunch break in a tree-lined parking lot, eating a salad in my car and listening to the audiobook of The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. That day’s chapter was about the political, military, and environmental factors that went into the building of the Great Wall of China. That Mandukhai Khatun (Queen Mandukhai the Wise to us English-speaking peons) was a credit to her ancestor Ghengis Khan, as almost none of his other descendants were. Also, Commander Wang Yue of the Ming Dynasty was quite the poet in his military reports.

Here’s the gist. The Mongols were in the habit of raiding the fertile pastureland of the Yellow River (also called the Black, Green, or Red River, depending on which people group you ask). The Mongols had once held this territory and wanted it back, in part to provide good grassland for their horses. But it wasn’t grassland at the time; it was farmland, because the Chinese were using that area to feed their empire. The Chinese had to trade with the Mongols for horses because they were farming the pastureland and prices rose. The Chinese military leaders were incapable of defending the border towns and spent most of their time either waiting for news of an attack or futilely chasing after the Mongols, always one town behind.

So, once a favorable cost-benefit analysis was presented to the Ming court, a Chinese courtesan basically said, “Yeah, this is definitely the best option. It’s much more civilized than posting more soldiers up there…or feeding them adequately, or paying them adequately, or training them at all.” This statement was followed with a chorus of, “We’re incredibly civilized! We’re so super civilized, you guys.” (The Ming built entire tribute system on encouraging others to become what the Ming considered to be “civilized,” which just meant being as much like the Ming as possible.)

“A wall is far more humane than killing the poor barbarians who we can never seem to catch, let alone defend against,” reasoned some courtesan. “The wall will keep our farmer-soldiers from deserting us and the Mongols from raiding us. It’s brilliant! So simple.”

And that kind of double-speak to justify a wall sounds rather familiar, in tone if not in words. And walls are such good ideas! Walls solve everything. There’s no problem a big, strong wall can’t fix. Just ask the Chinese, whose wall may or may not have directly contributed to the Ming dynasty’s fall. (No, really! Historians and economists disagree about how much the wall had to do with the empire’s fall. This wasn’t my area of emphasis in my history degree, either, so I’m not going to weigh in. However, most historians agree that the wall served as a symbol of the dynasty’s downfall, and still does today.)

That’s basically what I remember about the Great Wall from my school days. I learned that the wall was built in parts first, then connected, and lots of people died in the process. I learned the great wall isn’t straight because the Chinese believed that evil spirits follow straight lines, and I learned that the wall didn’t really work.

Now, to be fair, the region did stabilize economically after the completion of the wall and a failed Mongol raid in 1482, but the stability likely had as much to do with the legacy of Mandukhai Khatun’s rule (remember, she’s the really cool Mongol queen directly descended from Ghengis Khan) as it did the wall. In terms of repelling invasions, though, the wall did precious little in the 130 years between completion and the dynasty’s fall.

So, to anyone wanting a new wall, literally or figuratively, let me point out a few things that the Ming didn’t know when they built theirs.

1. Racism hurts everyone. That includes you, no matter what ethnicity you are. You may not feel the effects in the short-term (though Chinese and Mongol people died because of that wall), but you better believe that future generations are going to shake their heads in frustrated disgust at you. And no one loves to tear things down more than the young, jaded idealists who grew up in a big wall’s shadow. (Berlin, anyone?)

2. There’s no such thing as a simple solution. Not in border disputes, not in economics, not in policy, not in life. The complex problems that people build walls to try to solve will not be solved once a wall is complete. Rather, the problems will morph, affecting new aspects of society and causing entirely new problems, or they will swell until the wall can no longer hold back the flood.

3. Avoid building symbols of power. They are too fragile to maintain and protect, but become too important psychologically to let fall. If the symbol goes, so does the illusion of your strength. You’ll invest immeasurable amounts of time, energy, money, and other resources defending your symbol, and you’ll have to continue long after it’s outlasted its original usefulness. Or long after you realize it never fulfilled its original purpose. You won’t be able to defend it from others or get rid of it yourself (ie, US sanctions against Cuba, maintained until after Fidel Castro’s death).

Clearly, I’m not outlining my own complex solutions to the world’s ills. But I am cautioning us to really think through the literal and figurative walls being built in US foreign policy.