I have found myself deeply conflicted in the last few days after news broke of the martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians earlier this week. A whole range of emotions and reactions have moved in and around me as this photo has burned itself into my memory.
- What kind of people are capable of such acts of depravity and wickedness? What has become of the Image of God in them that this is even possible?
- What would be my last words before my gruesome death?
- Does the way of Jesus as the Prince of Peace mean anything to people who have so aligned themselves with the powers and principalities that they can commit such acts?
- Why do the churches I know worry about the sound system and the thermostat when our brothers and sisters are being martyred?
- More seriously, why do I care about those things too?
- How do I speak to my kids about this in a way that is honest, redemptive, and that equips them to live in a world where not only such things happen but that they are public, blatant, and unavoidable?
- How should my family and my children respond to the people of Muslim faith who are our neighbors, my children's classmates, and our fellow human beings?
- Why doesn't God just go "Old Testament" on these people and save us all the death and heartbreak?
- What does it say about my own heart that my knee-jerk reaction for justice is the suffering and destruction of someone who is as valuable in the eyes of God as myself or my wife and children?
- How should these martyrs be remembered in my own life, in my family, and in my church?
- How does this shape foreign policy, domestic policy, and the way in which I live among my neighbors?
- Why does the church seem so deafeningly silent?
I have tried, as I feel emotionally capable, to hear some reflections of these and other questions. Jonathan Storment has written a piece that has moved me this week. Miroslav Volf has reminded me that my distance from those people is not nearly as far as I would like to think. And the brilliant, even if long and complex account from The Atlantic by Graeme Wood reminds us that answers and solutions are not easy to come by.
And while all of these questions and emotions have been swirling inside of me I have been drawn back to a text from the book of Hebrews:
They were put to death by stoning;
they were sawed in two;
they were killed by the sword.
They went about in sheepskins and goatskins,
destitute, persecuted and mistreated —
THE WORLD WAS NOT WORTHY OF THEM.
(Hebrews 11:27-28a, NIV)
It is undeniable that the world was not worthy of them. But what is left without resolution at the moment is the reaction of those who follow the same Lord who was on the lips of these men as they were martyred.
I was moved at the story reported over at Christianity Today about the way in which the families of those who were martyred were reacting to the loss of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and fellow believers...
Beshir Kamel thanked ISIS for not editing out the men's declaration of belief in Christ because he said this had strengthened his own faith. He added that the families of the ex-patriate workers are "congratulating one another" and not in despair: "We are proud to have this number of people from our village who have become martyrs," he told the programme.
He said: "Since the Roman era, Christians have been martyred and have learned to handle everything that comes our way. This only makes us stronger in our faith because the Bible told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us."
This is a remarkable response to an experience that is in many ways beyond words.
But perhaps this is the problem.
The word where we get the English word martyr is the word that we often translate as witness.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NIV)
There has been a tendency at different times in the history of the church to value martyrdom above all other things. In fact, at different times in Christian history, there have been those who teach others to actively pursue situations and outcomes which would result in their martyrdom. We think back to the early Church Father Tertullian whose statement, "We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed." has evolved into the powerful sentiment: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
And this is undoubtedly true. The surrendering of one's life for the sake of the gospel is the most powerful testimony to the reality of the Kingdom of God on earth. It defies explanation, it destroys the power of the oppressor and the perpetrator, it transforms a gruesome death into a moment where the life of God is made manifest for all to see. The Hebrew writer is correct: The world is not worthy of them.
There is a level of conviction, a deep, visceral commitment that the Gospel is in fact true, that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again that is necessary to live the kind of life that can be lost. And as a part of a culture that fears death and the unknown, it is increasingly difficult to live our lives as people who are martyrs/witnesses, who embody the reality of the resurrection, and who celebrate the death of death.
I know that many people feel powerless about how to respond to the martyrdom of these 21 men, to the millions of people who have been murdered or displaced or traumatized, who may still be alive but are living a real-life hell, due to war, famine, poverty, sex trafficking, forced labor, genital mutilation, forced marriages, AIDS, malaria, ebola, loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, cancer, PTSD, and envy and hatred of their neighbor.
How can we possibly live well in a world filled with so much death, so much suffering, so much hell, so little redemption, so little relief, so little escape from the pain, the anxiety, the loss, and the inevitability of our own death?
The answer that many of us who claim to follow Jesus is this:
We are witnesses who have seen in our own lives and who believe that in Jesus there is both resurrection and the death of death.
We believe that not only does death not have the final word, it has an expiration date.
Not only do we believe that death cannot destroy us, we believe that we will be alive in a way in which death no longer has power over us, and when that day comes, we, together with all of God's people will be witnesses of the death of death.
We believe that we are learning what it means to give our lives away because we have been given new lives, ones that cannot be taken from us by violence, by illness, by age, by tragedy, or by death itself.
We believe that in Jesus Christ, death is doomed.
And that is a reality that no one, no power, no circumstance, a no kind of death can take away.