Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
-Hebrews 13:3 (NIV)
Maybe, like most of the world, you were shocked by the Islamic State beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. The brutal video, entitled, “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” surfaced last week on the Twitter feed of a website that supports IS. As the 21 captives are led to their execution, they are identified by an Arabic caption as “The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.”
The people of the cross.
I hope we see ourselves that way too, though sometimes I fear that perhaps we don’t. I hope we identify ourselves as fellow citizens with those 21 Egyptian men of the Nation of the Cross, though sometimes I fear we identify more as Americans and Westerners, and with whatever denomination of Christianity most appeals to our sensibilities. Christians halfway around the world, affiliated with a denomination that most of us know little about, don’t necessarily feel like family to us.
This is one of the many places where the deplorable division of Christianity into little self-contained sects actually ends up compromising the gospel.
Coptic Christianity is the ancient, native form of the faith in Egypt. The vast majority of Egyptians from 400-800 AD were Christians, and even after the Muslim conquest the Copts enjoyed a majority until the mid-10th century. Alexandria was an early center of Christianity from at least the early 2nd century, and by the third century Alexandria was second only to Rome in honor in the ancient Christian world. Alexandria became an important center of Christian learning, and Egyptian Christians were central figures in the early church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries.
Coptic Christians are often discriminated against by local and national government officials in Egypt, and, as we’ve seen graphically this past week, often the targets of hate crimes and assaults, often by Muslim extremists. Many have been forced to flee their homes due to mob violence, and police often arrive after the violence has ended, and when they do arrive coerce the Christians to “reconcile” with their attackers so as to avoid prosecuting the attackers. Coptic Christian women have been the victims of sexual trafficking, forced conversion to Islam, and coerced marriage to Muslim men.
As American Christians, we’re sometimes shocked by violence like we saw this past week. It was shocking, of course, but for large portions of The Nation of the Cross, the beheadings were just the latest example of the persecution with which they live and because of which, too often, they die. We forget sometimes that many of our brothers and sisters live as “people of the cross” in more than just a symbolic or representative way. They share with Jesus in carrying their crosses of literal physical and emotional pain, suffering, and death.
I’m convicted of the fact this week that I identify much more closely with fellow Americans who are non- or nominally Christian than I do with those brothers who died on that Libyan beach, or with the families and churches that are suffering in their grief. I am a white, Western Christian, and I feel much closer and have much more in common with white, non-Christian Westerners than I do those brown, Eastern Christians. So, while along with the rest of the world I’ve been shocked this week by the violence done to this Christian community, the path of least resistance in the next week or two will be for me to slip back into my old habits of paying more attention to the NCAA basketball playoffs, or what’s happening in Hollywood or how this or that legislation in Washington will affect my standard of living, than what’s going on with other believers in Jesus Christ half a world away.
I come by that honestly, in some ways. I’ve spent my life among a group of believers that has spent more time talking about how we disagree with believers of other denominations than considering what we have in common. It’s hard for me to identify as brothers and sisters with Christians who differ with me in their practice of baptism, or who understand Communion in a different way. In some ways, I’m wired to hold those believers at arm’s length, at least.
But sometimes, I’m forced to conclude, differences in doctrine and practice just don’t amount to much. This is one of those times.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us, as he reminded his original readers, to share with brothers and sisters who are suffering, mistreated, and imprisoned. The world in which he lived out his faith was much more like the world in which those 21 Coptic Christians lived, and the world in which their families live. It was, and it is, a world of persecution, a world where social pressure, prejudice, religious extremism, and politics can create the perfect storm for martyrdom. It wasn’t much like the world in which I live out my faith.
A friend of mine last week asked me for advice on choosing a spiritual practice or discipline for the season of Lent. As someone whose practice of Christianity hasn’t included Lent, I was a little taken aback. I don’t think I gave him a very good answer.
But I’m changing my answer. I think an excellent Lenten practice, for Christians who observe the season and maybe even for those who usually don’t, is to find ways to remember our sisters and brothers in The Nation of the Cross who are truly suffering, truly living as People of the Cross. Surely we can commit some extra time to pray for them. (Voice of the Martyrs has an excellent website to help you in your prayers.) Perhaps we can offer aid to organizations that actively help the persecuted church. Maybe when we’re together with our church families, we can remind them that their brothers and sisters around the world are suffering and dying for their faith. Make a move toward identifying with our suffering fellow members of Christ’s body, and God will make a hundred.
As those 21 Coptic Christians beheaded on that beach in Libya take their places under Heaven’s altar with the other souls murdered for their faith, we share their cry with them: “How long, Sovereign Lord, Holy and True, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” We share with them as they wait for God’s justice, and we share with them their conviction that the time will come when God will reign, will reward his servants, and destroy those who destroy the earth.
And with them, People of the Cross all, we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus.”