Like millions, I am haunted by the sight of the photo of 21 men on their knees on a beach, awaiting cold calculated execution on the basis of being "People of the Cross." They were not fanatics, they were not on a medieval crusade. They were labourers who had left home in search of work, before being kidnapped and led to slaughter in full view of the rest of the world. Along with many, I'm struggling to find words to express how I'm feeling. I know there have been many other atrocities on a larger scale, sometimes delivered by those who claim to be 'People of the Cross,' sometimes not. Still, it is right to be struck afresh with how people can become so dehumanised as to behave in this manner to other human beings.
I have many emotions. I have Tears of Rage, but the strongest is grief and empathy for the families and friends of those whose lives have been ended in this way, and in such a graphic and public manner. Along with many I have avoided watching the video circulated by those responsible. In my job, I have been up close and personal with bloody carnage as the result of accident, and also as the result of bombs, knives and shootings. I have seen enough without watching such a thing out of morbid curiosity. I also don't wish to boost the viewing figures. I have mixed feelings about sharing even the photograph from news outlets, and have chosen to omit it here. Instead, you'll find a picture of some contemporary Coptic art, and an example below of how far back Coptic Christianity goes.
It's from Codex Schøyen, c. 325-350 AD, containing 11 chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew in a Coptic dialect. According to Eusebius (4th Century), Coptic Christianity can be traced to St Mark who arrived in Egypt around 41-43 AD. Egypt is an Arab country today but these people long predate the arrival of Islam in the 7th Century.
I'll also offer you the opportunity to boost the viewing figures of a few alternative videos. While listening, you might want to think of the families of those who have kept their faith despite a period in captivity and having to pay with their lives:
Milad Makeen Zaky
Abanub Ayad Atiya
Maged Solaiman Shehata
Yusuf Shukry Yunan
Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
Somaily Astafanus Kamel
Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
Girgis Milad Sinweet
Mina Fayez Aziz
Hany Abdelmesih Salib
Bishoy Adel Khalaf
Samuel Alham Wilson
Worker from Awr village [name unknown at this time]
Ezat Bishri Naseef
Gaber Munir Adly
Esam Badir Samir
Malak Farag Abram
Sameh Salah Faruq
When words fail sometimes melody will work, or groans:
I have a friend who struggles to reconcile the image of Jesus as loving with the images in the Book of Revelation of God acting in judgement. I too struggle with some of the imagery. The Book of Revelation, however, is a pastoral book - for Christians suffering under persecution including martyrdom. We don't need to be of any particular faith to feel that evil needs to be dealt with, and that justice needs to be delivered. The martyrs cry out for justice [Rev 6 vv9-11]:
"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been."
Of course, what distinguishes Christ's teaching from many other faiths is that we are not to repay evil with evil. That's a tough challenge to deliver on when we want justice to happen on our timescale.
Like many other ancient documents surviving to the present, Codex Schøyen is incomplete. In this context, how remarkable it is to note that the 11 chapters which remain of this Coptic text begin with Matthew 5 v 38:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
Note that, to the first hearers, paganism essentially referred to the belief system of the Roman occupying forces, known for oppression and brutal execution.
We aren't given a reason why suffering is permitted in the present. However, we are told not to interpret it as God being impotent or indifferent. Later in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus predicts his followers' suffering and in the 1st Century imagery he uses, he tells them God notices every sparrow falling from a tree, and reminds us that we are more highly valued than many sparrows.
As these martyrs walked their final walk on that beach, with sand between their toes, and the sea just feet away, they were walking a path others had trod before them.
"I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand."
I hope my own faith is never tested to that extent. Still, I aim to follow the same faith, and trust that I will be given whatever is required to do so.
"Cynics hearts and critics plunder
Take something beautiful and make it feel small
Even when the rain pours down
Even when the light seems like it's fading
Even when your heart aches, feels like it's gonna break
That's when you sing out loud
We're gonna shine like lightning
Even if our backs against the wall
We're gonna shine like lightning..."