Artwork by Kerry Jackson
The call to live–and die–for Christ in the age of terrorism. Are we ready?
By Eric Reed
THE WORLD | The scene is chilling, even a month after it happened: 21 men in orange jumpsuits are led along a beach in Libya by masked men holding knives over their heads, then to their throats. The men in orange are captives, Egyptians working in Libya; more important, they are Christians, Coptic Christians, with up to 20 million adherents, whose branch of the faith dates to the third century AD.
The masked men in black are ISIS rebels, part of the radical faction of Islamic extremists marching across Iran, Iraq and Syria, and taking control of towns and regions ceded by Al-Qaida in the battle with American and indigenous forces over the past decade.
The men in orange are forced to kneel, ordered to recant their faith in Jesus Christ, and when they refuse, they are pushed face down into the sand and the knife blades are placed against their throats.
Mercifully, the video ends there for American television viewers, but for the men in orange there is no mercy.
They are beheaded.
And we, believers watching in disbelief, are little comforted by the great distance between us and the bloodstained beach as we come to the twin realizations that ISIS is on the move with a brutality that the world has not seen in a long time, and we have entered a new era of martyrdom.
A growing threat here?
Sixteen past presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention joined current president Ronnie Floyd in sending an open letter to President Obama, urging the U.S. to “take the necessary actions now” against the ISIS terrorists. They called ISIS “a continuing threat to world peace in a way unknown to us since the Nazis of World War II…”
The March 1 letter came two weeks after the beheading of the Egyptian Christians, and a week after the report that ISIS captured more than 200 Assyrian Christians, including women, children and elderly people. “People are frightened, people are concerned,” concurred Frank Page, SBC Executive Committee President, who said he is often asked about the threat of ISIS. Page’s signature was one of the 17 on the letter.
The concern Page cites is not only about the abominable acts by Islamic extremists abroad—killing a young, female American aid worker, burning a Jordanian pilot alive—it’s about the growing threat on our own shores as young adults, Americans included, are wooed, recruited, and radicalized via the Internet to join ISIS forces in the Middle East. And if not there, to carry out terrorist acts here.
A Somali militant group, al-Shabab, released a video in late February calling for Muslims to attack malls in Britain, Canada, and the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. “Hasten to heaven,” the video advised, by disrupting the safety of “disbelievers” (meaning non-Muslims) “in their own land.”
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said such groups are “relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired” and “attack on their own.” The threats should be taken seriously.
If this seems like an exaggeration of the growing threat, one only needs to consider the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. On trial now is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, charged with the attack that killed three people and injured 260.
“The defendant’s goal that day was to maim and kill as many victims as possible,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb during opening arguments. “He believed that he was a soldier in a holy war against Americans. He believed he had taken a step toward reaching paradise. That was his motive for committing these crimes.”
Tsarnaev, with his older brother, was said to be “self-radicalized,” not identifying with a specific terrorist group, but with extremist Islamist beliefs and the wars in Iraq and Syria.
It is those new radicals who are hardest to identify and who may pose the greatest threat in the West. What seemed distant and improbable now feels near and possible. And the threat causes Christians to ask, are we ready?
Wish we’d all been ready
Since we first saw the 1972 film “A Distant Thunder,” many evangelicals have expected their faith would bring them to this moment. Recall the Christian teenagers, converted after they were “left behind” in the rapture, are clad in white. They are led to some secret place to face their death, and the film cuts from their horrified faces to their means of execution, the gleaming blade of a guillotine.
Didn’t we all gasp at that point? Naïve believers in the 1970s hardly imagined their deaths could be worse, but the untelevised portions of the ISIS video say otherwise.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas summarized the terrorist threat in an interview with Fox News: “These Islamists will not rest until they’ve exterminated every Jew and every Christian from the face of the earth, and if you think that is hyperbole, just listen to what they said on that Libyan beach after they butchered those 21 Christians.”
And the Pew Research Center reports threats against Christians worldwide are on the rise. In fact, “…Christians are at the top of the list,” researcher Peter Henne said. “Christians were harassed in 102 countries when you look at either governments or social groups.” Pew also reports an increase in anti-Semitism. “Overall we found that Jews are harassed in 77 countries around the world when you look at both government and social harassments together….It’s also a seven-year high of the number of countries in which Jews were harassed.” Pew’s example: Europe, where Jews were harassed in 34 of the region’s 45 countries.
We do not desire to traffic in fear, but the possibility of martyrdom on our own shores is increasingly real; and it forces us to consider what we may not have given serious thought in a long time: It could be us. It could be me.
And that demands a new theology of martyrdom.
The end of symbolic martyrdom
When Jesus called his followers to take up the cross, he was issuing a call to follow him, even unto death. Many have done so. The apostles died tragically at the hands of oppressors. Scripture reports that James the son of Zebedee was executed by Herod. The deaths of others were told by early church historians and tradition:
Andrew was crucified.
Peter was crucified upside down.
James the son of Alphaeus was stoned, then clubbed to death.
Thomas was run through with spears.
And Paul, it is believed, was beheaded in Rome, to name a few.
Jesus, the Savior-Martyr, was followed willingly and courageously by many across the centuries. And in the 20th century, we have the witness of Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp for standing against Hitler’s Third Reich. But somehow, his forbearance in the face of a monolithic, systemic, political evil 70 years ago seems different from what we have seen recently.
We ask, is the death of these Copts the harbinger of the ordinary-believer martyr?
Certainly we are witnessing the death of the symbolic martyr, where the faithful Christian is willing to sacrifice social approval or career advancement in the name of the gospel; where the dutiful believer picks up his cross and marches to the marketplace, willing to suffer the slings and arrows of foulmouthed and hedonistic co-workers—but keeps his life. After all, Paul told Timothy that “in the last days, perilous times will come” and those who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:1, 12).
Many Christians have assumed the call to suffer for Christ meant the loss of religious liberties, particularly in the West. But now, we’re talking literal martyrdom. Since the murders of 12 students at Columbine High School in 1999, including Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott who were credited with holding fast to their faith at gunpoint, martyrdom in the postmodern era has had a new face.
Today, the Christian faith really is a matter of life and death in ISIS-held regions of the Middle East, as several missions groups report the killing of indigenous children as their Christian parents refuse to deny Jesus.
And in the rest of the world, believers are challenged to take up the cross, not only in the spiritual sense, but in very real ways, here and now. Paul’s words in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” take on stark new meaning.
So does Romans 8: “Because of You we are being put to death all day long…” And the need to hold to the promise written by a man facing his own execution: “For I am persuaded that not even death or life…hostile powers…or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
What to do now
In the meantime, we pray.
“We ought, indeed, to pray for the gospel to go forward, and that there might be a new Saul of Tarsus turned away from murdering to gospel witness,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“At the same time, we ought to pray, with the martyrs in heaven, for justice against those who do such wickedness. Praying for the military defeat of our enemies, and that they might turn to Christ, these are not contradictory prayers because salvation doesn’t mean turning an eye away from justice.”
Additional reporting by Lisa Sergent
Look for more on this topic in the newest issue of the Illinois Baptist, online at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.