Recently I have been thinking about those Christians who have been killed by Islamic State. I have been wondering how best to respond. This reflection represents what I actually think, but I am frightened by the consequences. I don’t think that I can live up to them. But here goes. As the term ‘essay’ implies for a piece of writing, this is a ‘try’.
The first thing that I notice about people’s official responses is that they are mostly sad. They go like ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have died at the hands of IS. We remember their grief, and the lives of those who have been cut short, or murdered in such a terrible way.’
This sounds normal to us. But it is not the common view found in the New Testament and in the accounts of the death of martyrs that are common. In Acts 5, when Peter and John are brought before the Council a second time and are flogged they say ‘They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the Name.‘
The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna in turkey) is also worth reading. Some of it goes like this
Magistrate: “Curse Christ and I will release you.”
Polycarp: “Eighty-six years I have served Him. He had never done me wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
Here is what Polycarp says at the end of his life.
I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God.
Later on, the martyrs used to say ‘Dead men, we salute you, we go to the land of the living.’
The Church Father, Tertullian also said ‘The seed of the Church is the blood of the martyrs.’
So in the early days Christians had a perspective on their lives that transcended death. It said ‘My life is not just for here, but if I am In Christ here, then that is a reality that will go on after my death. As it says in the funeral service ‘If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die we die to the Lord for to this end, Christ died and rose again that he might be lord of the dead and of the living.’
It was true that in days past, people were encouraged to put up with injustice in economic life and in relations between men and women because of the fact the here on earth was a temporary thing, and after life wax the most important. But now, in the face of people who do not mind going to jail or being killed because of their belief in Paradise, it seems a bit watered down for us to be demoralised, when for the sake of Christ who was raised up, people are also suffering.
The other thing that comes to me is that within our own communities, when people suffer, we do not know if it is ‘for the name’ or not, (like Bonhoeffer) or we identify with the government and so blame the victims, in order to distance ourselves from the same kind of punishment.
So the first thing where I am challenged by the recent martyrdom of Christians is in my own faith to ask ‘Have I the same eternal time frame as the early martyrs had?’ Can I say ‘I am prepared in all kinds of ways to ‘die in the faith of Christ’ because, believing in Christ’s resurrection, I know that ‘my life is hid with Christ in God.’ And that is more real than anything that anyone else can do or say to or about me. And this is true of all those who have died in the faith of Christ at the hands of others.
I think that it is better to praise the faith and courage of our martyrs (literally, witnesses to Christ) than it is to deplore the acts of those who are doing terrible things to them.
I think that this would send a message to those who criticise the weakness and flabbiness of Christianity in the West. We could, for example respond by being equally as belligerent and equally as violent as a way of showing our strength. But this is and was not the way of Christ. I think that a way to show our belief in Christ as bringing the ‘new order’ is to say something like ‘Those of our brothers and sisters who have died are not out of the hands of the Christ to whom they have been joined in baptism. Killing them makes no difference to their status before God, so why do you bother?’ Now would not that be something?
I also think that a renewal of our own commitment and practice would go a long way to being a good witness (martyrdom) to our neighbours, both secular and to those of other faiths. In Islam, apart from going to mosque each Friday, there is the prayer five times a day, and the keeping of Ramadan.
If Christians did half that we would be lucky. Being the ‘old kid on the block’ has meant that we have become, I think, lax in our practice of the faith. I know that we are saved by grace, and not by works, but it is also true that ‘If we are driven by the Spirit, then let us walk by the Spirit.’ The commitments of our hearts are shown in the places our bodies go!
The stories about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt stem from the shock that Egyptian students had in seeing the laxity of Christians when they visited the West. I am not saying that our responses should be dictated in kind by ‘the others’, because Christian faith has its own freedoms and the West has its own history which means that we can be proud of some of our developments that still shock those of other cultures. But I do think that a witness of more fervent piety and discipleship of Christ would help not only to clarify the witness that Christians want to make to Christ to other religions, but also firm up the witness of Christians to the agnostics, atheists and nominal Christians in our own society.