So Australia may be far from a lot of you, but in spirit we are not so far away that we can buffer ourselves from the realities of this world. My email and newsfeed have shown in past days, over and over, the orange jumpsuits and faces of the 21 men who were beheaded by terrorists in Libya last week. I could not continue to talk about my own journey without acknowledging those whose earthly journey has just ended–and another one begun.
For those of you who may have missed this, all but one of these men, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, had crossed the border into Libya from impoverished hometowns in Egypt so that they could work and send money home to their families (the last man, a Ghanaian Christian believed to be Matthew Arayiga, was also in the area for work). They were kidnapped by members of ISIS (aka Daesh) at the end of December and in early January. Reports of those who witnessed the kidnappings say these men were targeted because they were Christians (evidenced by crosses tattood on the inside of their wrists, a common practice among Copts). I can’t bring myself to watch the video, but the accounts I’ve heard of the justifications Daesh announce in it make no sense: it was in retaliation for the killing of Osama Bin Laden (as if these men had anything to do with it), it was because Egypt has been fighting the Daesh and these men were members of the hostile Egyptian church (“the nation of the cross”). What’s clear to me are a few things:
a) they were targeted because they were Christians, and because, with the exception of one, they were Egyptian Christians
b) their deaths, though untimely and brutal, demonstrate a faith that leaves me speechless, and
c) that those deaths are no less heartbreaking, regardless of what they demonstrate.
This story first caught my attention, of course, because I am a Copt. It also caught my attention because my faith in God and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to who I am. And it was central to who these men were, too. So central, that by all accounts, their last words as their lives were ending were prayers and pronouncements of that faith. All they would have had to do is renounce the God of Christianity and who they believe Jesus Christ to be, and these extremists would, by the dictates of their own laws, have had to spare these men’s lives.
Imagine for a moment being cut off from everyone and everything that can protect you, knowing that you will undoubtedly die unless you say some words. “They’re just words,” your sense of self-preservation might shout, “say them and take them back later when it’s safe to do so!” How strongly would you have to reject the idea that you could deny your Creator (Matthew 10:33)? What faith would it take to give these men the courage to go through with this? [What] do you believe so deeply that you would die rather than deny it? Could you do have done this? Could I?
Yet this story is also about these men who were human beings with loves and personalities and dreams and families. Because of this horrendous act, mothers and fathers will be grieving, wives will be widowed, brothers and sisters will grow old without their siblings, children will grow up without their fathers, friends without their lives’ companions. These men were in Libya to try to provide for their families, and the guilt and anger their families and friends must feel now–well, I won’t pretend to understand. My heart breaks and my minds goes numb just thinking about such sorrow.
It is, incidentally, this profound and senseless loss, this brutality, that has prompted such universal discussion about human rights. It’s too obvious to state that innocent people, civilians who have kept to their own matters, should not be killed by others trying to make a statement (political, religious, or otherwise). But we do not yet live in an ideal world, where we all live full and fulfilled lives.
We Christians talk a lot as about treating this life as only the beginning of a life of the spirit with God, after this earthly life is over. (The saying that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience has always rung true for me.) We all know our days on this earth are numbered. Many of us forget that, attaching too much importance to careers, or health, or countless other attractions that this life can hold. These men, I’m sure, did not want to die with so much and so many to live for, but like so many Copts before them, they died knowing that this was not the end, and with this, I will try to be at peace.