Over the past weeks we have heard very saddening news about the state of the church in areas of Iraq and Syria (and to a lesser extent Nigeria). We have heard of beheadings, crucifixions, and destruction. We realize that Christian communities that have been around for close to 2000 years are being destroyed, or so it seems. While we cannot be sure of the accuracy of all of the reports since ISIS is not exactly reporter-friendly, we can be reasonably certain of the death of many Christians and the burning of many churches and the treasures (including ancient manuscripts) they contained.
Now nothing in my comments should be construed as indicating that this is not a tragedy. Nor do we wish the tragedy to continue. And we certainly pray that it does not continue. Yet the Christian response is not the response of the world. The world’s response is to meet violence with violence, and that sooner or later results in a game of Whack-a-Mole. Violence is used on the evil forces here (and often it also means the killing of innocent victims) and sooner or later the same or a similar evil group pops up over there. So we whack over there, and it pops up in a third place. Violence never really solves a problem, for it injects something of the same spirit into the situation.
The Christian response is, first, to pray that the martyrs will stay faithful and confess the faith well. Revelation 12 makes it clear that the force attacking Christians is at root spiritual, and by that I do not mean Islam, but Satan and his “angels” that lay behind the Roman Empire in Rev 12 and behind various other types of persecution down through the ages. Revelation also makes it clear that the battle, while fought in heaven, is paralleled on earth and that the “they” who win in the end is the martyrs, who held onto their witness to Jesus and “did not love their lives even unto death.” So we pray for our brothers and sisters that they stay faithful, stand firm. After all, Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead. Revelation also gives us the picture of the martyrs in heaven, in the divine sphere, and none of them is saying, “Poor me.” The Church traditionally points to them as purified, beholding the Beatific Vision, as having a special place due to their “baptism of blood.”
The second Christian response is to pray with compassion for the persecutors. After all, they are under the influence of evil spiritual forces. If they continue in their way and do not repent the future does not bode well for them. We are told to pray for those who persecute us, and they surely need it. We also know that God can take a persecutor like Saul of Tarsus and make a saint out of him. So our response should be one of compassion, not hatred. We may hate the evil being done, but we should love the perpetrators.
The third Christian response is to pray for God’s intervention. He can change the situation, but only he can do it without ending up in a game of Whack-a-Mole, a recurring cycle of violence. Only he can see the real evil forces that hold the perpetrators captive. So fasting and prayer, calling out to him to intervene, is appropriate.
The fourth and final Christian response is to offer ourselves as peacemakers. Now only God can show us how to do this. It might mean that an army of unarmed prayer warriors invades the conflict area, many of them becoming martyrs. It may be giving to effective relief organizations. It may mean praying and fasting for peace. It may be something quite unimaginable. Saint Francis is said to have visited the Sultan during the time of the Crusades (it reportedly was on his third attempt to get there). Such an ambassador could work wonders. But only God can direct his people wisely and only God knows what type of interventions might bring about peace.
All of these responses parallel the way that Jesus acted. He defeated the powers of evil through his cross, and thus on this day of the celebration of the exaltation of the Holy Cross it is appropriate to think of how the imitation of Christ might lead us to deal with the situations facing the church today in Jesus’ way and in Jesus’ power. But these are not the responses that we are hearing about in the news nor ones that occur to various governments, for they generally do not “get” Jesus.
Those of us who are followers of Jesus, however, should “get” Jesus and should be making the type of response that the early Church made to persecution and that Jesus made to the problem of evil. It is that that I am hoping for and that which I see so little of.