Near the beginning of this year 21 Coptic Christians were extracted from their homes by ISIS aggressors, walked along a shore line and brutally murdered for no other reason than their Christian faith. ISIS recorded this evil act in an attempt to both spread fear as well as recruit other radical and fringe thinkers for their cause. Wives were left widowed, children were left orphaned, and a community was left with only memories of those twenty one members.
This seemed like a victory for ISIS. Fear was the result for many who saw the video or read the story. The radical militants had framed their power as greater than Christianity. But, as with so many things in the Christian faith, the truth of the matter is not always seen in the moment but in the results. The April issue of Christianity Today offered a brief update on the story citing the work of The Bible Society of Egypt. They have turned the ISIS video picture of “two rows by the sea” into a source of witness and evangelism surpassing anything that they’ve done in the last 130 years. They’ve been able to distribute more than 1.5 million pieces of literature displaying still shots from the video and asking the question: “Who fears the other? The row in orange watching paradise open? Or the row in black, with minds evil and broken?”
A coptic artist in Virginia, Tony Rezk, created an icon for the Orthodox church commemorating what happened that day. This beautiful image finds the twenty one martyrs not the victims of an unprovoked attack, but the recipients of eternal reward as Christ’s hands are extended, angels surround them with crowns, and the heavens are opened to receive them as they kneel by the sea. This is not an image of sullen acceptance of a horrible fate, but of glorious transition into the best of all situations.
Victory is always defined differently in the Christian life. This is true of those twenty one souls, and it is true in our daily lives as well. The decisions we make are rarely about the moment we are in, they are about the past example of Jesus and the future hope that we cling to. We do not return violence for violence because we trust that God judges in His time and in His way. We are not nearly as concerned with winning arguments as we are with showing grace because we believe change emerges from the heart, not the head. We believe that, though we have certain rights and privileges, we are often better off giving up those privileges for the sake of discipline and godliness.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church applies this idea of redefined victory in a powerful, and well known text,
8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
– 2 Corinthians 4:8-12
It is not avoidance of trouble, or the salvaging of our public reputation, or even the promotion of the power of our religious movement that achieves our goals. It is nothing short of the willingness of the Christian to be pressed, to be perplexed, to be persecuted, to be struck down and yet still proclaim that God is good and Jesus is alive. This paradox alone has the power to change things in the world. Paul says that it is through this process that dead people are brought into a collision with life. Because of the 21 martyrs who willingly surrendered their lives, more than a million people have been presented with the Gospel.
It is those who held the blades on that beach who feared, and fear manifested itself in senseless, brutal violence. And those who knelt by the sea, draped in orange awaiting their own unjustified execution, they were precisely the ones who found out that no matter how hard they were pressed, before they were actually crushed they were no longer kneeling on a beach but at the foot of a throne. They found themselves at the throne of the loving King of the universe who had gathered them safely into His presence. And that is true victory.