*Please note that the video referenced in the article is extremely violent, and should only be viewed by adults.*
Last week I saw something gruesome, but then something beautiful.
I forced myself to watch the execution of 21 Coptic men by ISIS members in Libya. It was one of the most nightmarish things I have ever witnessed. I did not do this because I relish violence in any way, but because I felt it was important to be reminded of what true persecution is. Contrary to the conception that I often hold, persecution is not when someone scoffs at my beliefs or smirks when I pray before a meal. That is “aggravation.” “Persecution” is someone pressing a knife to your throat because you follow Christ. And as much as it hurt my soul to watch that video, I needed that reminder.
But over the week that followed, I witnessed something truly beautiful take place. First, the Coptic church stood quickly in solidarity with their fallen sons. The men were officially canonized by the church as martyrs. One slain man’s brother thanked ISIS for including their final cries to Jesus in the video, saying that by doing so, ISIS had inadvertently “strengthened our faith.”
But these tributes were not limited to the Coptic church. From all around the world, Christians from diverse traditions stood in solidarity with those 21 men. Facebook and Twitter profile pictures were changed to the number “21,” honoring the 21 lives that were lost. Many Western evangelicals voiced their support, including Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer. Ann Voskamp wrote a powerful tribute and initiated a prayer campaign for persecuted Christians around the world. And Pope Francis gave this stirring statement:
“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out. If they are Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it is not important: They are Christians. The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ.”
What I found so moving about these tributes was that so few questions had to be asked. Coptic Christianity is not familiar to many, especially here in the United States. Few people can say they know anything about Coptic theology, have attended a Coptic church service, or personally know a Copt. In all honesty, a person who holds a Coptic understanding of salvation might not be allowed membership at many American evangelical churches. But none of that mattered, not this time. Despite our unfamiliarity with Copts and their beliefs, we all knew deep within our souls that they were our brothers.
Neither did we ask any questions about the men and their individual lives, their motivations, or their piety. We did not ask if they had been walking with God, or their political persuasions, or their stance on one issue or another. Again, none of that mattered. With their lips, these men cried out the name “Yeshua!” And that is all that any of us needed to hear, the only requirement that needed to be fulfilled for us to lament their death and identify ourselves with them.
Seeing the church stand up in solidarity with these men reminded me that we are one family in Christ. Yes, a broad, diverse, and incredibly fractious and quarrelsome family, but family nonetheless. There are surely significant and important differences among us, but persecution and suffering has a way of putting those differences into perspective and allowing us to recognize, even if momentarily, that what ties us together as Christ followers is far stronger stuff than we thought. And what binds us is nothing less than the name of Jesus, the name above all names, the name that these men uttered before they died as martyrs.
But perhaps there is a larger lesson we might glean from this. Our response to the death of the 21 clearly demonstrated that we share a profound connection with other believers despite the considerable geographical, cultural, and theological gaps between us. We have proven that we do not need to be in complete alignment with other followers of Christ to stand with them in their pain. We made a bold declaration that we are the “21” and have claimed Copts as our own brothers in Christ.
But why only “21”? Could we not make that number higher, and expand the circle further to include believers who are closer to home? What about the plight of undocumented people from Mexico and Latin America, so many of whom follow Christ faithfully but are faced with the prospect of being deported and having their families torn apart? Yes, many of us might be different from them in terms of our culture, language, and understanding of civil law. But is their “illegal” status more important to us than their status as “faithful and Spirit-led Christ followers”?
And what about our faithful brothers and sisters in the black church who cry out in lament for the death of children like Tamir Rice? Yes, for many of us there are sizable cultural and political differences between our communities. But are these differences greater than the name of Christ that we both honor? Do any of us truly believe that? Can we not simply say, as we do with our own biological family, and as we are commanded in Romans 12:15, “You are my brother and sister, and so no matter our differences, your suffering is my own”?
To be quite honest, we share far more in common with Latin American and African American believers in this country than we do with the Coptic church. Our theologies are more aligned, and we are physical neighbors with one another. So if we can rightly offer our full-throated support for the “21,” then I implore us to also stand with believers in our own country, not because we are culturally or politically identical to them, but because we are spiritually connected with them. In truth, we are not just the “21.” We are the “22” and the “23,” the “100” and the “100,000,000”. Persecution reminds us that the eternal family of Christ is unified not by uniformity, but by the name of “Jesús,” “Yeshua,” “예수,” the name which we hold above all other names. We should never forget this important, and costly, lesson.