No One Takes My Life From Me: On ISIS and Martyrdom

Originally published in the Journal Review “Faith” Section, March 7, 2015

I’m sure many who are reading this are aware of a story from several weeks back about 21 Egyptian men who were killed by the so-called Islamic State. Their deaths made the news, and showed up all over social media because of the public nature of the executions. One of ISIS’ tactics is to spread terror by making videos of their brutal acts. Sadly, in the day and age of the internet, they can disseminate these images quickly, all over the world. The videos themselves, thankfully, get taken down quickly by servers and websites, you have to search for it to find it, something I don’t recommend. But most of us still have seen the image of the men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on the shores of Libya with executioners in black standing behind them.  The image is intentional. The ones being executed look small and powerless. The executioners big and foreboding, powerful. Groups like ISIS seek to not only do acts of terror but also seek to control the message. They want to define what the act of terror means, and therefore define what must be responded to. They want to use fear to motivate a “fight or flight” response. They win the ideological, and, I would propose, spiritual battle when their enemies begin to engage them on their terms – either intimidated into submission or even “feeling powerless” – or desiring revenge. They are trying to bring about either outcome – capitulation or an all-out “holy” war (in their eyes, but there would be nothing holy about it – again, in their terms).

So what is the right response? Well, this is the Faith section of the newspaper, and I am not in a position to speak on how nations should respond politically or militarily. I am not in a position to make those decisions, so I pray for those who must make those decisions and sacrifices. And while ISIS message is geared politically and militarily, there is also a spiritual dimension here. As Christians we believe that while nations will do what nations will (have to?) do, we believe that the truest, most fundamental battle is spiritual. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). The eternal battle is not even against the men who carried out the terrible executions, but against the spirit of hatred, the spirit of murder, of envy, pride and worldly power that motivates such an act. But here’s the thing, the first battle we must attend to is not against “them”, but is the battle within ourselves to overcome the same spirits of hatred, murder, envy, pride and worldly power that can lurk in our own hearts.

Among the hardest teachings in Christianity, but one which must be taken seriously if one claims to be a Christian is the belief that in the death and resurrection of Christ the context of “death” and “life” are forever changed.

“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:8-11). 

This is a hard teaching because it says that to truly be alive is to be turned towards God, away from the sin in our lives. It says that to be alive is to participate more and more in God’s Grace, and less and less for our own lusts, pride and power. To be dead is to be dead in sins, ruled by those powers of darkness that lurk in our hearts. But in this hard teaching is the proclamation, the belief, that physical death has no mastery over us, as our real lives are now defined in our relationship with God. Not that we disregard our physical lives – we are persons, created in the image and likeness of God – our bodies matter, but we are no longer ruled by the fear of losing our physical lives, for we know and believe that “Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (I Thess. 4:13). Simply put, Christians are to be people of the Resurrection, so our context cannot be dictated by those who threaten, who use fear of killing the body. Jesus even commanded not to fear those who threaten this, who can “kill the body, but after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4).

There is another image which was not as widely seen in the wake of the execution of the 21 Egyptian men. This other image was not a photo, not a video originated by ISIS or any news organization. It was an “iconographic” image. 20 of the men who were killed were Coptic Orthodox Christians. The other man was a worker from Chad, who, according to reports, became a Christian when he saw the faith of his fellow prisoners in the face of their execution. Those who saw the video reported that the 20 men had the opportunity to renounce Christ and escape execution, not one of them did. Instead they were seen praying, speaking the name of Jesus, until the moment of their death. This witness was powerful for the Chadian worker. In the Orthodox tradition, an icon is a visible depiction of Christ, or of the Saints, holy men and women whose lives bore witness to Christ. Within a week of the executions a new image appeared, an icon of the “21 New Martyrs of Libya”. Icons are meant to show the spiritual reality of a historical person or event. In the iconic depiction of the “execution” the physical context remains – the ocean, the shore – but the men’s faces are not looking down or straight ahead, but rather up, confidently towards Christ, who receives them. Their faces take on and shine with the image of Christ. The other striking difference between the iconic image and the pictures released by ISIS is the fact that the executioners are nowhere to be found in the icon. They have no power. They do not control the situation or the message. In the spiritual sense the executioners are powerless and invisible in the face of the martyrs unwavering dedication to Christ, whom they were unwilling to renounce even when threatened with the killing of the body.

Martyrs are important in the history of the Church. And in the wake of these new martyrs, it is important to point out that the Church sees the meaning of their death not in political or worldly terms at all, but in spiritual, eternal terms. Yes, these 21 men were political prisoners, but this is not why they are martyrs. Yes, these men were killed brutally and publicly, but this is not why they are martyrs. Yes, these men were unjustly executed, but this is not why they are martyrs. Yes, these men were killed on a “battlefield”, but this is not why they are martyrs. They are martyrs because they imitated Christ, who faced His own unjust, political, brutal, public execution freely, knowing that the real, eternal battle was about to be fought and won in His death and resurrection. The Romans, The Judean authorities, the factions of insurgents, those who wished to either cause or co-opt His death for their own worldly purposes, none of them had any power over Him. Jesus said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:18). This is at the heart of martyrdom. It is not at all about a “holy” war against flesh and blood, of ‘us vs. them’. It’s not about an earthly power struggle. It is a bold proclamation of the real battle we all must face each day in our own hearts even as there are those who face this battle in a visible way, as we see in the new martyrs. It is also a proclamation of the real victory which has already been won by the One whom lays His life down freely for the salvation of all mankind.

new  martyrs