The news and social media is a blaze with the reports of persecutions and killings of Christians and other minorities in Iraq by the terrorist group ISIS. It’s practically impossible to keep up with the latest reports of the brutal killings. There are reports of beheadings and hangings. There are mass executions in which hundreds of people have been shot in the back of the head. There is even one report of a women being tied to two cars and being split in half for refusing to convert.
And Crucifixions are back.
In one sense this is shocking, we keep pretending that as a species we have moved past such depravity. On the other hand, it’s not all that surprising; we knew what radical Islamic terrorists are capable of doing. Sadly, it seems that every generation has to learn anew where the path of destruction leads, face its horrors, and will itself out of that abyss.
But these persecutions have a special tone.
They are happening in the cradle of civilization. The place where humans seemed to have first woken up and realized that he was more than just an animal, that he was different than the creatures around him. It is the place where man first contemplated God. It is the place where the scriptures tell us the Garden of Eden was located. It is the place where man first looked up to the night sky, wondered what was out there and then eventually followed a star to the child in the manger. Now, two thousand years later, the followers of that child are being targeted for persecution along with anyone else that does not believe what the guys with the guns believe.
However, persecution is not unknown to the followers of the Nazerene.
It was the blood of our martyrs that Christianized Rome. It was the blood of missionaries that Christianized and civilized the pagan world. The Nazi’s and the Communists denigrated the Church, banned the Church and spilled the blood of still more martyrs and sowed the seeds of their own demise. History does indeed repeat itself.
For us, relatively safe at home in the United States, the pictures and news reports give rise to many emotions: disgust at the brutality, sadness for the victims, frustration at all the mistakes all our leaders made that created the conditions that made this possible, confusion that people who purport to believe in the same God we do are so far from our values, anger that we cannot do more. However, as Christians we should also feel a profound and calming sense of hope for it is the subversive irony of Christianity that it was born from the suffering and blood of the Savior that makes it so powerful.
For whatever reason, sin requires death for atonement. We are taught this in the Bible but most of us don’t understand it. Most of us don’t stop to think what it means. Some people like to say, ‘if God had wanted to, He just could have forgiven all our sins with a word but he died on the cross to show us how much he loves us.” Yes, that is partially true. God certainly has the power to forgive our sins with a word. However, in some sense, God must have been restrained from doing that. Otherwise, Jesus’ death on the cross is reduced to a big show and God an egomaniac. It some way, the death of the savior must have been necessary to atone for sin.
What most Christians fail to realize is that when Jesus suffered and died on that cross He did not just feel the physical, mental and emotional pain of that day. Rather, Jesus bore on that cross each and every moment of suffering of every single person that had ever and will ever live. He experienced personally every pain and every sorrow, every fear and every suffering. That is what makes our suffering valuable. That is what makes it redemptive. We are one body with the Lord. We are so closely untied with him that we are him to others in the world. That is why St. Paul could say, “It is not I who lived but Christ who lives in me” and “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Paul wasn’t just talking about a feeling. Paul is saying that in the new reality of the messiah we are so closely united to the Lord that Jesus takes our suffering, limited as they are, and joins it to his own suffering on the cross and thereby gives our sufferings infinite value. Together with his own, Jesus uses our sufferings to accomplish the salvation of the world. Our sufferings are the threads by which God stitches creation back together. When we suffer, if we offer it to the Lord, we are his co-workers in salvation. When we help those who suffer, we are Simon of Cyrene, carrying the Lord’s cross en route to Golgotha.
So pray for our Christian brothers and all persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Send money and aide. Petition our gov’t to do more. Do what you can to help these people in such desperate need and know this – they do not die in vain. Our hope is well founded.