But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
-2 Corinthians 2:14
The men in black uniforms stand behind their prisoners, who kneel on the beach. The kneeling men wear bright orange jumpsuits. The men wearing black, terrorists affiliated with ISIS, hold knives. A subtitle on the video reads: “The people of the cross, the followers of the hostile Egyptian church.” The spokesman addresses the camera, and then the prisoners are beheaded.
It has been one year since ISIS released that video of the execution of 21 Coptic Christians. Just a week after that, Pope Tawadros II, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, announced their canonization as saints. Their assigned feast day is Feb. 15, the day of the video’s release. What could be more fitting? After all, the terrorists were right about one thing — these are the people of the cross. And now, the people of the cross all over the world will recognize these martyrs as disciples who took up their cross, just like Jesus said in Matthew, just like Jesus did on Golgotha.
It is perhaps a bit misleading to call these martyrs “21 Coptic Christians.” All of them were migrant workers abducted while they were in Sirte, Libya, but only 20 were Egyptian Copts. One, whose name is given as “Matthew Ayairga” or “Matthew Ayariga” was either from Chad or from Ghana.
According to one source, he was not a Christian. The terrorist questioned whether he would reject Jesus as God. Seeing his fellow prisoners slain with Jesus’ name on their lips, he replied, “Their God is my God.” And he died for it.
Martyrdom is inherently paradoxical. It is an occasion of both deep lament and celebration. Like on Good Friday, I’m not sure how I should react. On the one hand, I’m grateful for such an astounding witness of love. But on the other hand, I wish that no one would ever behead or crucify or torture or imprison one of my brothers or sisters. How can I grieve and celebrate at the same time?
But there’s yet another layer to the grief. There’s a reason the martyrs are dressed in orange. It has nothing to do with Egypt, nothing to do with Libya. It has nothing to do with Syria or Iraq. On the beach of Libya, forcing men in orange down to their knees, ISIS is telling us: “we can create Guantánamo too.”
“The sea you've hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden's body in,” the spokesman says in the video, “we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood."
The terrorists are evil and they are wrong — there is no moral equivalence between beheading innocent Christians and the U.S.-run Guantánamo Bay prison. Far be it from me to suggest such a thing. And yet, ISIS believes they are equivalent. And the end result is that these 21 men died, in part, in revenge for U.S. foreign policy.
I would be happy if ISIS were annihilated. There’s a reason, I think, that we have psalm after psalm pleading with God to destroy the enemies of God’s own people. In the interim, however, it bears keeping in mind that there are other people dying in our place — unjustly, yes, but in the place of Americans that ISIS would be happy to behead if they could.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says in Matthew 5.
“Can I pray for you to kill them?” I ask Jesus.
Last week at Mass, during the Prayers of the Faithful, I was startled from my reverie when the prayer leader prayed for “all the members of ISIS.” It felt like utter foolishness to pray that everyone in ISIS would have a conversion of heart and lay down their weapons. But I suppose that I was never promised anything else, for as Paul writes to the Corinthians: “the message of the cross is foolishness.”
We believe, after all, that in Christ, God “always leads us in triumphal procession.” Even when you process at the point of a knife, handcuffed, wearing an orange jumpsuit, you process in triumph, because Jesus walks with you, Jesus who “shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.”
On their first-ever feast day, may the triumphal procession of the 21 martyrs spread in your life the fragrance that comes from knowing God.