This year I wrote a short post in tribute to the brothers and sisters in Egypt who were murdered by Muslim terrorists during church service on Palm Sunday. I remember reading the story and seeing the images of freshly bloodied palm fronds. I was moved in a way that I had not thought I would. I felt I had lost some of my people. I am in no way related to these people except through the blood of Jesus yet that is what precisely caused such a visceral reaction in me. Even though I did not know them I had the realisation that I had lost real family members. Months later, as I was thinking and writing about persecution, I reflected on that incident and again to my surprise I found a profound truth in my emotional reaction about how we see Christian identity.
The brothers and sisters who died were Coptic Christians. I identify denominationally very differently from them but when it came to tragic incident I simply did not care. It just did not matter to me what tradition they belonged. They were the Christians the same as I was. I think that was one of the main reasons why the news affected me so much. We had a common identity and if places were switched I too would be a victim. In that tragedy I had received a powerful reminder that being a Christian can put you in mortal danger. In the face of death you tend to get your priorities in order. Persecution is a severe test of your loyalty to King Jesus. It has a way of giving us a sharp perspective on who we really are as a people. If we have the same target on our backs, the only difference being whether we are in range or not, our commitments need to be more than superficial or temporary. In the end faithfulness to him is what matters the most, the question then becomes whether you belong to the community of the faithful or not.
Ironically, enemies of the faith often perceive our common identity better than we do. Our internal divisions and debates matter far less to them and they see where our allegiances do not lie. It is a negative definition of Christian unity so it has it problems, you are somehow together because you are certainly not with us, but it does point to a very important facet of our identity, our distinction from the world. We are in the world but not of it. It is a key idea about what the church is taught by Jesus himself. Persecution harshly reinforces that reality. It is a brute fact which tramples on denominational distinctions.
We need each other to survive and bare a faithful united witness. When you consider people are being harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed for unswerving loyalty to Jesus and we cannot even get along with one another, it is an indictment on us and casts serious doubts on the Christian witness. Paul makes a similar assertion when writing to the Philippians from prison. It would undermine the good news of Jesus’ rule, if the people he had ministered the message that he was suffering for would not live as one. If there is one Lord, there must be one people. Persecution is a problem the entire Church faces and therefore we need a concerted response. There is no other way.