How Egyptian Christians murdered for their faith can revitalize the corrupted West
February 11, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Martin Mosebach, a German novelist who has won major prizes for his literature, is also a penetrating, witty, and sensitive essayist about issues facing the Catholic Church today. One of his books has gained considerable fame: The Heresy of Formlessness, first published in English by Ignatius Press and now published in a second, expanded edition by Angelico Press. Another fine collection of essays is his Subversive Catholicism.
Mosebach surprised the world with his most recent work of nonfiction, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, which he researched during a lengthy stay in Egypt. The English translation was released by Plough Press one year ago, in February 2019. As its title makes clear, it centers on the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by the forces of ISIS sometime between February 12 and February 15, 2015. Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria (“pope” here is an ancient honorific title for the head of the regional church) canonized them and appointed February 15 as their feast day.
The first part of Mosebach’s fascinating and at times riveting book discusses the political dimensions of the act recorded on the video released by ISIS on February 15, 2015. Mosebach brings his keen powers of observation and description to bear on the different people he meets and their different ways of thinking about the Christian faith in the midst of a predominantly Muslim society. In a dialogue about martyrdom with a young agnostic entrepreneur (ch. 4), the contrast between modernity and Christianity is starkly drawn:
The Christians’ concept of truth is neither formula nor doctrine — it is a person, Jesus Christ, who said that he himself is truth. Those to whom he has revealed himself must not, and cannot, ever betray him; they must bear witness to his simultaneous divinity and humanity[.] ... [The] Christians’ truth ... is proved by their readiness to die for it. (36)
For the entrepreneur, however, “business is the ultimate truth, which I totally get. It sounds like your peasants from those dumps in Upper Egypt might be the very last Christians” (37).
Mosebach imagines Nietzsche “squaring off” and losing against the murdered Copts’ bishop, the metropolitan of Samalut, who radiates confidence, strength, determination, intelligence, compassion, and devotion to Christ the King (41–51). The bishop says at one point:
Why do you want to meet these people [the victims’ families]? Do not expect too much. They are all the same. You can visit any Coptic family, and you will find the same attitude toward the church everywhere — the same strong faith, and the same readiness for martyrdom. This is not a Western church in a Western society. We are the Church of Martyrs. I take no special risk when I say that not a single Copt in Upper Egypt would betray the faith. (46)
When Mosebach reaches the village, “to meet these people,” he finds it poor and ordinary. The families that lost sons to the Islamic terrorists laud and celebrate their memories, with photographs to which crowns have been added. A Copt had composed a hymn to them:
... a simple verse that, like a litany, recited all their names and sang their praises. ... Relatives both young and old, as well as my ever-increasing entourage, stood before the reliquary and sang the hymn, their hands raised in prayer. ... To my ears, this type of singing didn’t sound particularly sacred, but rather cheery and playful, like a children’s counting rhyme. ... By opening one’s mouth in song, loss became reverence, grief became gratitude, despair became joy, and the tune carried everyone away. (95)
Mosebach is startled to discover no desire for recrimination:
In the many conversations I had, never once did anyone call for retribution or revenge, not even for the murderers to be punished. It was as if the families wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them, because the martyrs’ sheer splendor outshone them[.] (93)
I noticed a review of this book at Amazon in which the reader said he was disappointed that Mosebach wasn’t able to find a lot of personal information on these men: they were inconsequential, average young men. What this reviewer failed to see is Mosebach’s frequently reiterated point: the particular persons are secondary to the main message: the victory of ordinary people through Christ. As the metropolitan had said, nearly any randomly selected group of twenty-one Copts could have been marched on to the beach and executed for their faith.
They now wore crowns, even though they had only done what was expected of them, and what all their brothers were equally prepared to do. Unexpectedly, this natural fulfillment of duty, which would otherwise be taken for granted, was surrounded by the greatest splendor — but this served only to prove that little more than the thinnest veil separates earthly life from the heavenly sphere. (82)
Why should Catholics take seriously the witness of these twenty-one, who belong to an ancient ecclesial body that is no longer in communion with the pope of Rome? The great English Catholic liturgist Fr. Adrian Fortescue gives us the answer:
For the sake of these glorious memories [Antony of the desert, Paul the first hermit, Athanasius, et al.], for the sake too, of the long line of their martyrs under Islam, we can feel nothing but respect, wish nothing but good for the people of Christ in Egypt. They have stood for his name so faithfully during the long, dark centuries now past. May they stand for it in happier ages to come. May they confess it (honoring the all-holy Lady Theotokos) no longer, please God, in unhappy isolation, but joined again to the Church which acknowledges him throughout all the world[.] (Aidan Nichols, The Latin Clerk [Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2011], 121)
There are at least four lessons we should have the humility to learn from the Coptic Christians.
First, the big picture — the cosmic, eschatological picture — is clearer to them than it is to us in the West; they truly see the world with “Christian eyes.” Western believers have allowed their vision to become clouded; we are distracted, caught up in minutiae, lulled to sleep by comforts, narrowed by the narrowness of modernity. Our notions of progress are laughably naïve.
From their [the Copts’] point of view, the ups and downs of history are merely temporary conditions: no victory or defeat of life’s good cause is permanent. Right up until the last judgement, the entire earth will remain a battlefield, but it only mirrors the simultaneous, invisible battle being waged between angels and demons. Again and again, it is angels who help believers overcome evil. (192)
Second, for all the talk about a “new evangelization,” Catholics are not very good at it; we don’t stand up well to persecution, which is the most basic form of evangelical witness. The Copts’ marginalized status in Islamic Egypt has only intensified their adherence to Christ and His Gospel and show us what it will look like, and what it will take, to thrive as a minority:
The western Church must ask itself whether it is as well prepared to spread the faith in an increasingly secularized world as the Coptic Church is. The Copts have clearly had a head start: they have long had to withstand oppression by a hostile majority, and have an intimate collective knowledge of martyrdom. Due to this history, they have endured countless setbacks for more than a millenium. And yet they have not disappeared and they have not grown numb; on the contrary, they have kept the apostolic heritage of early Christianity alive. ... The Copts have relevant experience when it comes to the future of Christianity too. How might Christianity look, and continue on, once societal majorities and governments are no longer tolerant and benevolent, but hostile? (212–13)
Persecution is not going away. How are we going to deal with it?
Another recent book by a Coptic Christian, Putting Joy into Practice by Phoebe Farag Mikhail, tells us about another group of courageous Christians from Egypt. Shortly after the slaying of the twenty-one, twenty-five parishioners in Tanta were killed when a bomb exploded during services on Palm Sunday. Fr. Daniel Maher, whose son was killed during this explosion, prayed this prayer of thanksgiving at the funeral — wearing the same blood-spattered tunic he had worn on the day of the attack:
Let us give thanks unto the beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. For He has shielded us, rescued us, and accepted us unto Him, had compassion on us, supported us, and brought us unto this hour[.] ... O Master, Lord God Almighty, Father of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we thank You upon every condition, for any condition, in whatever condition. (85)
Attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka and in Texas — and the more subtle but no less real persecution of Christians in the workplace or in politics — force us to consider whether we are willing to stand up for the Lord when the time of confrontation comes.
Third, we need to ask ourselves if we are not too insulated, cocooned in comfort, in our technologized world. Can Christianity endure where comfort reigns, where money is plentiful, where pain is avoided, and where commitment is systematically shunned? The Copts radically challenge our “prosperity gospel” and our usual metrics, giving us all the more reason to separate ourselves in some ways from the norms of our decadent society.
At one point Mosebach finds himself at a mall in New Cairo and sees it as a mirage:
The intolerance of the past, the fateful choice between conversion or death, the smell of blood, violence, proud zealotry, loyalty, truth, and tears — it all sounded strange and unlikely in this shopping mall where no such articles could be bought. And because absolutely everything else imaginable actually was in stock, there was no room to feel like something was missing. Wasn’t this the solution to all those unsolvable issues, all the baggage that history sought to drag along into the present and the future? (222)
Fourth, in the chapter most intriguing to me (ch. 13, “The Martyrs’ Liturgy”), Mosebach says of the Copts’ extremely ancient Eucharistic liturgy, which takes hours to sing:
They have preserved the rite, because it can be celebrated in all its fullness even in the poorest, most primitive places. It has been preserved in isolation, perhaps precisely so that it can be present at a time like ours, in which Western Christianity appears ready to renounce all ties to its roots in the ancient church. Western critics of the traditional [Roman] rite often accuse “liturgical men” [homines liturgi] of exaggerating the liturgy’s importance, holding it up as aestheticism while at the same time neglecting the other pillars of the church: diakonia, serving the poor; and martyria, bearing witness to one’s faith. The Copts don’t need their liturgy to be held up as such an example — indeed, for them, the opposite is true: liturgia and martyria are obviously and inseparably connected. (152–53)
If we expect to be true servants and witnesses, we must also be true worshipers who celebrate the mystery of God “in all its fullness, even in the poorest, most primitive places,” hymning His majesty and miracles, and not renouncing our inheritance of faith. The traditional liturgical rites of the Catholic Church are permeated with “conversion or death, the smell of blood, violence, proud zealotry, loyalty, truth, and tears.” We must recover and renew ourselves with these rites, living and dying by their power, if we expect to have the strength to be Christ’s witnesses in the times ahead.