ISIS, Egyptians, and Christianity

02.16.2015 by Reed Dunn


ISIS (the Islamic State) made headlines this week by executing 21 Egyptian Christians.  It is appalling, alarming, and unacceptable.  I hope that we will continue to support the victims of ISIS and look for ways to stop the spread of this cancerous worldview. 

But this is about something different.  It is about our response.  Like you, I quickly saw people changing Facebook profiles to the number 21 while others began sharing pictures of the line-up of men with Scripture references.  In sharing my thoughts below, I do not want to detract from the courage of these men in any way shape or form.  It is our own rallying cry that gives me pause, not their bravery or sacrifice.

The irony of the Facebook army is that we are so quickly locking arms with these people with whom we would not share communion and mostly likely, under normal circumstances, question their Christianity.  The reason is because these Egyptian men, like most Egyptian Christians, were Coptic Christians.  It is a group that, historically, has been considered a heretical branch of the faith and it has been shunned by the majority of Christianity since the fifth century. 

The Coptic Church started in the great Egyptian city of Alexandria in the earliest days of Christianity.  They became important historically in the 300’s when some of them moved into the desert to become the first monks.  At that time the Roman Empire was turning towards Christianity, and away from persecuting Christians, so it became more difficult to make epic sacrifices for the gospel.  The deserts of Egypt provided the needed hardship.  These monks lived solitary lives in caves and spent their whole life pursuing mystical communion with God.  Coptic Christianity was strongly influenced by these “spiritual athletes” and to this day it emphasizes icons, human merit, and mystical theology.  Coptics were also one of the early groups to break from main stream Christianity, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  Their teaching on the deity/humanit of Christ strikes at the very core of the incarnation.

On a random note, Coptic Christianity has long since been important to me personally. For starters, I enjoy the mystical writings of those fourth century desert fathers, it is a pet interest of mine.  Secondly, as a parent of an Ethiopian, I am interested in it because a form of Coptic faith is dominant in Ethiopia.  But it just seems a bit hypocritical, or at least uninformed, to be so quick to pedestal these Egyptian’s faith as if they had been attending First Baptist Church Cairo.  I should add that the Coptic Christians I have met have been wonderful people.  But one of them, when we were parting from him, gave us an image of Mary and told us to pray to the picture if we wanted our prayers to be answered.  There will be some Coptics in heaven I'm sure, but we don't treat them that way unless ISIS is killing them.

Again, I am not questioning them, I am questioning us!  As children fled the violence and persecution of Latin America last summer (that was the story of at least some of them), I heard very few voices willing to lock arms with them due to our shared faith. Similarly, as good upstanding Catholics die at the hands of brutal Mexican drug lords, I don’t see Bible verses on Facebook?  The truth is, we don’t think of Latin Catholics as brothers and sisters in the faith.  Many say they aren’t even Christians.  I know the circumstances are different since these Egyptians faced direct religious persecution but the truth is, Coptic Christians make Latin Catholics look downright orthodox!  Yet, from the comfort of our Facebook wall we can make them into anything we want.  Yet, if atrocities happen just south of San Diego it isn’t as easy to fit with a Bible verse.

I will admit that my point is probably a bit vague, but just thinking through this is helpful.  If you decide to honor these men on Facebook I think that is a good thing, but now you might can do it in a more informed way.  One way we can do that is to be careful not to make facts into our own image.  I also think we should be careful not to pedestal these people now, only to re-excommunicate them once ISIS leaves. 

At the very least, I think honoring them and praying for their familes can give us a much larger picture of the global church and humble us as we live out a Christianity that is both really young and pretty free of hardship.