This morning I woke to the news that 90 Christian men, women, and children in Syria were abducted by ISIS militants in a series of dawn raids. This news comes on the heels of last week’s video showing the execution of 21 Coptic Christians on the shores of Libya. Lord, have mercy.
I considered this newest group of Syrian abductees this morning, considered how they will likely join the communion of martyred saints, the "souls of those who [have] been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.” (Rev. 6:9) I considered how they will follow in the footsteps of Peter, Paul, and Stephen. And in that moment, I stopped to consider the story of Stephen and Paul, f/k/a Saul.
You may recall Stephen, the Christian convert who was executed by the religious leaders of the day. Saul was there, and the leaders of the stoning committee laid their cloaks at his feet. There is no indication that Saul threw the first stone, but there is no doubt that he looked on with approval. I wonder—did Saul see the light emanating from the eyes of Stephen who did not shrink from death? Did Stephen's death somehow affect Saul?
Later, on the road to Damascus, Saul was stricken by the light of God--the hope of Stephen--and he was brought to his knees. A voice thundered, “Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” There can be no doubt that Paul considered those he'd murdered, those like Stephen. And you know the rest of the story. The experience led Saul’s conversion, to his name change, and ultimately, to the spread of the Christian faith across the world.
It’s an instructive story, I think. It's a story about the power of God to transform the heart of the persecuting murderer. It's the story of human power being brought to its knees by the love of a gracious God.
This morning, as I read the newsfeed, I was struck by the darkness of my heart. “Lord, bring ISIS to their knees; annihilate them!” I might have first prayed. But in light of Jesus words to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” I don’t suppose that my prayers of retaliation and retribution would have been well-founded.
Instead, I stopped and reflected. Do I thirst for retaliation? Do I hunger for revenge? Would I soon see the bloody bodies of every ISIS fighter, every persecutor of Christianity, strewn across a desert valley? Or would I rather see the persecutor brought to his knees under the gracious love of God? I will not try to super spiritualize the answers to these questions. I am vengeful; I am spiteful. Lord, have mercy.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I belong in the body of the “you” found in the passage “pray for those who persecute you.” I live a life of relative ease. My idea of persecution has more to do with losing social media followers because I espouse a particular Christian ideology than it does losing my head for my faith. I don’t think that’s persecution. But for the extended Christian family, for my cousins in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and the like, I pray. I pray for the enemies of the Christian Cross. And in those prayers, I'm trying my best to pray less for retribution and retaliation, and more for the soul-reformation of the persecutors. I'm praying they would be brought to their knees like Paul. Perhaps you would consider joining me?
It’s a simple prayer, one found in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a wrote prayer, sure. But today, it’s my prayer.
"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”