By Mike James
Christians currently make up 2.3 billion or 32% of the world’s population (Catholics 1.2 billion), followed by Islam 1.6 billion.
Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, marked the beginning of the most important and solemn week in the Christian calendar that culminates with commemoration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
In Egypt, like in countries across the globe, Christians (10% of the population) gathered in churches to celebrate the triumphant, joyful and peaceful entry of Jesus to Jerusalem. A short time later, suicide bombers detonated explosives in and outside a church and the Coptic Catholic cathedral in Alexandria killing at least 43 mainly women and children and wounding more than 107. The head of the Coptic Patriarch Pope Tawadros II was leading the Palm Sunday celebration at the time but was among the unwounded survivors.
In a statement claiming responsibility for the brutal and senseless killings, the Islamic State (ISIS) group threatened “crusaders, disbelievers and apostates in Egypt and everywhere” that they plan to “continue to spill their blood and grill their bodies”.
Funerals took place for the victims in coffins marked “martyrs” and the relatives of the dead and injured, though in mourning, anguish and fear, said they bore no hate.
“I express my heartfelt sorrow,” said Pope Francis, praying for the victims and that the Lord would “convert the hearts of those who sow fear, violence and death, and those who make and traffic arms.” The Vatican immediately announced that Francis’ already planned visit this month-end to Egypt in solidarity with the Christians and to foster greater Catholic-Muslim dialogue, and particularly to plead for an end of extremist violence will go ahead.
His Holiness Pope Tawadros II is one of the religious leaders Pope Francis plans to meet with while in Cairo. His schedule will also include a meeting with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayyeb.
Francis himself has noted that the current persecution and killings of Christians around the world exceed that of the martyrdom centuries of the early church. The non-violent response of prayer and forgiveness for their persecutors has been the same as that of the early Christian martyrs.
A world familiar with “retaliation against aggression”, “necessary military strikes” “pre-emptive action in self-defence” “military deterrence” “arms races”, “nuclear stockpiles” and other modern equivalents of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” rejects nonviolent resistance of evil, forgiveness of enemies, and mercy as quite meaningless, impractical and ineffective.
But for Christians, and especially those who take seriously Christ´s words, his entire life and most importantly his suffering, death, and triumphant Resurrection which we commemorate this week, non-violent and most emphatically non-lethal resistance of evil is not an option, but at the very essence of their identity as Christians and their following of Jesus.
Nowhere in the Gospels does Christ either advocate or practice violence against others, even one’s enemies.
“You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: ‘You must not kill; and anyone does kill must answer for it before the court.’ But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with their brother will answer for it before the court.” Mt. 5:21-22
“Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he pleads for those who are crucifying him
“You will be hated by all because of me; but whoever who stands firm to the end will be saved. If they persecute you in one town, take refuge in the next; and if they persecute you in that, take refuge in another.” Mt. 10:22-23
“You have learnt how it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, Offer the wicked no resistance. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; if they take you to law and would have your tunic, let them have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him.” Mt. 5:38-41
“My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my supporters would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” Jn 18:36.
The list is endless. And because Christ lived consistently what he taught, he died on a Cross and Rose and Christians celebrate Holy Week. Because the early Christians followed his example, the powerful, oppressive Roman empire converted to Christianity, not by force but by the example of non-violent love.
In a recent interview with the French Catholic Publication La Croix, Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, Chair of the Antilles Bishops Biblical Animation of all Pastoral Life (ABP) Committee states clearly:
“I have long been convinced that the gospel and non-violence are two sides of the same coin. Nothing in the Gospel authorizes violence, it finds no basis in it, from the birth of Christ, “Prince of Peace,” until his death on the cross, which he accepted.
The last word of Christ to Peter, before his crucifixion, “put your sword back in the scabbard” (John 18:11), is a word of non-violence. In the fundamental logic of the Gospel, hatred and violence can only be overcome by love and benevolence.
And when Jesus says that he has “not come to bring peace to earth,” he states that the peace he brings is rejected by the world. But he remains the Prince of Peace, as we proclaimed at Christmas. He invites us to be peace makers.
So, where to start living non-violence for Christians who take seriously the message and witness of non-violence of Christ, those who accept his cross as well as share in the joy of his Resurrection.
Again, Bishop Lafont:
“Everything begins in the home. When God prepared the coming of Jesus, he did not bother about the material conditions of his birth, which were not ideal, but he shaped his family, choosing Mary and Joseph to look after his upbringing.
The family is the crucible in which a society of justice and peace. 85% of the people in prison did not have a family life worthy of the name. Restoring parental responsibility, with the help of the extended family, is a way of working to non-violence.”
A final question. Should Francis take the risk of travelling to Egypt with the huge security risks involved?
Answer: Should Jesus have taken the advice from his disciples not to go up to Jerusalem, given the threats the authorities had already made against his life?