This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love each other. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother… We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
– 1 John 3:11-12, 14-15.
Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you so angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.’
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
– Genesis 4:6-8
I have been afraid lately. I think often about the deaths of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, many more journalists and millions of children, women, fathers, brothers, best friends, uncles and neighbors in Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and more. I can’t shake the feeling that death is crouching around the corner, at the doorstep of all the journalists, of all the civilians, of too many people who have become dear to me and thousands more that I’ve yet to meet. Everyone I know is scarred. Some are still bleeding. Hate and fear are in the air, and things are getting worse.
How do Christians respond to terrorism? My church answers falter. “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” OK, but really? What if I were Iraqi or Syrian or Gazan? What if the Islamic State crucified my father? What if an Israeli bomb blew my family into pieces? What if everyone I loved was hit with chemical weapons? I meet person after person for whom this is reality. I wonder what I can say to them. I write down their stories. I cry. I want to vomit. I turn to God.
A few weeks ago I was reporting in Lebanon. I walked through Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps where people are treated like dogs, drinking tea with the most dignified and brave families I have met, fearing they would not survive the next month. I heard stories of those they have lost in the last few years, months and days. I filled notebooks with sorrow. Then I came home. I prayed angrily because I felt so tiny. The world is Dark and I can’t do anything about it. I have no power. I can write. What else? Why am I so small? Why can’t I save my friends? What do I have to give them?
A thought came into mind: You have the Gospel, habibti.
Me: WHAT GOOD IS THAT?
Dear friends, help me figure this out.
What is the Gospel? What good is it? What does it mean to share Jesus Christ with my friends when His message does not promise any change in their physical circumstances? Here is Jesus, but you’ll still be a refugee. Your country continues to burn. Your daughter is still sick. You have no money for her treatment. She may die. Your father has already died. You may be killed tomorrow.
Here is Jesus.
What does He promise?
Who is He?
What does He do?
I’m reading the Bible a lot these days. The more I read, the more radical it looks. It says: God made the world and loved His children, but they turned against Him. They would not believe He loved them and they wanted to take control. When that happened, everything went awry. The children started to hate, fear, and kill. They hurt each other. They hurt themselves. God hurt to see this. He asked His kids to listen, to turn back, but they wouldn’t.
So God came to earth. Jesus was God-turned-man, living to set an example and to save us from ourselves. He died. He gave up life even though He was innocent, and this paid for all mankind to find eternal life, which means life together with God, which means complete change, which means living in love rather than hate or fear.
Love, rather than hate or fear.
Love: self-sacrifice, thinking of others before ourselves, giving up breath and life for the good of people who want us to die.
Love: refusing to hate. Not fearing anyone or anything except for God. Crying out for justice, but leaving it in His hands.
Love: living our brief and uncertain lives in total humility, surrender and desire to bless those who hate us.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
– 1 John 3:16-18
Those tropes about love are so warm-fuzzy-familiar. I’ve seen them cross-stitched onto comfy Christian pillows, stenciled on greeting cards and thrown around in a thousand Sunday sermons.
I’m sitting here watching a video made by fellow human beings just a few hours away from me. There’s a man in an orange suit kneeling on the floor next to another man in a hood, who makes his brother speak words he doesn’t mean. He calls on huge world powers to change, crying, “This is unfair, I am a victim, you are bad, I am good, I will punish you now,” and then the hooded man cuts off his brother’s head.
I think about Cain and Abel.
I think about Jesus.
I’m thinking, Christianity means I should lay down my life for this hooded man?
I’m thinking, That does not make sense.
I read the Bible more.
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
– Luke 22:29-51
Jesus died for Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, Isaac and Ishmael, David and Saul, journalists and extremists, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Gentiles, for the sick and the sicker, for all.
Lately I’ve found the Gospel a shocking, lunatic message. If you take Christ at His Word, this is what He says: Lay down your life for your brother. Lay down your life for the one who wants to kill you. Do not fight. Do not run away. Bless, serve and give.
According to Jesus, that’s the way to eternal life.
But I might die, I think.
Yes – lay down your life and be reborn, Christ says.
Me: NO, but like, I might physically die.
Christ: You’ll die anyway. It’s OK.
Me: No! I won’t! Who says I’m dying? Who says Death is real?
Christ: Look around.
Somehow as I pray, I am convinced that God is for us, not against us. The world is on fire, but it’s because we are against ourselves. Surrendering to God means self-sacrifice, not jihad, not struggle, not fighting our enemies the Muslims and Jews and infidel non-believers, but thinking: God is worth more than my life.
Fundamentalists think the same thing, but Christ redirects the results. If God is worth more than my life, then I die. I give my whole life as He did: not as a warrior, but as a sheep. He did not fight. We are not to fight. We are to give our entire lives to our brothers and sisters so that they do not feel alone, so that they have hope, so that we walk steadily into Darkness to take people’s hands and tell them, We have one Father. He loves us. He is good.
I would think this entirely crazy if I had not met Christians here who live it out in steady, fearless humility. I sit with brothers and sisters from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, places falling apart and families that attacked them when they decided to follow Christ. I wonder why they are not running away. Praise God, I’m going back! they say.
I am so easily scared. I fear danger. I fear death. I fear persecution for being American or Christian or a journalist. I fear terror itself.
My brothers and sisters spill over with light and peace. I want to hold them back. I am afraid they will be hurt or killed today, tomorrow or the day after. They laugh and lay a hand on my shoulder. Sister, my family needs hope.
What, the family that wants to kill you?
Sister, my people are trapped. They cannot leave. They need hope, and we have the one and only Hope. We’ve got to go and serve.
My Palestinian brothers tell me that they can and will continue to pray for all their neighbors, Muslims Jews and Christians, radical or not, Zionist or Hamas, even as they are being bombed from one side and targeted by the other. They tell me, this is what it means to follow Jesus: to suffer for your neighbor’s good, and your neighbor includes every person no matter if they hate or love you.
My Coptic friends in Egypt say, someone tried to burn down our church. But we will not take up arms to fight.
My Iraqi sister says, I am going back. ISIS is there, yes, which means people are afraid. Everyone is desperate. Our world is burning. So we need Christ. So I’m going.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
– 1 John 4:18-19
I think, why am I so hesitant to speak the name of Jesus? On the one hand, I care too much about my reputation. I don’t want to be associated with close-minded Christians and the institutions that have perpetrated so much hate and bigotry throughout the ages. I don’t want to be judged. I am afraid for my public image, my career and my ostensible objectivity.
On the other hand, I am thinking too much of myself and not enough of Christ.
When I really think of Him, He says, Look at me. I look. I blink. I am almost blinded. I am moved. I fall to my knees. I think, this is too bright to be true, too much to hold, too deep and fiery – I am moved out of my mind.
He says, Every person is your brother.
Lay down your life for them.
As I did for you.
I love you so much.
I am for you, not against you.
Your life is in my hands.
Against all odds, I believe. I see my brothers and sisters going forward and I pray, Lord, give me the faith to walk alongside them. I see them going forward as sheep to the slaughter. I pray, Lord, give me grace and courage to do the same.
The Gospel offers a call to die, not to take anyone down but to lift them up. To give our lives up in peace and sacrifice and brotherly love. It is not sane. It is utterly unsafe, flying against all my self-righteous inclinations. But that is Christ, and we love Him so, for He first loved us.
When we see and know and taste this, we walk forward with joy. We are walking on a stream of living water that flows from Him in and through us. It grows trees with fruit in all seasons and leaves for the healing of the nations. We are so alive! Even if we may die today or tomorrow. We live in light.
We are not afraid.